A life dedicated to fostering harmony

Mr Bernard Chiang, 64, chairman of Braddell Heights Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circle, at the void deck of Block 5, Lorong Lew Lian, where he had mediated between a Chinese family holding a wake and a Malay family hosting a wedding ceremony back in 1990.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

At one corner of the grubby void deck at Block 5, Lorong Lew Lian, a festive mood hung over a modestly decorated Malay wedding ceremony, where guests were about to be welcomed. At the other end, a grieving Chinese family had just received a coffin bearing their beloved.

And caught in the middle, Mr Bernard Chiang, a youthful-looking and somewhat unlikely mediator - with his thick black hair fashionably combed over and back - attempted to defuse a likely fracas.

That was in 1990, when a wedding and a wake were held at the same void deck of a Housing Board block.

For Mr Chiang, who was then 39 and chairman of Braddell Heights Zone B Residents' Committee (RC), it was a delicate situation.

The bride's family had booked the void deck space several months ahead and had already sent out the wedding invitations.

Meanwhile, the Chinese mourners, who were Buddhists, did not feel comfortable moving the casket away from the block where the dead relative had resided.

"It was a sensitive case, and I didn't want to be seen taking sides," said the bespectacled Mr Chiang, who asked a Malay RC member to accompany him. A suggestion for one party to move to the next block was raised, but both families refused.

After a tense and jittery hour shuttling between both sides to explain the situation, Mr Chiang eventually convinced the grieving family to use a piece of green canvas to partition the wake from the wedding.

The unusual incident stuck with Mr Chiang, now 64, and later prompted him to join the Braddell Heights Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC), where he has been chairman for the past decade. The IRCCs, found in every constituency, are created to foster racial and religious harmony.

As an IRCC chairman, Mr Chiang, who is a free-thinker, has managed to get religious organisations to build friendships and contribute to the needy within the constituency.

For his efforts, Mr Chiang, a florist for over three decades, was one of three individuals who received the IRCC Colours Award from Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong at its inaugural Awards Night last month.

The Colours Award - one of three categories of IRCC awards - recognises members who have made significant contributions to inter-racial and religious harmony.

While proud of the win, Mr Chiang noted that "there will be pressure to keep up the standard".

After all, having lived through the 1960s racial riots as a teenager, he knows first-hand the fragility of such relations. Then, his family lived in a kampung of Chinese families and one Malay household.

"Even though the Malay family was surrounded by the Chinese, they were not harmed. We took care of one another," said Mr Chiang.

His initial few years as the constituency's IRCC chairman were tough, as he had to convince religious organisations, which largely kept to their own circles, to build closer relations. Now, his committee includes representatives from organisations within and outside the constituency such as the Ramakrishna Mission and the Al-Istiqamah Mosque.

"We have slowly built up relations, and now we can openly talk about religion," said Mr Chiang, adding that representatives from different groups have supported one another's events.

Through his work, Mr Chiang, who spends two days a week on IRCC matters and meets regularly with the various religious leaders, also helped two groups to solve traffic woes and illegal-parking problems during peak worship periods.

Bartley Christian Church, which completed a building upgrade in 2009, constructed additional carpark spaces to be shared with Ramakrishna Mission, which is located next door. In return, the mission opened its carpark for church worshippers every Sunday. The church has about 1,500 worshippers across several services on Sundays.

Mr Kenneth Teo, a pastor at the church for 16 years, said: "We are neighbours, and we have to work together." The 52-year-old noted that Mr Chiang has built a strong rapport with the religious groups and brought them closer. "He is a humble and approachable guy, and we enjoy working with him."

Among the issues Mr Chiang now comes across are corridor clutter and religious practices like incense paper being blown into flats.

Mr Chiang is married with a daughter, 35, and a son, 31, and is a grandfather of two. He lives with his wife and son in a five-room flat in Serangoon Central and works at a family-run flower shop at Block 2, Lorong Lew Lian.

For decades, the shop, a five- minute walk from his home, has served customers including temples and churches, and Mr Chiang believes it gives him the opportunity to meet people of different faiths and races. "Sometimes, people stop by my shop not to buy flowers, but to see me for issues they face."

While inter-racial and religious relations have blossomed over the years, Mr Chiang noted that with the Internet, youth are increasingly vulnerable to being radicalised.

"It is worrying. We need to engage and remind our young of the tumultuous years," he said.

Mr Chiang's latest initiatives are aimed at engaging young people via activities such as dialogues and sports tournaments. In the last few years, he has roped in school principals and youngsters to be part of the IRCC committee to plan events.

Mr Chiang said: "The journey to peace is long and painful, and shouldn't be taken for granted."


This article was first published on Aug 17, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.