President urges greater effort on cohesion

Weighing in on the recent "agonising" incidents of hatred and chauvinism perpetrated by Singaporeans against one another, President Halimah Yacob yesterday said: "We wonder whether these are one-off incidents or reflective of a larger problem."

"Such displays are so hurtful because we thought that we had done so much to protect our cohesion until we are shaken from our belief. Our greatest fear is how such prejudice will affect our young and influence their minds," she added in a Facebook post.

President Halimah noted that the law would not, by itself, stop such incidents from being perpetuated. Instead, it is time to have deeper engagements about the importance of cohesion and how to achieve a truly multiracial and multi-religious society.

"In the process, we may have to confront and reassess some very painful truths about ourselves and our beliefs. It may be unpleasant but this is a journey that I feel every Singaporean needs to take," said Madam Halimah, adding that social media use and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic were contributing factors that may mask real issues.

Of late, a slew of incidents has sparked widespread attention and debate among the public as well as ministers and MPs.

One of these was a video from last weekend showing a Chinese man making racist remarks at a mixed-race couple.

More recently on Wednesday, Facebook user Livanesh Ramu posted a clip of a man performing a Hindu prayer routine at the doorway of his home, while in the background a woman who appears to be Chinese clangs a gong repeatedly in a seemingly spiteful riposte.

True cohesion goes beyond just tolerance: President

The Facebook post was later updated to add that the Singapore Police have contacted the family.

Madam Halimah recalled how a high-level interfaith forum - an idea of hers - was held in Singapore for the first time in 2019 and drew more than 1,100 participants from some 40 countries. "There were initial concerns about whether it was wise to get an international audience to talk about such a sensitive topic, but I believed that racial and religious threats to cohesion will always be present and having meaningful conversations will do more good than harm," she said.

She described how Jordan's King Abdullah was "clearly impressed" with Singapore's cohesion despite its diversity, and had said in his keynote speech that the "dynamism" displayed here was urgently needed to tackle threats to interfaith harmony, mutual respect and trust all over the world.

Singapore does not claim to have the perfect model on racial and religious harmony, said Madam Halimah.

Beyond cursory or civil efforts at keeping the peace, Singapore strives to prevent hatred and distrust from causing divisions. This is done by "making real effort to understand the views, concerns and fears of others" of different cultural identities, she said.

"Only if this happens, can we truly see cohesion. Tolerating each other but yet harbouring all kinds of negative thoughts arising from ignorance and biased opinions will not work," said Madam Halimah.

"In other words, we stop creating a 'them and us' but try to stand in their shoes and see how they view the world."

She urged Singaporeans to start by being kinder to one another. "We can control how we want to respond and do so in a constructive and meaningful way."

Madam Halimah also noted that Singapore was exposed to "all kinds of influences from outside", and that care must be taken to avoid importing culture wars which have polarised societies elsewhere.

"Divisions like that will take generations to overcome. Maybe never," she warned. "Our society cannot afford that kind of schisms. Pulling in different directions will tear us asunder."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2021, with the headline 'President urges greater effort on cohesion'. Subscribe