The Straits Times says

Terror of losing religious peace

Singapore had little choice but to act against the 27 Bangladeshi workers here who were hatching terror activities to be carried out in Bangladesh and other countries. Radicalisation of any form cannot be ignored by a country hosting migrant workers as it can bubble over and endanger the community when local targets are also picked and terror breeds mistrust among different groups. Frighteningly, the men's violent intent was revealed by a manual for assassins circulated among them which carried graphic images and instructions on how to kill a victim stealthily. The fear that such revelations can evoke represents another form of terror that can strike Singaporeans, especially when it succeeds in driving a social wedge between groups, making residents wary of those of a different faith or of foreign workers who by and large are peaceful and hard-working.

Social disharmony - like its converse, communal peace - is a human creation. It's not necessarily an inherent part of any environment marked by diversity and fragmentation. Being socially constructed, people have a choice in determining how best to avoid it and to create social peace instead. Recognising this, Singapore has long played an active role in supporting processes that incline people towards cohesion. By definition, it will always remain a work in progress. And by its very nature, it will always remain vulnerable, often coming undone faster than it takes for people to come together. These are reasons enough to exercise great caution when up against the forces of extremism that crack through the surface.

It takes a mix of both hard and soft strategies to address something as abstract and as empirical as social disharmony. Legislation provides the parameters for social conduct, like the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. These are necessary but, of course, insufficient in any multicultural society. Hence the formation here of Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circles (that bring together community and religious leaders to promote greater religious understanding) and the Community Engagement Programme (that seeks to strengthen social ties).

These initiatives by the State, together with the work of civil society groups and a broad public appreciation of the need for communal accord, have contributed to the current state of social relations. A 2014 Institute of Policy Studies working paper, based on survey data, observed that "adherents of all religious traditions in Singapore displayed a near-universal openness to having relationships with those of other religious faiths in the public sphere". Still, it's prudent to assume that it can easily go the other way, given the religious strife that periodically afflicts other societies. The speed with which harmful memes travel in an interlinked world justifies Singapore's proactive approach to social cohesion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Terror of losing religious peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe