SINGAPORE - The terror attack on two mosques in New Zealand last Friday (March 15) is a reminder that the multi-religious harmony that Singapore enjoys is an "exception rather than a norm in the world", Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said at the launch of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)'s 70th anniversary exhibition on Monday (March 18).
"The heinous acts committed at two mosques in Christchurch are a sad reminder that the peace we enjoy is both precious and fragile, and cannot be taken for granted."
Fifty people were killed and 50 others injured in New Zealand's worst mass shooting in modern history which saw a man armed with an automatic weapon open fire on worshippers in the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch.
Mr Goh noted how in Singapore, people of different faiths practise their beliefs peacefully, and live side by side.
"If you take a walk along Telok Ayer Street, you might find an imam preaching in the mosque, Masjid Al-Abrar. Close by, Chinese devotees will be offering prayers in the Thian Hock Keng and Fuk Tak Chi temples. At the end of the road, you can also visit a 190-year-old Indian Muslim heritage centre, the Nagore Dargah," he said.
"This is a sight rarely seen around the world - the freedom of different faiths practising their beliefs peacefully while in close proximity to one another."
But such efforts to keep Singapore united and peaceful are never done, Mr Goh said.
Rising religiosity around the world has also led to concerns that some groups could seek to impose their beliefs on others, he noted.
"Segregationist practices that are imported through foreign preachers and social media threaten to reduce the common space in society that our different religions share," he said.
And terror acts and other hate crimes by extremist groups and individuals can turn communities against one another.
"The actions of a radicalised few could potentially cause distrust of the peaceful many who live in harmony, and split societies," he added.
"Regardless of our own beliefs, we must always protect the freedom to interact with one another as friends, neighbours and fellow Singaporeans," Mr Goh said.
He encouraged religious leaders, their followers and all Singaporeans to work on four priorities: preserve and grow the common space in society; guard against religious extremism, segregationist practices, hate speech and online falsehoods and condemn acts of terror or violence based on religion; enhance daily interactions between different communities; and strengthen and extend the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) which were formed soon after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on America.
IRCCs, found in every constituency, were created to foster racial and religious harmony.
Mr Goh noted that the IRO has contributed substantively to Singapore's harmony.
Founded in 1949 by religious leaders to bring people of different faiths together to build peace and understanding, the non-governmental organisation faced its first major challenge a year later when it had to restore calm to communities during the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950.
During the 1964 race riots, IRO members personally visited the injured and their family members to console them. The IRO also issued statements to call on people to maintain harmony.
These national efforts by the IRO and its decades-long practice of conducting interfaith prayers, dialogues and conferences are documented in the exhibition at Far East Plaza titled Harmony of Faiths.
Mr Goh said the IRO should continue to lead by example, and show everyone that religious leaders from different faiths can sit and eat together at the same table, celebrate and wish each other well during religious festivals, and visit weddings and wakes of friends and colleagues of different religions.
"These are simple actions, but they carry deep significance because they demonstrate understanding, support and respect of each other," he said.
"On its part, the Government will continue to protect our social harmony, and protect interfaith dialogue and understanding," he added.
IRO president Ben Benjamin also announced that from May, the organisation will roll out new initiatives to reach out to younger Singaporeans and grow its online presence.
It will share content focused on interfaith harmony on social media platforms. Recordings of lectures organised by the IRO will also be made available online.
Mr Goh is the current patron of the IRO, which represents the 10 major religions here: the Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.
"That the IRO has survived and thrived till today is a testament to its past and present leaders who have worked steadfastly to strengthen religious harmony in a diverse society," said Mr Goh.
"I wish more religious leaders will join IRO to enhance its reach and spread its influence," he added.
The exhibition, which also features the symbols, texts and artefacts of the 10 religions, will run till March 31.