Singapore can turn its racial and religious diversity into an advantage and source of strength on the world stage, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.
The Republic, he said, can share its experiences and efforts in 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 - with different culture, history and tradition. But we can join hands with people around the world to share the lessons we have learnt, to share our experiences," he added.
Mr Heng stressed that Singapore's racial harmony cannot be taken for granted and 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, adding that Singapore's maintenance of harmony in a "multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious" society is always a work in progress.
Mr Heng, who is also Minister for Finance, was speaking to more than 60 residents of the South East District at a dialogue held in conjunction with the launch of Temasek Foundation's Faithful Footprints programme, which celebrates Singapore's interfaith heritage.
The half-day programme includes a 1.7km heritage trail, which takes participants past eight places of worship that have long co-existed in the historic Bencoolen area.
This is followed by a visit to the Harmony in Diversity Gallery in Maxwell Road. There, participants can learn about the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, which saw racial riots erupt, and how different groups found common ground.
The programme culminates in a dialogue for participants to reflect on what they have learnt.
Co-organised by civic group Humanity Matters and supported by the South East Community Development Council, Faithful Footprints takes place fortnightly and is open to all Singaporeans and permanent residents.
Mr Heng said it is important for a small country such as Singapore to understand how the world operates and how it can play a part, adding that Singapore can draw on its diversity to its advantage.
He recalled that when he was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Islamic finance was a subject of growing interest, and he visited the Middle East to learn more about it.
"What was most helpful to me was that I had officers who were Muslim, who went along with me. They were teaching me all the dos and don'ts," said Mr Heng.
This enabled him to establish rapport with the central bank governors of the Middle Eastern countries he visited, who opened up and shared with him about the topic.
"If I had 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.
Mr Heng also talked about how, when he led Singapore's negotiations on an ambitious free trade agreement with India, the colleagues and Indian businessmen whom 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, Mr Heng recalled his personal experiences during the 1969 racial riots, when he was in primary school and his family lived in a Chinese kampung beside 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 large group.
The situation improved by the time he started attending secondary school. He lived near school, and often chatted with a Malay schoolmate during their walks home.
South East District Mayor Maliki Osman, who moderated the dialogue, said Singaporeans have to continue to build on their forefathers' achievements.
"We have come a long way, but a modern, prosperous country also brings with it new challenges of complexity," he said.
Participants in the session found the programme to be a great opportunity to discover the significance of the Bencoolen area and how people of various faiths got along.
Said Mr Kakkattil Peedikakkal Rajeev, 44, a project engineer 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."
Siti Aisyah Yusri, 17, a student at Madrasah Al-Ma'arif Al-Islamiah in Geylang, said: "I didn't have friends from other religions. To see those places was eye-opening, because when you read about it, it's different from actually seeing it for yourself."
She added: "It's also heartwarming to know that we have been able to progress as a country, and understand and accept our differences."