Why It Matters

No place for divisive speech

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's call to keep a close watch on teachings or statements that are exclusivist and divisive comes at a time when extreme views are gaining ground around the world.

On one end of the spectrum, far-right politicians like the Netherlands' Mr Geert Wilders campaign on anti-Muslim platforms, which have been embraced by segments of the Dutch population.

On the other end, hardline clerics preach extreme views leading to Muslims distancing themselves from others. Some believe they should not wish Christians Merry Christmas, or Hindus Happy Deepavali.

Both sidesare equally stubborn in digging in their heels and not wanting to accommodate people who are different from them.

Such exclusivism has no place here, Mr Teo made clear last Tuesday in a speech to the Religious Rehabilitation Group. The group of Islamic religious teachers spends time with terror detainees to counter their misunderstanding of religious concepts.

Divisive speech has repercussions, as seen in other countries, he said in Malay, adding: "Attacks claimed to be in the name of Islam have led to a rise in Islamophobia, with anti-immigration rhetoric and negative reactions among other communities."

His call to focus on what unites, rather than what divides, is a reminder worth repeating as it sends an important signal on what is acceptable in Singapore.

Championing one group's beliefs and practices over another's, and pitting groups against one another with an "us against them" approach, cannot be allowed to take root in Singapore.

Such speech erodes respect for one another's religion. This respect and tolerance, once weakened, will be tough to build up again. Such speech also wears down the tendency to seek a consensus with the opposing side.

But Mr Teo's call should also be backed up by firm action from religious leaders themselves whenever exclusivist comments surface. Community leaders and people who encounter exclusivist comments in conversation - face to face or online - should also call out such ideology and stop it from taking root.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'No place for divisive speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe