SINGAPORE - Singapore can turn its racial and religious diversity into a source of strength and advantage on the world stage, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Monday (Aug 12).
The Republic, he said, can share its experiences and efforts at building peace and harmony in a diverse society with others around the world, especially in a time of increased polarisation and differences.
"I don't think we should be arrogant and say, well, we are a model. Every country is different - different culture, history and tradition. But we can join hands with people around the world, to share the lessons we have learned, to share our experiences," he added.
However, Mr Heng also stressed that Singapore's racial harmony should not be taken for granted, and is something that should be taken "very seriously".
"Every day when you open the newspaper, you'll find conflict of one form or another in at least one of the pages, which is linked to either race, language, or religion," he said. "So for us to maintain harmony in a society that is so multiracial, multicultural and multireligious, is always an act in progress."
Mr Heng, who is also Minister of Finance, was speaking to over 60 residents from the South East District at a dialogue in conjunction with the launch of Temasek Foundation's Faithful Footprints programme which celebrates Singapore's interfaith heritage.
The half-day activity includes a 1.7km heritage trail that takes participants past eight places of worship that have long coexisted in the historic Bencoolen area, before a visit to the Harmony in Diversity Gallery in Maxwell Road, where they learn about the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s which saw racial riots, and how different groups found common ground.
The programme, which culminates in a dialogue session for participants to reflect on what they have learnt, takes place fortnightly and is open to all Singaporeans and permanent residents.
Mr Heng said it is important for a small country like Singapore to understand how the world operates and how it can play a part, adding that Singapore can tap on its diversity to its advantage. He recalled how, as managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), one subject of growing interest was Islamic finance, and he visited several Middle Eastern countries to learn more about it.
"And what was most helpful to me was that I have in MAS, officers who were Muslim, who went along with me. They were teaching me all the dos and don'ts," said Mr Heng.
It led to him being able to establish a good rapport with the central bank governors in those countries, who opened up and shared with him a lot about the topic.
"If I'd not been able to understand the religion a little better, to be able to build a rapport, I wonder if they would be so frank with me," he added.
He also shared how, when he led Singapore's negotiations on an ambitious free trade agreement with India, many colleagues and Indian businessmen he had known for many years shared their experiences on the intricacies of doing business in India.
Emphasising the importance of racial harmony and understanding during the session, Mr Heng shared his personal experience during the 1969 racial riots, when he was in primary school and his family lived in a Chinese kampung that was next to a Malay kampung. He and other children were not allowed to walk to the public bus stop on their own, but had to be escorted in a big group.
The situation improved by the time he got to secondary school. He lived near school, and one schoolmate he walked home with often was a Malay boy, and they had long chats.
South East District mayor Maliki Osman, who moderated the dialogue, said Singaporeans have to continue to build on what their forefathers have done.
"We have come a long way, but a modern, prosperous country also brings with it new challenges of complexity," he said.
Participants in Monday's session found the programme to be a great oppportunity to discover the significance of the Bencoolen area and how people of various faiths got along.
Said Mr Kakkattil Peedikakkal Rajeev, 44, who has been a permanent resident since 2008: "I pass by the area very often, but never knew there were all these religious sites. It shows the unity of Singapore, with all the different groups taking the same effort to share in the history of the country."
Miss Siti Aisyah Yusri, 17, a student at Madrasah Al-Ma'arif Al-Islamiah in Geylang, added: "I didn't have friends from other religions. So to see those places was eye-opening, because when you read about it, it's different from actually seeing it for yourself."
She said: "It's also heartwarming to know we have been able to progress as a country, and understand and accept our differences."