Collective effort needed to safeguard racial, religious harmony in Singapore: Shanmugam

Mr K Shanmugam (right) chatting with religious leaders at the Marina Mandarin Hotel on Jan 19, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans must take a bigger collective effort to safeguard the racial and religious harmony of this secular and multi-religious country, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Jan 19).

And the Government will step up measures to protect this peace, he added in a speech to over 500 religious and community leaders, academics and students.

He highlighted the growing tendency towards greater religious extremism and exclusivity in the region in recent years, as well as the rise in sectarian strife and terrorist attacks around the world.

"Our very existence as one of the most religiously diverse, and tolerant societies in the world, where mosques, churches and temples are situated side by side. This is unacceptable to the zealots. They consider us infidels who ought to be exterminated," he said.

He was speaking at the opening of a two-day conference on expanding the common space between people of various religions, organised by the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies programme, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore faces four types of related threats.

They are: direct terrorist attacks, the radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population, a section of Singapore Muslims growing somewhat distant from the rest of society, and growing Islamophobia - or distrust and intolerance towards Muslims.

The spectre of Islamophobia spreading among non-Muslim communities here is real, Mr Shanmugam added, citing increasing reports of intolerance towards Muslims around the world.

There have already been at least two such instances here, he added.

In September, a Malay woman was approached by a man of another race, who said the words "suicide bomber" to her.

And in November, a week after the Paris attacks, the words "Islam murderers" were found scribbled at a bus stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat at Jurong Point shopping mall in Boon Lay.

Such intolerant acts may be few in Singapore, but they tear at the heart of a multi-racial, multi-religious society, he said.

"How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. And if we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will feel isolated. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk," he said.

"It is vital that we ask the non-Muslim communities to look squarely at themselves, their attitudes, viewpoints. How supportive they really are or are they only being superficially, politically, correct? Do they accept that the vast majority of our Muslim population is tolerant, positive and in every way Singaporean? Do we accept that it is our duty to reach out, encourage, continue to build a harmonious society where each of us, including our Muslim brothers and sisters are bonded, and keep to the ideals of Singapore?"

He added: "It is important that we ensure that Muslims in Singapore enjoy good opportunities, that there is no discrimination in schools, jobs, or society as a whole. Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable."

Mr Shanmugam's speech comes against the backdrop of heightened security in the region following last Thursday's bomb blasts in Jakarta, and other recent attacks in cities from Paris to Istanbul.

He noted that the region has become a fertile ground for terrorism.

Singapore will have to strengthen its security forces, intelligence and border controls, and people need to realise that everyone is responsible for the country's collective security.

The Home Affairs Ministry will announce measures on this front in the next few months, he added.

He also noted that several young individuals have been radicalised, and their number is likely to grow.

At the same time, sections of younger Muslims are holding sentiments that say Muslims should not wish Christians Merry Christmas, or Hindus Happy Deepavali, as doing so would contradict their faith.

If such sentiments become widespread, it will have serious long-term implications.

The Government will also not allow foreign preachers who teach such values that are contrary to multicultural, multi-ethnic harmony into Singapore, he said.

"We will not allow anyone, of any religion, who preaches that people of other faiths should be shunned or that people of other faiths should be ignored," he said.

"And it is not only what he preaches in Singapore. We will also look at what he preaches outside Singapore, because his teachings would be available online."

And it would be wrong to allow him to build up a following in Singapore, he added.

"The Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion. But the Government has to step in to protect our racial, religious harmony," he said.

Mr Shanmugam noted that Singapore Muslims have been a successful model for others with their moderate, respectful worldview and practices.

"The community must continue to preserve and protect their way of life despite challenges within and without,"he added.

These include efforts to develop a Singapore Muslim identity, activities with other religious groups, and the Religious Rehabilitation Group of scholars who counsel terror detainees.

He noted that the Government, religious leaders, and community groups have been working to combat threats to Singapore over several years.

"But as the waves of terrorist ideology sweep the region, we have to step up even more," he said.

"The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create a sharp and violent division between 'us' and 'them'. If we remain resolutely 'us', one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us, and terrorism will be defeated," he added.

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