Mums 'can help build' racial and religious harmony

Mothers can do their part to build racial and religious harmony in Singapore, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said yesterday.

They are huge influences on their children and "powerful storytellers", and can teach their young about respecting people of other faiths, she said at an interfaith post-Hari Raya celebration organised by the Singapore Muslim Women's Association (PPIS).

She cited a 2016 Channel News Asia-Institute of Policy Studies survey on race issues, which found over 90 per cent of respondents think parents should educate their children on a wide range of racial matters. This can include informing them about others' practices, what might cause offence to a particular community, and why racism is bad.

Such efforts are important as many among the young do not understand the fragility of racial harmony, said Madam Halimah.

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She recounted one of the most frightening days of her life during the 1964 race riots, when people had to be home by the 5pm curfew.

She was then nine. Her mother had taken her and her brother to her food stall and the family missed the last bus home. Her mother shut the stall and they hid inside, terrified, all night: "She couldn't sleep... she thought she saw figures and screamed, and we all ran out."

Near dawn, a passing police patrol car picked them up and took them home. The incident was seared in her memory. But young people's attitudes to the race riots are, "Well that's just history, don't talk to us about it", said Madam Halimah.

Singapore now has laws and institutions that safeguard racial harmony, but by the time laws need to be invoked to maintain harmony, it will be too late, she added. Hence, it is better to rely on "natural barriers and inhibitions" that stem from people mutually respecting each other.

Added PPIS president Rahayu Mohamad: "As mothers, wives, daughters, and community workers, women play a key role in shaping the minds of our young and those around us towards social cohesion."

She encouraged Muslims to make the effort to reach out and allay any concerns non-Muslims might have about them. She said Muslims also want non-Muslims to feel comfortable enough to approach them if they wanted to ask any questions.

At the event, held at the Harmony Centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan, some 20 women leaders from several faith groups and social service organisations learnt about Islam, Malay culture, and how Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated here.

Madam Halimah, who is Singapore's first woman Speaker, also delved into women's issues like too few women in leadership positions, which she said "cut across all races".

"Sometimes the men sit at the table, and don't realise there's no women there. You need to raise it to the fore... because they're not even conscious of it," she said.

"Society has changed, women's expectations and aspirations have changed, and there's nothing un- Islamic about it," she added.

Charissa Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Mums 'can help build' racial and religious harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe