SINGAPORE: The rise in terror attacks and religiously-motivated hate crimes has increased divisions in societies around the globe. Here in Singapore, have they widened fault-lines too and affected how we view each other’s religious communities?
This is what a new Channel NewsAsia documentary seeks to find out. Broaching new controversial ground, the one-hour programme – which airs Monday (Aug 14) at 8pm (watch the full episode online here) – asks if Singaporeans are as resilient as they think they are, and what it will take to stay united – in the words of the pledge, regardless of religion.
It features candid conversations between presenter Dr Janil Puthucheary, and everyday people of different faiths – including university students of different faiths, religious leaders and the man on the street.
In a first, the programme also spills over into a virtual reality experience, with members of the public invited to step into the shoes of someone who is being discriminated against.
One of the most significant and moving moments in the documentary for Dr Puthucheary – who chairs Onepeople.sg, a national body that promotes racial and religious harmony – is an interview with the madrasah students, who describe how differently they are viewed with the recent rise of extremist attacks in the world.
Said Dr Puthucheary: “What really should be quite a disturbing interaction, they described it as normal. That was quite worrying, and I felt bad on their behalf. We have to seriously look at (this issue).”
HAS RELIGIOUS HARMONY DECLINED?
The documentary follows last year’s ground-breaking special, Regardless of Race, which took an unprecedented look at what is often regarded as the taboo topic of racial prejudice and privilege in Singapore. (Read about it or watch the clips here.)
Dr Puthucheary, who also presented that documentary, noted how the participants this time round seemed less outspoken.
“While many acknowledged the problem and issue (of religious prejudices), they were more cautious about suggesting changes or intervention… compared to the last time when the participants were more willing to take risks,” he said.
This really speaks about the sensitivities of religion compared to race.
The documentary Regardless of Religion features several social experiments conducted with participants from different faiths.
In one of these, respondents were asked if religious harmony in Singapore had improved or deteriorated compared to 10 years ago, and whether terrorism has affected how they see each other.
Watch: The social experiment (1:48)
Ms Jeanine Lim felt it had worsened, due to the spread of extremism worldwide, while Ms Nanthinie Ramdas cited the pervasiveness of social media today as contributing to terrorism being stereotyped and religious tensions.
WHY HAVE THIS CONVERSATION
In another experiment, participants were shown different statements about terror attacks made by politicians and media around the world, and asked which they found offensive. The differences in responses between Muslims and non-Muslims was telling.
Separately, a look at some of Google’s most-searched questions about religion in Singapore threw up a concern about religious illiteracy, which could easily breed misunderstanding and distrust.
Senior executive producer of the documentary Sharon Hun acknowledged that while religion is a potentially divisive and explosive topic, it was important to discuss whether terror activities elsewhere had created fault lines here, she said.
“In Singapore, we do have a lot dialogue going on but is that enough? We want a more constructive dialogue about what more can be done,” she said.
“We don’t have a terror attack here yet, but, we can’t address this (issue) only after a terror attack; we’d be too emotional to talk about it.”
"WE NEED TO BE AWARE OF OUR BIAS"
In conjunction with the documentary, a virtual reality experience is also being made open to the public. To get a taste of what it is like to be a target of bias, they can head down to Ang Mo Kio Hub (in front of McDonald’s) from Aug 14 to 20. Admission is free.
Dr Puthucheary hopes that through this documentary, people will come to appreciate how some of their behaviours are causing distress and discomfort to others.
“Many of the things that we show in this film is about the interaction, the engagement, the understanding, and the acceptance between people from different religions.
“I think we need to be both active and pro-active in dealing with these issues that people will usually walk away from. We need to be aware of our bias.
“And I hope that when we open up about this subject, more people and groups will become familiar with it, and step up and make it happen,” he said.
Regardless of Religion premieres on Channel NewsAsia on Aug 14 at 8pm, as part of the CNA Signatures belt of innovative programmes. Watch it online here.