SINGAPORE - Keeping a diverse society united is not easy, and Singapore's starting point is that people can be good Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus, while also being good citizens, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday.
While the Government sets the tone, minority communities have maintained the trust of other groups, and the majority Chinese community understands the need to recognise and respect their interests, he noted.
"Everyone understands what is at stake. Everyone accepts that no group can get everything it wants," he said.
"Everyone supports the overriding need to compromise, adjust, and accommodate the sensitivities of other faiths. Expand our common space; and build a reservoir of trust and respect amongst all Singaporeans," he added.
"This way, we can continue building a multiracial and multi-religious nation where every Singaporean - regardless of race, language or religion - is a valued and respected member of society, and where Singaporean Muslims like all other groups in Singapore can develop their own unique Singaporean identities, different from that of other Muslim communities across the world."
PM Lee was speaking to community and religious leaders, scholars and officials from around the world at the opening of the inaugural International Conference on Communities of Success, organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) to share its experiences as well as learn from others.
He noted that many countries start off with the ideal of building inclusive societies that treat all equally. "But along the way, with electoral politics and majoritarian instincts, the temptation to use race and religion to win votes is always there," he said. "Once a society evolves in that direction, it is very difficult to turn back."
Of the 1.9 billion Muslims globally, 400 million or so are minorities in their countries. For many, Islam is not only a spiritual faith but a comprehensive way of life, which means expressing their Islamic identity while expanding what they share in common with non-Muslim fellow citizens is an important yet delicate process, he said.
And since the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on America, the threat of terrorism has sowed suspicion, fear and Islamophobia, straining relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Singapore, he said, has been fortunate to enjoy generally harmonious relations.
Policies and laws have been designed to uphold equality, safeguard the rights of minorities and expand common spaces, thereby helping prevent minority groups from becoming marginalised and ensuring they have space to pursue their practices.
The minority communities also play their part, said PM Lee.
"They approach issues with a spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation. They understand that because of our multiracial context, some things have to be done differently from elsewhere," he added.
"Singapore has been fortunate to have had Muslim religious leaders who have understood this fundamental point."
In 1949, Muslim scholar Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique mooted forming the Inter-Religious Organisation to bring followers of different faiths together, and the group has continued to actively foster tolerance and harmony.
And after the arrest of Jemaah Islamiah members plotting terror attacks here in 2001, a group of senior Islamic scholars formed the Religious Rehabilitation Group to counsel those who had been radicalised and guide the wider community on the proper interpretation of Islam.
Citing these examples, PM Lee said it is important for minority communities to maintain the trust and confidence of other groups in society.
"Our Muslim leaders work closely with the Government and community partners to guide the community in the right direction," he added, noting that Muis and Singapore's Muftis have built up their experience and standing over the years.
"All this requires strong and respected religious leadership."
He encouraged institutions and religious scholars to work with Muis to build religious knowledge for the benefit of Muslim communities around the world, in dealing with emerging issues related to governance, science, and technology, and providing contextualised guidance rooted in Islamic teachings.
Beyond religion, it is also important that minority communities participate fully in the economic and social life of their country, he said. In Singapore, the Muslim community contributes to society's overall growth and development, he noted.
PM Lee added that majority groups also have to reject majoritarian politics and adopt an attitude of compromise and accommodation.
"In fact, in a multiracial society, the majority group has to go one step further. To always recognise and respect the interests of the minorities; to realise that in any society, it is harder to belong to a minority than a majority group; and to be especially mindful never to make the minority groups feel left out," he said.
He said Chinese Singaporeans understand this, adding that perhaps it was easier because no religious group forms a majority here.
Even then, people have from time to time overstepped the limits and caused offence, or tried to exploit race and religion to cause trouble or gain support.
The Government has had to stand firm to call out those working up divisive passions, at the risk of losing political support and votes, he added.
PM Lee underlined that building a cohesive society is a work in progress and as times and circumstances change, new and spiky issues can crop up.
He shared how Singapore had to address the issue of nurses wearing the Muslim headscarf, or tudung, and also the issue of Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between men.
On both issues, the Government held many consultations and made sure everyone understood the change, he said. Last year, nurses were allowed to wear the tudung, and recently, the Government announced plans to repeal Section 377A, as well as to amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage from legal challenges.
"Islam considers homosexual acts to be sinful. Many Christians think so too. But what some religions consider a sin should not necessarily therefore be made a crime," PM Lee said. "Like every human society, Singapore also has gay people in our midst and like other Singaporeans, gay people want to be respected and accepted, just like their fellow citizens."
He added: "In a multi-religious society, the Government must take a neutral and secular approach. But the Government will also recognise and respect the different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans, and balance them fairly in order to reach a political accommodation.
"With give-and-take, all groups can live and let live, and get along together. It is the only way for us," he said.
The two-day conference continues on Saturday.