SINGAPORE - Mr Li Muhan had heard all about Singapore's racial and religious diversity and harmony when he first moved here as a student in 2012.
So he was stunned when his accent attracted verbal abuse and he was told to "go back to China" while in a public bus one day.
The encounter had happened after a fatal road accident in 2012 sparked anger against Chinese nationals. A wealthy Chinese Ferrari driver had ploughed into a taxi killing himself, the taxi driver and a passenger in the taxi.
Mr Li, now 21 and a permanent resident here, said his experience made him realise how flashpoint incidents and racial vitriol can affect social harmony here.
Speaking on Sunday (Feb 25) at the sidelines of the Faith in Leadership Symposium at the Amara Hotel, he said: "While Singaporeans tout the message of harmony, I feel that the understanding is very superficial. People stick to being politically correct, rather than trying to learn more about each other. We need more open discussion on racial and religious issues, not less."
The third-year Singapore polytechnic student is also one of the first 30 peace ambassadors appointed by youth-led interfaith initiative Roses of Peace (ROP), which organised the symposium.
The pioneer batch of ambassadors, aged from 20 to 35, were appointed for a year to build bridges across various faith communities, and will be trained in digital media advocacy and public speaking skills.
President Halimah Yacob, who first mooted the idea last year, hailed the initiative's "crucial" role to combat threats like extremism and self-radicalisation.
She also highlighted how disinformation and online falsehoods that leverage on Singapore's racial and religious diversity can fracture communities here. But these dangers, she added, can be countered if people learn the values of peace and trust.
Said Madam Halimah: "Any social fissures that develop within our community may quickly ripple through our entire nation and cause unrest. It is therefore important that we make every effort to reach out, build bridges and understand one another better."
Ms Fahima Farha, who is one of the programme's organisers, said she fears that crises like terrorist attacks can drive a wedge between the different communities in society. "When something like this happens, will my friends still see me as the way that I am?" she said.
Roses of Peace founder Mohamed Irshad said the ambassadors will aim to produce a large project in the second half of the year that will promote interfaith peace and racial harmony
"What we are trying to do is to build the next cohort of interfaith leaders, who will carry forth the message of building peace," he said.