What's needed to harness the strengths of social diversity

President Halimah Yacob spoke about the elements needed to lay the foundation of social harmony in her opening address to the International Conference on Cohesive Societies yesterday. The text of her speech follows:

Thank you for participating in the International Conference on Cohesive Societies, and a very warm welcome to our friends who have joined us from all over the world. Indeed, I'm so deeply heartened that we have so many participants and from all parts of the world, and I hope that the message will continue to reverberate way beyond this conference.

We are here because we believe in a common ideal - that diversity in all forms, within and across societies, is a source of strength that can enrich our lives, our countries and our world.

Individuals with more diverse social networks are more likely to encounter new ideas, new opportunities, new horizons. Understanding different perspectives promotes curiosity, openness and humility.

Societies that are diverse enjoy a rich variety of cultures, each with its own style, grace, customs, cuisine, music and manners. Each community contributes to a more interesting and vibrant national life.

The world would be all the poorer if it had no room for difference. If we were all the same, we would have nothing special to offer, nor anything to learn from others. Each of us has something precious that only we can give. The more diverse we are, the richer we become.

Nonetheless, engaging meaningfully with diversity is not easy.

Globalisation and technology have closed the distance between people and places, allowing people, goods and ideas to move across borders more freely than ever before. This in turn has enabled economies to prosper and changed the lives of many for the better. But people do still instinctively bond and connect with those who are like them. The colour of one's skin, the beliefs one holds, the customs one cherishes, are markers of identity, and can sometimes also become the fault-lines of mistrust and conflict.

Indeed, there is growing urgency to our work in our respective countries and communities, to build bridges across such divides.

The ease in flow of ideas with modernisation has inadvertently accelerated the spread of extremist ideologies. In the past 10 years alone, there have been nearly 20,000 terror-related fatalities worldwide annually.

Volunteers from different religious backgrounds repacking and sorting adult diapers for distribution to beneficiaries last month. President Halimah Yacob says upholding the common good means holding our differences not in opposition to one another, but bringing our differences together to build a shared future. ST PHOTO: ZHANG XUAN
President Halimah says dialogue and interaction are necessary to foster familiarity and friendships between people. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Religions have been hijacked by terrorists and radical preachers to justify murder and destruction. Since its proclamation as the Islamic State in 2014, the terrorist group known as ISIS has directed or inspired terrorist attacks around the world, from Bandung to Berlin to San Bernardino, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries.

The direct human cost has no doubt been devastating. But just as extreme and deadly and fuelled by the same irrational fears and ignorance, is the menace and rapid rise of Islamophobia and acts of violence promoted by a resurgent far right.

Global mass migration of peoples has also created its own challenges, by fuelling both segregationist and nativist instincts.

Quite understandably, immigrants seek out their countrymen upon arriving in an unfamiliar land, and adherents of a faith find fellowship with their co-religionists. Those belonging to one culture find comfort and a sense of belonging among their own.

But when taken to the extreme, such tendencies can invite host societies to see these immigrants as threats to their own cultural cohesion. Worse still, such anti-immigrant rhetoric may take on racial and religious overtones. This weakens society. A society is fragile if its members view one another in mutual incomprehension. It is vulnerable when its communities live parallel lives and inhabit separate worlds.

A nation cannot prosper if its people are divided. A society cannot be proud if its people distrust one another. Only a cohesive society built upon mutual trust can harness the strength of its diversity, so that its people can build a better future. And this trust has to begin with a discourse anchored on cohesion, not division; on unity, not discord; on respect, not distrust; and on building bridges and common spaces, not walls and watch towers.

Strong leadership and deep social mobilisation are vital elements to achieving cultural change. Leaders play an important role in promoting peace and social cohesion at both the national and international levels.

But often, we see political leaders articulate division and conflict for their own personal agenda. Hence, all societal actors must play a part in managing diversity - from government leaders to individuals, from the media to educational institutions. We need to take ownership of our social harmony. We need to be role models for one another.


Over the next two days, I hope we can find new perspectives and insights among ourselves, about how we manage diversity in our different countries, with our different histories and contexts. Many in this room are global leaders and thinkers in this important area, so I do not profess to be able to guide you in the discussions. But if you allow me, I would like to share what I believe are the foundations of social harmony in any society.

First, there must be accommodation, which includes creating space to celebrate our own distinctive cultures, while accepting differences, and not imposing our practices or requirements on others. We should enable this by emphasising shared values such as empathy, kindness and respect, which are universal to all religions and cultures.

Second, there must be dialogue and interaction to foster familiarity and friendships with one another. Contact through informal interactions can go a long way to improve relations among diverse groups. This can be done in many ways, from eating and working together on a day-to-day basis, to sharing interests and passions in sports, music and the arts.

Third, social cohesion has to be cemented by a shared conception of the common good, and a felt reality of collective belonging. Without this, communal, ethnic and religious institutions can become pressure groups, representing sectional interests, and not the common good.

Upholding the common good means holding our differences not in opposition to one another, but bringing our differences together to build a future that we all share.

What makes us different is what we are; what unites us is what we do. However different we all are, we rely on one another for security, stability and prosperity. Ultimately, our victories - and our failures - are shared.

How these three principles manifest themselves will differ from place to place. There are many paths to social harmony. Our national journeys are unique, and we see great value for lessons and experiences to be shared, and better understood in our own countries.

Tomorrow, His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will be delivering the keynote address. Located at the crossroads of the beginnings of two major faiths, Christianity and Islam, Jordan has made great efforts in the past 20 years to strengthen social harmony within the country and internationally, by advocating for and supporting inter-faith initiatives.

For example, King Abdullah II advocated for and funded an interfaith initiative called "A Common Word Between Us and You" in 2006, which promotes peace and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Jordan has also embraced the conservation of historical and religious sites, which has contributed to a greater appreciation of our shared human heritage.


For Singapore, this conference is important because social cohesion is of existential importance to us. We are a small city-state, with no natural resources save our people. We mark Singapore's bicentennial this year, a key turning point of our history. Forging unity and drawing strength from diversity has always been, and will continue to be, part of the Singapore story.

Singapore has come a long way from the days our immigrant forefathers formed ethnic enclaves, which were further entrenched by the colonial administration. When Singapore became independent in 1965, we were deliberate in moving away from that approach, and instead focused on growing national unity from diversity through legislation, policies and programmes. We expanded common spaces so that all Singaporeans can live, study and work together. No one is discriminated or disadvantaged on the basis of race, language or religion. That is also entrenched in our national pledge, recited by all the children in schools every day. Everyone progresses based on their abilities and talents.

Today in Singapore, we have a sense of confidence and belief in a shared future, one in which all Singaporeans can be a part of, as neighbours, friends and colleagues.

We are not doing too badly - a recent survey showed that 94 per cent of respondents feel Singaporeans are able to stay united even when events threaten the racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

But ultimately, social cohesion is not something that can be commanded by any government. It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day.

Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face. Social trust has to be forged, one positive encounter at a time. Strength from diversity can only grow from dialogue, give and take, speaking and listening. I am thus glad that in conjunction with this conference, the religious leaders in Singapore have come together to affirm a Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony, in which they encourage day-to-day positive interactions so that people continue to talk with one another, work together, and live together as one united people.

Ladies and gentlemen, Singapore, along with all countries, face a common challenge of overcoming the forces of division. We can do better with more ideas, inspiration and partnerships. There is much we can learn from one another's beliefs, practices and experiences, in our effort to build cohesive societies from many communities, and move together towards a brighter shared future for all.

So let me thank all of you once again for contributing to this meaningful and important discourse. I encourage everyone to use this conference as a global dialogue, where we can learn from one another in a safe and trusted space. I wish you a fruitful and meaningful conference ahead. Thank you.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2019, with the headline What's needed to harness the strengths of social diversity. Subscribe