'Tackle differences among communities in a calm way'

Yaacob stresses need to protect and cherish Singapore way of give and take in society

As the world becomes more connected and complex, differences among communities will become more apparent and frequent, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

Such differences, even if irreconcilable, need to be dealt with in a calm, rational and dignified manner, he added.

"How we manage those differences will determine whether we will be able to enlarge the common ground, accommodate a greater plurality of views and ideas, and yet not tear us apart," Dr Yaacob said when he opened a conference on Islam in the contemporary world.

But staying true to one's faith amid living with the realities of a society is an issue that confronts other religious groups too, he noted at the one-day gathering of experts in politics, sociology and Islamic jurisprudence organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The central theme of his speech was on the need for believers to adopt a contextual approach that takes into account the realities of living in a multicultural society with a government that is secular.

It is the way Muslims have lived in multiracial Singapore and this conciliatory approach in finding common ground with other communities has helped strengthen social cohesion, he added.

The Singapore Government also plays a role in promoting harmony.

It has a responsibility to create an environment in which policies encourage awareness and respect for cultural diversity, uphold the rule of law, and enforce effective laws that criminalise hate speech, said Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-in- charge of Muslim Affairs.

"We stand united against exclusivists of all shades who denigrate beliefs deeply held by faith communities, and who assert that one culture has absolute superiority to the exclusion of others," he said.

"What is worse is when impressionable and untutored young minds are taught to accept violence and reject peace-making, and are socialised to making decisions without discernment of right and wrong."

Besides intensifying mistrust, exclusivist teachings make society poorer as they reject the notion that one can learn valuable lessons from other groups, said Dr Yaacob.

The conference topics discussed later included possible pathways Islam can take, its place in the modern world, and how the religion has been co-opted for political reasons.

Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a scholar on Islam in South-east Asia, noted that the term wasatiyah, or a moderate path, is "bandied about" by political parties claiming to fight for Islam.

They include Turkey's Justice and Development Party, Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party, and Malaysia's Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

But a more fundamentalist version of Islam has, in the past few years, been entering the mainstream in Malaysia, he added.

"We see one state government in Malaysia even conducting a seminar on remembering the contributions of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab," said Dr Ahmad Fauzi, referring to the 18th century preacher behind the puritanical interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism.

Dr Yaacob, in his speech, said Singapore's approach since independence is to look at how to develop faith communities here as part of wider society instead of in isolation.

For instance, fatwas, or rulings, by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore consider views of not just religious leaders, but also experts from different fields.

A partnership between the state and various communities is also necessary so that when problems arise, the best possible solution can be found, he said.

In the quest for enlarging the common ground, Dr Yaacob stressed the need to do it "with a spirit of give and take and compromise".

"Our (Muslim) community has a tradition of being guided by the principles of moderation, inclusiveness, and respect for diversity, and participating actively in our nation-building efforts," he added, saying this "Singapore way" had to be "cherished and protected zealously".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'Tackle differences among communities in a calm way'. Subscribe