SINGAPORE - As Singapore society evolves - in ways that include fading religiosity - it will have to build new bridges and continue expanding the common ground, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Thursday (Aug 26).
Speaking at an event to mark the 72nd anniversary of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), he noted how the latest population census had revealed a growing proportion of Singaporeans with no religion.
Last year, these individuals made up 20 per cent of residents aged 15 and above, up from 15 per cent in 2000. The changes cut across all age cohorts and most types of educational qualifications.
The presence of this group - not small, nor monolithic - makes it important to strengthen harmony not just across faiths, but all segments of society, Mr Heng said.
In doing so, the core, common values shared by religions - such as compassion, respect and empathy - remain worth holding on to.
"Where there are differences in views, we must never fall into the dynamics of 'us versus them', which will poison and divide our society," he added.
"Instead, each of us should recognise that we must seek to understand others better, and make some accommodation from time to time.
"This is how we have gotten to where we are today - through appreciation, not confrontation; through respect, not sanctimony."
And while policies on race and religion will continue to evolve, any progress must be sought with humility and forbearance, said Mr Heng, reiterating a point he made earlier this month at a university forum.
"Progress cannot be defined by how far each of us succeed in pushing our interests on a specific issue, but by how we can seek out different perspectives and grow the space for convergence."
The Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies gave a speech at the Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple in MacPherson, as part of celebrations for IRO Day 2021. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who is the IRO's patron, were also in attendance.
Noting how the IRO has grown its representation from six faiths to 10 - comprising Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism - Mr Heng said the sight of these leaders coming together to perform blessings was a powerful symbol of Singapore's religious harmony.
"Today, this blessing is a distinctive feature of key events, such as OCS (Officer Cadet School) Commissioning Parades and the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Kranji War Memorial," he added.
But Mr Heng also stressed that the harmony enjoyed by Singapore was not a natural state of affairs, and that the country was not immune to threats caused by the exploitation of religion.
"Religion is also an age-old fault line throughout human history," he said, pointing to, for instance, the propagation of extremist ideologies that can lead to self-radicalisation and terrorism.
He commended the IRO for taking a strong stance on this - for example in the cases of a teenager detained in December last year for planning to attack Muslims, and a 20-year-old in March for plotting to kill Jewish congregants.
As a ground-up organisation, the IRO plays a critical role in bringing people together and fostering mutual understanding and trust, said Mr Heng.
He also praised new initiatives launched by the IRO to further strengthen interfaith harmony in Singapore.
These include a "Women of Faith" pocket booklet, which presents quotes about women from the IRO's 10 member religions.
A new "Friends of IRO" programme will also seek to increase public engagement in the face of threats such as youth radicalisation. The first four partnerships will be with the national body for racial harmony OnePeople.sg, youth-led interfaith initiative Roses of Peace, non-profit Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society and property developer Far East Organization.
The IRO also marked its 72nd birthday by receiving Institution of a Public Character (IPC) status. IPCs are exempt or registered charities able to issue tax deduction receipts to donors for qualifying donations made.
This puts the IRO in good stead to draw together a wider variety of organisations to promote religious harmony - an important move as society becomes more diverse, said Mr Heng.