I am honoured to be here today, in the presence of many of Singapore’s prominent religious leaders from the 10 different faiths. As is often said, sharing a meal is one of the best ways for people to get to know and bond with one another, so I am glad that this is but the latest of many such dinners organised by the IRO.
All too often we read in the news about religious conflicts shattering the peace and affecting people’s lives. A report released by the Pew Research Centre in Jan 2014 found that religious hostilities have increased in every major region of the world except the Americas (as of 2012). To name just a few, there is the outright war in Syria, recent conflict in Iraq and recurring tensions in countries such as India and Myanmar, and the current terrorist threat that most countries face.
Singapore’s own history has hard-wired in all of us here the necessity of religious tolerance. In particular, those who have lived through the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s will know that the state of religious harmony we enjoy today is not something that came about by accident.
In a multi-religious society, it is therefore critical that our different communities build strong bonds across religious lines. In this context, the Inter-Religious Organisation Singapore (IRO) has played a very important role. For many years, the IRO has functioned as a strong platform for religious leaders from the various faiths to come together to reaffirm their commitment to long-lasting peace and harmony in our country. Interfaith fellowships are necessary, to enhance understanding and to establish genuine friendships between the leaders and followers of the different religions in Singapore.
The regular interfaith dialogue amongst religious leaders is an effective method to prevent misunderstandings from occurring between the different religions. When IRO leaders convene, you do so not as strangers, but as friends and brothers and sisters in humanity. So when misunderstandings over religious issues arise – as it does from time to time – you will then be able to discuss the issue calmly, to find common ground and understanding through dialogue, and seek a peaceful resolution.
As religious leaders, you also serve as role models for your flocks. When Singaporeans see their religious leaders building bonds with leaders from other faiths, it is a catalyst for laymen of different faiths to also reach out to know and understand fellow Singaporeans of other faiths.
Over the years, the IRO has conducted myriad activities to deepen understanding between different religions and raise awareness of the importance of religious harmony. These include exhibitions, seminars, books, and even mass walks. I am told that more than 2,000 Singaporeans attended your Peace and Harmony Walk at East Coast Park in 2003. During Ramadan last year, the IRO-Singapore Buddhist Lodge’s joint charity project raised some $69,000 and 10 tonnes of rice, which were donated to all 69 mosques in Singapore. For Ramadan this year, the IRO-Singapore Buddhist Lodge has once again donated $69,000 to all 69 mosques, accompanied by 20 tonnes of rice for mosques and Muslim organisations to promote harmony between the different faiths in Singapore. This highlights the strong sense of camaraderie among the various faiths. Further, the IRO’s inter-faith blessings at the launches of both public and private institutions remind us that all religions have a stake in Singapore and seeing it progress. The IRO’s inter-faith prayers on disaster occasions remind us of our common humanity.
Earlier, I briefly mentioned the turmoil and conflict that is prevalent in so many other parts of the world. There have also been inspiring stories. Last week, in conjunction with the launch of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relationships in Plural societies (SRP) programme in RSIS by President Tony Tan, two distinguished foreign speakers, Sheikh Dr Ali Gomaa former Grand Mufti of Egypt, and Archbishop Dr Mouneer Hanna Annis, Bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt, shared how Muslims in their country had not only defended Christian churches there from being attacked by Islamic extremists but also worked together to deliver essential healthcare services to the grassroots. In Singapore’s context, the IRO can complement the SRP by involving our youth in concrete areas of inter-faith collaboration that benefit the community and nation. This is in line with the vision of the founding fathers of the IRO who established it 65 years ago when there were virtually no inter-faith initiatives around. They, together with our Pioneer Generation, have bequeathed us this unique and precious gift of inter-religious harmony in Singapore. I hope that we – and future generations of Singaporeans – will never take it for granted but continue to build on it.
I thank the IRO for having played a major role in initiating interfaith dialogues in the country, and for organising another one today. I look forward to a meaningful evening of fellowship and a constructive exchange of opinions amongst the religious leaders present here today.