'Unrealistic' to say religion is no longer sensitive issue: PM Lee

SINGAPORE - Singapore's strong religious harmony today has led some people to declare that religion is no longer a "sensitive no-go area", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday.

Such critics argue that society here is overly sensitive on matters of race and religion, that the Government intervenes too readily to curtail personal freedoms and liberty in the name of harmony, and that there should be "unfettered discussions or even criticisms and blasphemies on matters of race and religion", he said.

However, these assumptions are "quite unrealistic", added Mr Lee. He was speaking at the 66th anniversary dinner of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), an inter-faith group he credited with helping to bring about unity and harmony among religious groups.

On the contrary, internal and external developments show that Singapore cannot afford to take this harmony for granted, and that the Government has to continue to be "watchful, prudent and hands-on" in its approach towards matters of race and religion.

At home, three trends have emerged that can affect religious harmony here, Mr Lee noted.

The first is that Singaporeans are becoming more religious, and taking their faiths more seriously. "This in itself is a positive because religious faiths are strong anchors for good morals and caring communities," he said.

But religious fervour can also lead to communities becoming more insular and less accepting, leading to less mixing between the faiths, he observed.

"People may feel less respect and tolerance for other groups and may proselytise more aggressively, offending others," he said.

"So we must temper growing religiosity with greater tolerance, mutual understanding and respect."

A second trend is the rise of the Internet and social media, which has made it easier both for people to cause offence and take offence, he added.

"One thoughtless comment can cause a mass reaction," Mr Lee said. "It may provoke a self-righteous mob reaction and public lynching, which is even worse than the original provocation."

Third, religious topics will from time to time overlap with social and moral ones, such as in the case of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues or income inequality.

Such contentious issues are not just religious but also the subject of public or social policy, he said, adding that consensus on these points will be "elusive".

Abroad, Mr Lee noted that race and religion remain sensitive issues for both Singapore's neighbours, as well as for countries where different groups have lived together for centuries.

He cited tensions between Muslims and Christians over the use of the word "Allah" in Malaysia, as well as the violence resulting from the deaths of several black youths in different American cities.

To maintain harmony in Singapore's multi-racial and multi-religious society, the Government must take a watchful, prudent and hands-on approach, he said.

It has to remain neutral, secular, and pragmatic, and cannot afford to take purist positions on freedom of expression, or the right to be offensive to others, he added.

"We will not hesitate to act firmly when necessary because if conflict erupts, it will cause great damage to our social fabric."