The Straits Times says

Keeping Singapore society inclusive

The dominant feature of multicultural Singapore is the integrity of individual cultures, even as people integrate into a wider society. The essential beliefs and practices of a group are not expected to retreat for the sake of a larger whole. However, living cultures do adapt to geography and technology, to changing times and to other cultures. Hence, mainstream groups have striven to accommodate each other over the decades - for example, places of worship exist side by side in neighbourhoods, people eat together in food courts, and residents do mingle in neighbourhoods.

The latest graciousness survey conducted by the Singapore Kindness Movement shows Singaporeans are mixing marginally less with multiracial and multi-religious neighbours. The expressed need for privacy is only natural, but when less emphasis is put on greater neighbourliness, there is a possibility of social bonds weakening over time. On a practical plane, one might not notice something amiss - for instance, when a vulnerable person needs help or when someone is behaving suspiciously. During insecure times in particular, people do not do themselves a favour by turning inwards: they themselves might have no one to turn to should a need arise, and their collective welfare might be endangered if possible risks in the neighbourhood go unreported.

The multicultural nature of society means that greater effort must be taken to form neighbourly ties, despite the challenges of modern life and emerging rifts. Religion, for example, should not impede the building of social relationships in pluralistic environments, but it does at times. Across the globe, various religious activists create barriers, by espousing that their way alone is "true" and that other believers are to be rejected. Such divisions can arise even within a single faith, as highlighted by events in the Middle East which is riven by sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Certain extreme religious practices there have exerted an influence in the region too, leading to debates in Malaysia about the Arabisation of Islam - deemed undesirable because foreign practices often foster beliefs which are tacitly or openly exclusivist.

South-east Asian societies, which have developed very differently, can ill-afford to follow the Arabs and ignore longstanding cultural norms of social integration. This point was underscored by Singapore Mufti Fatris Bakaram in his Hari Raya Aidilfitri sermon: "Being Islamic does not mean that we should abandon our customs and cultures which do not run contrary to Islamic principles." It is not just Muslims, of course, but followers of all faiths who must maintain the local culture of looking out for each other, called "the kampung spirit" in popular idiom. Its antithesis, exclusivism, will imperil societal bonding and alter the multicultural character of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping Singapore society inclusive'. Print Edition | Subscribe