Singapore works hard to maintain religious harmony: PM Lee

He cites the creation of structures that curb chauvinism and nudge social behaviour in positive ways

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received the World Statesman Award from Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, in New York on Monday. With him were Mrs Lee (from left) and former United States secretary of
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received the World Statesman Award from Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, in New York on Monday. With him were Mrs Lee (from left) and former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger. PHOTO: MCI

Singapore is ranked the most religiously diverse country in the world, but its harmonious society did not come about by chance, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in New York on Monday.

Rather, it worked hard to lay the foundation for religious harmony and maintain it over the years, he said in a speech on Singapore and the Government's approach to race and religion.

"We did not become so because Singaporeans are a uniquely virtuous people," he added when accepting the World Statesman Award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a New York-based interfaith group promoting mutual acceptance and respect. "We created structures - constitutional, political, social - that discouraged intolerance, curbed chauvinism and nudged social behaviour in positive ways."

As examples, he cited the country's "strictly secular, but not anti-religious" constitutional approach that treats all faiths impartially, as well as electoral rules to boost multiracial politics, and policies to encourage people of different races to live and study together.

"I went to a Catholic school - there is a church in the school grounds and across the road, there is a synagogue," said PM Lee, referring to Catholic High School when it was in Queen Street, and Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.

He also noted the compromises religious groups make. For example, mosques tone down their loudspeakers that carry the prayer call, and to make up for it, the call is broadcast on national radio.

On their part, Christians exercise restraint in proselytising to people of other faiths, he added. "Because to you, it is the gospel - the good news - but to people of other faiths, if it is not done sensitively, it can be taken amiss and can cause offence."

PM Lee said he accepted the award on behalf of all who contributed towards building a harmonious society in Singapore.

The World Statesman Award honours leaders who support peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance in multi-ethnic societies. World leaders given the award in the past included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Reading the citation was former US secretary of state Henry Kissin-ger, 96, whom PM Lee called a long-time friend of Singapore and a close friend of his father, the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Dr Kissinger traced Singapore's success as an extraordinarily modern country despite it being a small island surrounded by large countries, describing its population as one that has faith in itself.

"I have had the good fortune of knowing the (Lee) family for most of my public life, and I have always believed in their contributions to peace and stability in Asia," he said.

PM Lee said Singapore's harmonious society, however, is facing a world that is changing, and Singaporeans need to adapt to new forces.

He listed four: Growing religiosity among all faiths, external influences, provocative views that proliferate on social media, and violence in the name of race and religion.

First, people of all faiths are practising their faiths more fervently, which in itself is not a bad thing, he said. "But as convinced as one might be of one's own faith, we cannot... show disrespect to other people's faiths or other people's gods."

This is why Singapore opposes practices that discourage people from befriending those of other faiths or exchanging greetings during their religious festivals.

Second, racial and religious groups in Singapore have extensive links with their larger counterparts abroad, which can result in the import of disputes from other lands. This can undermine social cohesion.

Singapore therefore bans or expels foreign preachers who bring their foreign quarrels into the country, or who want to persuade Singaporeans to practise their religions in ways inappropriate for local society, said PM Lee. "At the same time, we explain to Singaporeans that different societies often practise the same religion in different ways."

Third, social media means a single offensive or thoughtless post can go viral and be seen by millions.


"It has become dangerously easy for people to cause offence and to take umbrage. We must not allow those who spread toxic views and poison on the Internet to get away with what may literally be murder."

But policing the Internet was a Sisyphean task that still needed to be done, he said, referencing the new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.

It allows the Government and the courts to compel the correction of misinformation and falsehoods online and take action against those who deliberately spread untruths.

Fourth is the continuing threat of terrorists who pervert and misuse religion to justify violence.

PM Lee cited how Singapore thwarted a planned terror attack just after the Sept 11 attacks in 2001, and strove swiftly to reinforce trust and confidence between religions.

Muslim leaders condemned the terrorists, while non-Muslims expressed continued confidence in their Muslim brethren, he said.

But government actions alone cannot bring about religious harmony, he said, calling on "responsible voices" to spread the message of tolerance and respect.

"I hope future generations of Singaporeans will cherish this harmony... and strengthen it further. We must never allow religion to be weaponised, or used as a front for other conflicts," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore works hard to maintain religious harmony: PM Lee'. Subscribe