Singapore and Egypt can work closer to combat extremism, promote harmony: President Tan

President Tony Tan Keng Yam speaks to the media and the Singapore delegation. Seated on Dr Tan's left is Singapore Ambassador to Egypt S. Premjith. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION
Singapore President Tony Tan (fourth from left) and members of the Singapore delegation meet Coptic Pope Tawadros II on Wednesday (Nov 2). PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION
Singapore President Tony Tan and members of the Singapore delegation meet Coptic Pope Tawadros II on Wednesday (Nov 2). PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

CAIRO - Countering religious extremism and promoting cohesive and harmonious societies is a key area Singapore and Egypt can collaborate more in, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said in an interview with Singapore reporters on Wednesday (Nov 2), as he wrapped up his state visit here.

Egypt has some of the foremost authorities in the Islamic world and it is using its considerable influence to battle extremist views.

And Dr Tan said he was heartened that all Egyptian leaders he met were determined to promote the message of moderation and religious tolerance globally.

This week, he called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and met Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, as well as Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed Al Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

"Al Azhar has the stature and credibility to play an important role in promoting inter-faith understanding," said Dr Tan, referring to the renowned university.

Dr Tan also attended a special graduation ceremony for 45 Singapore Al Azhar graduates, and toured the Al Azhar Observatory for Foreign Languages, where he saw religious scholars monitoring extreme views online in nine languages and rebutting them.

Calling this "important work", Dr Tan said it was very difficult to monitor such posts on the Internet, noting it was something Singapore was also trying to do.

The work the centre does in giving an "ideological counterbalance" is something the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and Religious Rehabilitation Group - which counsels radicalised individuals - is doing too, and Singapore can work with Al Azhar further in this area, he said.

"At the same time, we should guard against Islamophobia which threatens Singapore's inter-religious fabric and unfairly tarnishes the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims," he added.

Dr Tan noted Singapore's longstanding friendship with Egypt, and said it was ready to support Egypt's growth in areas where it has expertise, such as port development and water management.

He was confident Egypt will continue to play an important role in the Middle East given its history and strategic location, he added.

He also urged local companies to spread their wings beyond traditional markets, to the Middle East.

Companies like shipping and logistics firm Pacific International Lines and agri-business firm Olam are already operating here, while others such as Hyflux and PSA are exploring opportunities.

One area that holds promise is Egypt's plan to develop an economic zone beside the Suez Canal, a major artery of global trade.

Dr Tan noted that Singapore businessmen accompanying him had "meaningful discussions" with their Egyptian counterparts.

More companies should develop an understanding of the business and regulatory environment to seize opportunities, he added, noting that Egypt was one of the easiest countries for Singapore to work with in the region.

"It's relatively modern, people are capable, they're interested in expanding their contacts with us, they see Singapore as a way they can interact with Asia," he said.

Asked about the security situation, Dr Tan said it was an issue Mr Sisi spoke to him about, and was "determined to see improve".

"He realises that political stability and security underlies everything", Dr Tan said.

"But it will take time," he added.

Egypt's leaders "know they need to reassure the world's people that Egypt is a safe place to visit, to stay and to work," he said.

On Wednesday (Nov 2), Dr Tan met Pope Tawadros, and toured the Hanging Church, one of Egypt's oldest churches and the heart of the Coptic Christian faith.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.