Safe spaces to break the ice

Mr Hassan Ahmad wants to encourage and enhance interfaith dialogue in Singapore — but is it enough?

The venues for Common Senses for Common Spaces include schools such as Madrasah Wak Tanjong al-Islamiah and Dunman High School, to ensure that the students and staff have the opportunity to host and be exposed to the wider public. PHOTO: WISE SG
The venues for Common Senses for Common Spaces include schools such as Madrasah Wak Tanjong al-Islamiah and Dunman High School, to ensure that the students and staff have the opportunity to host and be exposed to the wider public. PHOTO: WISE SG

This world is going crazy, says humanitarian Hassan Ahmad.

One only needs to look at the cybersphere to realise just how much toxicity netizens are capable of, he says during a recent conversation about how dialogue builds resilience in diverse communities 

Eateries striving for halal certifications, excessive burning of offerings, company events being held at non-halal eating establishments — these topics easily ignite a firestorm of vitriol and mudslinging online.

“It’s on forums, on social media, that you really see a lot of hatred, angst, and poor ethics between humans,” he says. “And the worrying thing is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

The worst part, though, is that some people buy into the misrepresentations and falsehoods.

“There are people who choose to subscribe to this craziness,” he says, pointing out the ease with which inflammatory content can be shared on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and WhatsApp group chats.

“Social media has become anti-social media — people can just hide behind their keyboards and spread hatred without consequence to themselves.”

As he was scrolling through endless pages of incendiary content, he slowly came to a realisation: That the religious vitriol he saw online was largely born out of misunderstanding or ignorance.

“Problems arise when people don’t understand the basics of religion,” he said. “The problem is not religion; it’s the lack of knowledge about it.”

This epiphany inspired him to start a series of citizen-centric dialogues to promote greater understanding between people of different faiths. The inaugural dialogue for the Common Senses for Common Spaces (CSCS) initiative was held in June 2016.

At the time, Mr Hassan was the head of non-governmental organisation Corporate Citizen Foundation. He has since stepped down, but continues to remain very involved in conceptualising, planning and organising the CSCS initiative, as part of the original network that started it.

Celebrating common traits

The second instalment of CSCS came in August 2016, when South East Community Development Council and WISE SG ran ‘a We Are What We Eat dialogue session at Nanyang Junior College. PHOTO: WISE SG

The CSCS dialogue series seek to focus on what is common among different faiths.

“You can’t just rely on common sense when it comes to understanding one’s own or other faiths,” says Mr Hassan. “Common sense is not usually common — depending on our upbringing, each of us has a different sense of what is common.”

“Instead, we should rely on our common senses; things that all of us share at a fundamental level.” 

A CSCS session hosted by South East Community Development Council (CDC) in August 2016 was titled We Are What We Eat. It was a dialogue on dietary requirements and restrictions in religions in general. 

Mr Hassan’s intentions were to give Singaporeans a safe space to candidly discuss the issues surrounding diets and communal eating. 

“When people say ‘halal’, do they actually understand what it means?” asks Mr Hassan.

Other dialogue sessions were centred around the sense of touch, smell, sight or hearing. 

With the support of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), CSCS was made a nationwide initiative in February last year, as part of MCCY’s Broadening Racial/Religious Interaction through Dialogues and General Education initiative, or Bridge, to deepen Singaporean’s understanding of race and religion, as well as the greater SGSecure movement.

Describing the CSCS initiative as a “practical means of addressing interfaith issues in Singapore”, Mr Hassan makes it a point to note that the understanding of theology should be balanced with the practical application of religion in everyday life.

In February 2018, with the support from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the People’s Association and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, CSCS was expanded to all five CDCs across Singapore. PHOTO: WISE SG

This philosophy extends to the speakers he handpicks for the dialogues: Rather than specifically choosing religious leaders, Mr Hassan thinks the likes of physicians, engineers and even musicians would help to break down the walls between different religions.

“We try not to choose our speakers simply for their religious authority,” he says. “We want professionals who know enough, who are comfortable enough and understand enough about their religion to speak about it.”

Take for example a We Are What We Eat session held last September which featured Hindu physiotherapist Thilaga Govindasamy, Buddhist geriatrician Ng Wai Chong and Muslim palliative medicine physician Norhisham Main among the guest speakers.

Mr Hassan gets the panellists to compare each other’s beliefs and practices — not to establish contrast, he stresses, but rather to establish commonalities. Its goal is, after all, to get people to recognise that even across religions, they are far more similar than they are different.

He fondly recalls an anecdote Ms Govindasamy shared, where one of her patients asked her, “What makes a Hindu a Hindu?”

Ms Govindasamy chose to respond with a series of questions of her own. “Are you a good husband? A good son? Brother? Employee? Supervisor?”

Her patient responded affirmative to all of the above.

“Then you must be a Hindu,” she finished, to laughter and applause from the audience.

At CSCS dialogues, speakers are carefully selected based on their background, knowledge, experience, exposure and personality. PHOTO: WISE SG

These are the basic teachings of every religion, says Mr Hassan. “That’s what CSCS hopes to bring to the fore — that religion is about day-to-day practical life. About values. About how we choose to live our lives as good and global citizens. 

“People should go beyond rituals and be spiritual too, and seek the common purpose and goodness of our existence.”

A common responsibility

Through the CSCS, Mr Hassan hopes to address non-violent extremism and exclusivism.

In his eyes, non-violent extremism is as much of a threat as the violent kind. Left unchecked and uncorrected, the way people intentionally segregate themselves — such as refusing to dine with members of other faiths because of dietary differences — will create an environment in which segregation will eventually become the new normal.

So the community has a role to play in combating this. “How much do we really know about each other?” he asks. “And even if we do know about each other, so what? Do we have that sense of commonness despite our differences; putting society before community, and community before self?”

This is why the SGSecure initiative places such emphasis on cohesion,  one of its three central pillars. After a terror attack, tensions may rise between different racial and religious groups in Singapore, which is the aim of terrorists — to create divisions and threaten ties between the communities by instilling fear and distrust. 

CSCS serves not only as a platform for dialogue, but also a vehicle for fellowship and networking. PHOTO: WISE SG

The CSCS initiative and other interfaith dialogues, such as the Ask Me Anything community-led interfaith discourse sessions, are just two of the initiatives that have been launched under the banner of SGSecure to strengthen Singapore’s social fabric. 

The Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, local-level community platforms in every constituency, were also formed with the intent to promote racial and religious harmony among residents.

Ground-up interfaith creative projects from the public and non-profit organisations are also supported by way of the MCCY Harmony Fund, to encourage citizens to create content and organise events that foster racial and religious harmony. 

As Mr Hassan mentions, Singapore’s diversity is simultaneously its greatest vulnerability and its greatest strength. 

For Singapore to be able to stand united against any crisis, such as a terror attack, our residents need to be more understanding of different cultures, races and religious practices in Singapore. Mutual understanding is the first step towards mutual respect — and respect will keep Singaporeans together when their collective resolve is put to the test.