EVEN as Hindus in Singapore celebrated Deepavali yesterday, the ominous winds of intolerance and prejudice were blowing around the world, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
That is why people everywhere, especially in Singapore, must learn to fight those dark forces and forge societies based on mutual understanding and openness, he said.
Wishing all Hindus a happy Deepavali in a Facebook post, Mr Tharman, who was in Beijing at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Finance Ministers' Meeting, took the chance to reflect on the deeper meaning of the occasion.
He said Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, celebrates the "triumph of the light of learning and understanding over the darkness of ignorance and bigotry".
Unfortunately, the winds are blowing the other way today, with a rise in religious and ethnic tensions and conflicts around the world, he said.
"The headlines are about the Middle East - the growth of Islamist aggression against the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis, in defiance of the long history of Muslim civilisation that was, in fact, relatively free of the persecutions and holocausts that marked other civilisations; the surge in Sunni-Shia rivalry within the Muslim world; and the denial of Palestinian rights to co-existence," he noted.
And there are problems elsewhere too, said Mr Tharman, such as the continuing rise of the religious right in Hinduism and Christianity, as well as discrimination against minorities and the rise of ethnic nationalism in parts of Europe and Asia.
These problems are likely to worsen and last many years before they get better, he warned, adding: "We cannot just hope for a better world."
Instead, leadership, not just internationally but also in "each of our societies", is required to fight the problems, he said. And people would also have to muster their "collective will" through watching their everyday actions.
Mr Tharman urged Singaporeans to keep Singapore a place where tolerance is a part of everyday life. More than that, there should also be give and take, so people can live easily with one another and children can grow up with friends of other races and religion, he said.
"We must be a society founded on open-mindedness, empathy and understanding of each other," he said. "There is more to be done so that we remain a peaceful place, and a place where the flame of (the) human spirit stays alive."
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