Reach out across race and religious lines for open discussions: President Halimah

President Halimah urged the different communities to have open and candid discussions on issues of race and religion. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Whether it is within their housing estates, in National Service, hawker centres or schools, Singaporeans of all races and religions need to reach out to each other to forge a spirit of mutual respect, said President Halimah Yacob on Saturday (Jan 26).

She also urged the different communities to have open and candid discussions on issues of race and religion, saying that while they are always sensitive, "that does not mean we do not talk about them and seek to better understand each other's perspective."

It is this willingness to embrace the diversity of ethnicities and faiths that embodies Singapore's strength as a country - and put it in good stead when confronted with crises such as a terrorism attack, she added.

Speaking at the first National Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) Convention at the Suntec Convention Centre, President Halimah outlined how Singaporeans at all levels of society can play a part in strengthening racial and religious harmony in a global climate where communal tensions and terror attacks are rife.

In peacetime, Singaporeans need to build bridges and enhance their common spaces, she said.

Beyond that, every community needs to "prepare a resolute response in the immediate moments and aftermath of a terror attack", said President Halimah.

She called on all religious organisations to draw up crisis-preparedness plans, noting that places of worships are "soft targets" in other countries. "We need to strengthen our resilience. Our places of worship need to be crisis-ready," she said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore and St Andrew's Cathedral for example have shared such plans with members of their communities, she noted. The mosque sector and a number of the churches and temples have also been briefed by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and the Home Team Agencies on the SGSecure movement, which aims to get all Singaporeans involved in the fight against terror.

"I strongly urge every religious organisation to be part of the SGSecure Community Network," she said. "Participate in crisis exercises, be better informed and be more plugged-in to the wider community."

President Halimah's comments come at a time when the world faces a growing threat of extremist attacks sparked by inter-community tensions.

Just last year, four individuals were issued detention orders by the authorities because they were radicalised by propaganda put out by terrorist groups and radical elements online, she noted.

"We will likely see more cases of foreign religious teachers preaching hate, or preachers exhorting followers to stay away from those who do not share the same faith. Extremism, segregation and hate are not exclusive to any one religion or race," she said.

In the event of a terrorist attack, Singapore's ability to bounce back and become even stronger depends on the preparedness of every Singaporean, organisation and community, she said.

T he Government's effort - through policies such as the Housing Development Board's ethnic integration policy, and engagements led by the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony - alone is not enough, she added.

In her speech, President Halimah harkened back to her own experience during the racial riots in the 1960s.

In spite of a curfew, her mother continued selling food at the family's pushcart stall to earn income.

"Unfortunately, my mother missed the last bus, and the three of us - mum, my brother and I - had to spend the night under a makeshift tent made out of a canvas sheet covering our pushcart! That was the most frightening moment of my life."

President Halimah said that the experience taught her that one should never take racial and religious harmony for granted. Singapore has progressed over 50 years, but issues like terrorism and extremism pose a new challenge, she said. "Our people can only be united if each of us share the responsibility of upholding social harmony and building social cohesion. Our society is strong when we support each other, regardless of race, language or religion, whether in peacetime or in a crisis."

More than 600 people attended the convention, including youth leaders and members of IRCCs, which are found in every constituency and are created to foster racial and religious harmony.

In her welcome address at the event, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said that more than 3,700 participants of different ages and backgrounds have been engaged since the MCCY's Bridge programme's launch in March, which includes community dialogues that tackle issues of race and religion.

It will also scale up its Common Senses for Common Spaces series of interfaith dialogues, first conducted by the Southeast Community Development Council, and launch it islandwide. New formats will be introduced, such as in-depth discussions on religious identity and sharing of personal stories.

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