The inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies which Singapore hosted was attended by about 1,000 academics, officials and members of religious and civil society groups from nearly 40 countries. Those numbers attest to the importance which Singapore places on concerted international action on cohesion and harmony in a diverse world. Looking ahead, such inclusive and large-scale events can serve to offset some of the accumulated effects of hate speech and other forms of discord on social media and elsewhere, so that these do not become entrenched as the new normal in global cultural relations. Terrorism and even lesser forms of extremism are the chief challenges in that sphere.
Tolerance and harmony are fundamental principles through whose operation societies may hope to counter the violent manifestations of virulent communal fervour. The conference fleshed out several important themes of international concern over social cohesion. One view was that extremism derives from social circumstances such as poverty, conflict, dysfunctional families and the inability to pursue meaningful lives. However, it also is true that terrorists come from well-to-do backgrounds and functioning families, are educated at mainstream institutions where extremist ideologies are not merely discouraged but opposed, and have a secure financial future ahead of them. In such circumstances, their mental turn to extremism has to be explained by other factors.