Diversity is a source of strength for societies, and engaging meaningfully amid differences is not easy, but it is necessary, President Halimah Yacob said last night in a speech where she outlined three key ingredients for social harmony.
These are accommodation, dialogue and a shared conception of the common good, which must be nurtured by individuals rather than just governments.
"Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face," she said. "Social trust has to be forged, one positive encounter at a time. Strength from diversity can grow only from dialogue, give and take, speaking and listening."
The President was at the opening dinner of the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies, a platform she had mooted to discuss ways of forging interfaith understanding and social cohesion.
Around 1,000 academics, government officials and members of religious and civil society groups from close to 40 countries are attending the three-day conference.
Jordan's King Abdullah II will deliver the keynote address at the Raffles City Convention Centre today.
In her speech, Madam Halimah spoke of how each community within a diverse nation contributes to a more interesting and vibrant national life.
A platform for ideas to strengthen harmony
In May last year, President Halimah Yacob put forward the idea of a unique interfaith forum with the status and prestige of the Shangri-La Dialogue and a mission to promote understanding between different communities.
She envisioned it as a high-level event drawing leaders of faith from all around the world, similar to how the Shangri-La Dialogue is attended by defence ministers and military chiefs from major world powers.
The result was the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies, which started yesterday and ends tomorrow.
Organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the event aims to be a platform for conversations on strengthening interfaith understanding and developing new ideas to foster greater harmony in societies.
The conference is attended by around 1,000 delegates from close to 40 countries. They include academics, government officials and members of religious and civil society groups, who will discuss broader issues surrounding faith, identity and cohesion.
Participants will also take part in workshops to discuss topics such as overcoming hate, faith and technology, and global peace-building efforts.
A separate Young Leaders' Programme - to harness the ideas of young people working to address challenges relating to social cohesion in their communities - was also held on Tuesday and yesterday.
In her opening speech last night, President Halimah spoke of the important role that leaders play in building unity within their communities.
"Strong leadership and deep social mobilisation are vital elements to achieving cultural change," she said. "Leaders play an important role in promoting peace and social cohesion at both the national and international levels."
But she noted that often, political leaders articulate division and conflict for their personal agenda.
"Hence, all societal actors must play a part in managing diversity - from government leaders to individuals, from the media to educational institutions," she added.
"The world would be all the poorer if it had no room for difference. If we were all the same, we would have nothing special to offer, nor anything to learn from others. The more diverse we are, the richer we become," she said.
But she also noted that people instinctively bond with those who are like them, meaning that skin colour, beliefs, customs and other markers of identity can become fault lines of mistrust and conflict.
This is seen in the spread of extremist ideologies or anti-immigrant rhetoric which can take on racial and religious overtones, she said.
"A nation cannot prosper if its people are divided. A society cannot be proud if its people distrust each other," Madam Halimah added. "Only a cohesive society built upon mutual trust can harness the strength of its diversity, so that its people can build a better future."
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies executive deputy chairman Ong Keng Yong also spoke at the dinner on the importance of interfaith dialogue in the light of intensifying identity politics and conflicts between communities. This year, mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and churches in Sri Lanka were targeted in major terror attacks.
"We live in a time where conversations surrounding race and religion are often marred by negative emotions such as hatred and fear," he said.
"The place of worship has become the target of violence instead of a peaceful sanctuary for believers."
Madam Halimah, in her speech, elaborated on what she believes are the foundations of social harmony.
First, there must be accommodation where space is created for communities to celebrate their own distinctive cultures, even as they accept differences and refrain from imposing their own practices or requirements on others.
Next, dialogue and interaction help foster familiarity and friendships that "can go a long way to improve relations among diverse groups".
Lastly, social cohesion has to be "cemented by a shared conception of the common good, and a felt reality of collective belonging". Without this, different community groups can instead become pressure groups representing sectional interests, Madam Halimah said.
"Upholding the common good means holding our differences not in opposition to one another, but bringing our differences together to build a future that we all share."
The President said forging unity and drawing strength from diversity has always been - and will continue to be - part of the Singapore story.
Social cohesion is not something that can be "commanded or dictated by any government", she added. "It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day."