More to social cohesion than just racial and religious harmony, says SMU president

More than ever, there is a critical need now to build social cohesion and the resilience that accompanies it. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Social cohesion is not left to fate and chance in Singapore, with much attention focused on building racial and religious harmony.

Beyond these, migration and multiculturalism, social and economic inequality, the digital divide and inter-generational relationships are also important factors and potential fault lines impacting a socially cohesive society, said Professor Lily Kong, president of the Singapore Management University.

"It is no longer as simple as race and religion. All these dimensions are intersecting and so, for any society to address social cohesion, we will need to focus not just on race and religion, but also all these other dimensions," she said.

Prof Kong was speaking at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) at the Raffles City Convention Centre on Tuesday.

She added that more than ever, there is a critical need now to build social cohesion and the resilience that accompanies it.

"Resilience is so important because as societies confront the challenges that we all face today, we need to learn to cope with all the stresses and disturbances that arise from social, political, economic and environmental challenges."

The influx of immigrants from different contexts, backgrounds and historical conditions within the Chinese and Indian populations brings with it new pluralisms in race and religion, said Prof Kong. This is on top of those from other ethnicities and nationalities.

While policies such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act address inter-racial and inter-religious differences, intra-racial and intra-religious diversities should not be overlooked.

Challenges such as xenophobia, not-in-my-backyard attitudes and the us-versus-them mentality can stem from competition for opportunities such as jobs or education.

Prof Kong said improved infrastructure and facilities for greater access by all can ease potential tensions. Building a vibrant economy with a healthy employment rate and opportunities for Singaporeans in schools and jobs may help too.

Income inequality and reduced social mobility also affect social cohesion. Prof Kong called for more diverse networks in schools, workplaces, national service and common-interest associations to help bolster trust and promote upward mobility.

The digital divide between the seniors and younger generations, as well as between the poor and better endowed, also threatens social cohesion. One solution is to build virtual communities around common causes.

Inter-generational segregation and ageism can be more pronounced with Singapore's ageing population too, but policies like the Maintenance of Parents Act and three-generational housing help to alleviate problems.

The ICCS, which began on Tuesday, is a three-day event organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Themed "Confident Identities, Connected Communities", it engages more than 800 delegates from more than 40 countries in conversations around three key pillars of faith, identity and cohesion.

Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, speaking to the media on the sidelines of the conference, said he was particularly happy to see youth leaders coming together for the Young Leaders Programme, with some returning from the first ICCS in 2019 to mentor others.

"It tells us that young people are interested in outcomes and very much invested in finding solutions to build a more cohesive society," he said, adding that it is important that they apply the information they gathered to Singapore's multicultural society.

Mr Tong also said that one challenge arising from the Covid-19 pandemic is the "me first" attitude. It is important for everyone to re-engineer and refocus on the community, looking at commonalities and similarities rather than differences.

Speaking remotely from Vatican City, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State of the Holy See and a guest speaker delivering the conference special address, said that the objective of cohesive societies is the formation of individuals capable of relationships and of transcending the individualism of "I" to embrace the diversity of "us".

He listed six aspects of a cohesive society:

- Everyone is a promoter of solidarity;

- Build solidarity with youth leadership;

- Solidarity is a commitment to creating inviting cities, which "are rich in humanity, hospitable, inviting if we are all attentive and kind to those in need; and if we are able to engage constructively and cooperatively for the benefit of everyone".

- Solidarity is assuming responsibility for the other person's problems;

- Solidarity is defined by closeness and generosity, and it involves taking care of one another;

- Solidarity is a way to create history.

He added: "Solidarity entails overcoming the damaging consequences of selfishness in order to make way for the bravery of listening gestures. In this sense, solidarity is thus a means of creating history."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.