PM: Religious harmony can't be taken for granted

SINGAPORE'S strong religious harmony today has led some people to declare that religion is no longer a "sensitive no-go area", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Those who hold this view argue that Singapore society is overly sensitive on matters of race and religion, that the Government intervenes too readily to limit personal freedoms and liberty in the name of harmony, and that there should be "unfettered discussions or even criticisms and blasphemies on matters of race and religion", he said.

These assumptions, however, are "quite unrealistic", he said.

Mr Lee was speaking at the 66th anniversary dinner of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), an inter-faith group that he credited with helping to forge unity and harmony among religious groups. Citing internal and external developments, he said they show Singapore cannot afford to take its harmony for granted, and the Government must continue to be "watchful, prudent and hands-on" in its approach to matters of race and religion.

At home, three trends can affect religious harmony.

One is that Singaporeans are becoming more religious. "This is in itself positive, because religious faiths are strong anchors for good morals and caring communities," he said. But religious fervour can also lead to communities becoming more insular and less accepting.

"So we must temper growing religiosity with greater tolerance, mutual understanding and respect."

A second trend is the rise of the Internet and social media, making it easier for people to cause offence and take offence.

One thoughtless comment, if it goes viral, "may provoke a self-righteous mob reaction and a public lynching, which is even worse than the original provocation", he said.

Third, religious topics will, on occasion, overlap with social and moral ones, like in the case of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues or income inequality.

Such contentious issues are also the subject of public or social policy and consensus on these points will be "elusive", he said.

Abroad, Mr Lee noted that race and religion remain sensitive issues for both Singapore's neighbours and countries where different groups have lived together for centuries.

He cited tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians, and the violence resulting from the deaths of several black youths in the United States. Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world, according to US-based think-tank Pew Research Centre.

This did not happen by chance, but "because we have firmly prevented conflicts from escalating and polarising society", Mr Lee said at the dinner, which was attended by leaders from 10 major religions as well as President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Singapore also has had responsible and enlightened religious leaders, said Mr Lee, who praised them for focusing on the common features across religions. To maintain harmony, the Government also has to remain neutral, secular and pragmatic, he said.

It cannot afford to take purist positions on freedom of expression, or the right to be offensive to others, he said.

"We will not hesitate to act firmly when necessary because if conflict erupts, it will cause grave damage to our social fabric."

This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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