Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday highlighted the need for unceasing efforts to maintain religious harmony in Singapore, as well as the importance of religious leaders who support the Government in building common ground.
He also said Singapore will have to update laws that allow the authorities to act against anyone who sows discord among religious groups, among other things.
Speaking at an international conference organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), Mr Lee noted that the Government has never had to invoke the powers granted by the 26-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.
Nevertheless, the Act - by its very existence - has made an important contribution to Singapore's religious harmony, he said.
"We will have to keep the Act up to date, to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that may emerge," he added.
Asked about these new threats, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli told reporters they have arisen from external influences that try to shape the way Singaporean Muslims live.
"For the longest time, I remember, we lived comfortably with our neighbours, whatever race or faith they were," he said at the two-day conference held at the Grand Hyatt.
"And suddenly, there is a call to carve ourselves a niche; a particular identity that is very exclusive."
Measures to protect harmony
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) allows the authorities to act against those sowing religious discord, and ensures that religion is not exploited for political or subversive purposes. The Government has yet to exercise the powers it has under the Act since it came into effect in 1992.
Under the Act, the Home Affairs Minister can, for example, issue a restraining order against someone who undermines religious harmony. This bars a person from addressing or advising any religious group or institution. If the restraining order is breached, the person can be fined up to $10,000, jailed up to two years, or both.
The Act also provides for the establishment of a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which is currently headed by former Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo.
The council comprises nine other members - seven from major faiths and two laypersons - who give advice on matters affecting religious harmony. The council also considers and makes recommendations to the President on restraining orders issued under the Act.
Last September, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that the Act is being reviewed, in the light of "experiences we have seen in the region".
Speaking yesterday at a conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Act "sets out the ground rules on the give and take essential in a multi-religious society, in order that all faiths can coexist peacefully and harmoniously together".
He added that the Act will have to be kept up to date, "to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that may emerge".
Taken to extremes, this can lead to the call for Muslims to set up their own caliphate in Syria, said Mr Masagos, who is also Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.
In his address, Mr Lee also spoke of the importance of building understanding between faiths. It requires religious leaders who understand the broader social context, support the Government's efforts to build common ground, and guide their followers on the right path, he said.
"By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise tear our society asunder," Mr Lee added.
He was addressing some 350 people, including religious scholars, interfaith leaders and asatizah, or religious teachers.
Mr Lee said that to build on existing efforts, Singapore will hold an international conference next year to bring together prominent thinkers, policymakers and practitioners so they can exchange views on social cohesion, with a focus on building interfaith relations.
Religion plays a vital role in every society, but it is also a deeply personal matter that can cause friction or misunderstandings if religious sensitivities are ignored, he said.
He noted that the current climate in many societies is one of heightened religiosity, with people more conscious of their religious identities and convictions. "Therefore, fostering good interfaith relations is critical for multi-religious societies like Singapore," said Mr Lee.
Singapore, he said, has established social norms of compromise and accommodation between people of different faiths after years of hard work. "We were not always like this, but through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation, we have got here."
He then expressed hope that the country's next generation of religious leaders will further broaden the common space and contribute to social cohesion.
In his speech, Mr Lee also lauded Muis for its efforts in helping Muslims in Singapore thrive and contribute as good citizens. Set up in 1968, Muis is responsible for the administration of Muslim religious matters in Singapore. This includes managing mosques and madrasahs, regulating halal certification and promoting social cohesion across faiths.
The Prime Minister said Muis plays an important role to "guide the practice of Islam in Singapore's unique context".
THREATS TO HARMONY
For the longest time, I remember, we lived comfortably with our neighbours, whatever race or faith they were. And suddenly, there is a call to carve ourselves a niche; a particular identity that is very exclusive.
MINISTER-IN-CHARGE OF MUSLIM AFFAIRS MASAGOS ZULKIFLI, on threats posed by external influences that try to shape the way Singaporean Muslims live.
By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise tear our society asunder.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on building interfaith understanding.
He also commended Muis on its handling of sensitive issues over the years, such as the inclusion of Muslims under the Human Organ Transplant Act and the recent growing tendency towards religious extremism and terrorism. "Because Muis has been willing to confront and act on difficult issues, it has become a respected institution in Singapore."
During the conference, Mr Lee launched Muis' latest publication, a book called Thriving In A Plural World: Principles And Values Of The Singapore Muslim Community.
In a speech yesterday, Muis chief executive Abdul Razak Hassan Maricar, who also spoke at the conference, said that the future of faith "must be about a common inspiration to do greater good".
"Religions encourage positive collective behaviours that uphold human dignity and facilitate social upliftment for the overall well-being of human society," he said.
"In an increasingly plural world, religions can be a powerful unifying force that bring people together."