With forces like religious radicalisation and growing diversity posing a risk to Singapore's hard-won social cohesion, the work of building mutual trust between communities must not let up, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.
Recent riots in American cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, show how "the breakdown of trust between communities has led to conflict", he said at the biennial Community Engagement Programme (CEP) dialogue yesterday.
Speaking to an audience of students and community leaders, he said there are people here attempting to incite racial and religious unhappiness, citing online comments around the arrests of three men during the Thaipusam procession earlier this year.
"Some irresponsible persons tried to stir racial and religious sensitivities by spreading falsehoods and rumours online and offline. They made use of something that had happened and stirred things up," he said.
"Even though we live in peace and harmony with each other, never for one moment believe that the issues of race and religion will disappear and go away."
The CEP is a long-standing Government programme to build resilience and social harmony by involving community groups in crisis response plans.
Yesterday's dialogue, held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, was also attended by Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong and Second Minister for Home and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.
During his opening speech, Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, pointed to three forces: An open cyberspace, a resurgence of religious radicalisation and violence, and a growing diversity in Singapore.
They could potentially disrupt social cohesion and communal harmony, he said.
According to the Pew Research Centre, Singapore is now the most religiously diverse country in the world. There are now "new groups who can press their point of view vigorously and sometimes intemperately", noted Mr Teo.
He proposed two ways to meet these challenges. First, communities must build and sustain trust among one another, which can be done through raising youth awareness as well as continuing to promote inclusivity and meritocracy in the workplace.
Second, Singaporeans must strengthen their social resilience and their ability to respond "the day after".
This refers to the social aftermath of a terrorist attack, which experts say can often be more damaging for a society than the attack itself.
The Australians' response to the terrorist attack in Sydney last December, when 150,000 showed their solidarity with the Muslim community though the #Illridewithyou Twitter hashtag, was an example that Singaporeans should learn from, he said.
"Similarly, if an incident were to happen in Singapore, we must pull together as one people, one community and one Singapore.
"This is something we must reflect upon and prepare ourselves psychologically for," he said.
In a later session, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) president Mohammad Alami Musa urged Singaporeans to feel that the religions of others are valuable, in order to ensure that the country does not become more vulnerable to disharmony.
Deepening engagement with other religions will not weaken one's commitment to one's own religion, he said.
"I do not need to hate all other women to love my wife, whom I am happily married to for the last 36 years," he quipped as an analogy.
Pioneer Junior College student Lim Yang Lu Regan Edberine, 18, one of the CEP's student leaders, said she shared this sentiment.
"We should recognise our differences, then understand and appreciate those differences, because what makes Singapore special is its diversity," she said.
This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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