Every Singaporean has to be accommodating and practise "give and take", Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu has said.
"This means giving up a bit of one's own space and comfort for others, but in return, we can expect others to do the same for us," Ms Fu told Parliament during the debate on restricting hate speech to maintain racial and religious harmony.
She said Singapore cannot just depend on law enforcement to forge a united people. "A strong cohesive society starts from tolerance, and over time, moves to accommodation. From accommodation, we progress to an appreciation of commonalities and differences," she said yesterday.
"Finally, friendships built on goodwill, trust and confidence in one another will form, and must form. It... requires continued effort."
The strong community relations Singapore enjoys today are neither by accident nor by the laws of nature, Ms Fu pointed out.
Singapore chose to build a nation based on everyone having an equal place in society. She noted the ethnic enclaves established naturally by Singapore's immigrant forefathers when they first arrived in the 1820s, and the years leading up to independence in 1965 where riots and other events threatened to tear society apart.
"We strove to enable every community to have its own space to practise its culture and customs. At the same time, we sought to maximise our common space so that Singaporeans can live, work and play side by side in mutual respect, sharing common experiences and growing a sense of shared identity," she said.
She highlighted activities supported by or under her ministry that can contribute to a cohesive society. Among them is the Ask Me Anything community-led series of conversations where religious leaders take turns to clarify common misconceptions about their beliefs and practices, and discuss sensitive issues.
The arts, as well as museums and heritage institutions, also serve as platforms to grow appreciation of universal commonalities while recognising differences, she added.
And sports activities like those at Outward Bound Singapore help build strong bonds across all walks of life.
Referencing Singapore's ongoing Unesco bid to list hawker culture as an intangible cultural heritage, she noted that life could be worse off if Singapore's hawker centres all sold food from one single race, or if Singaporeans could not sit together with friends of other races to eat.
"Fortunately, we can have food from all races, all at one hawker centre, catering to different dietary requirements and together with our friends and neighbours of different races and religions," she said.