SINGAPORE: The growing diversity in Singapore means common spaces here will be harder to maintain and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Friday (Jun 21) at an international interfaith forum.
His speech brought the four-day International Conference on Cohesive Societies to a close. It was attended by about 1,000 delegates from nearly 40 countries.
Mr Heng touched on how Singapore has sought to build cohesion over the years in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
He highlighted the policy that ensures public housing estates have a balanced mix of ethnic groups, the introduction of common spaces such as hawker centres and community centres, the importance of shared experiences such as National Service, as well as the effort to conserve cultural and religious landmarks.
"But like most other countries, our demography is evolving. Life experiences and needs are also more varied. So Singapore is more diverse today than before," he told the audience.
"Our increasing diversity means that our common spaces will be harder to maintain, and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded."
Racial and religious demographics are changing, Mr Heng added, pointing out that homogeneity of religion within ethnic groups is on the decline in Singapore. There are also more interfaith families here, leading to each generation possibly holding different religious beliefs.
A fifth of marriages here are between people of different ethnic groups, and a similar proportion of Singaporeans do not identify with a religion, he added.
“As our racial and religious demographics shift, so too, must our approach to building bridges and encouraging discourse,” said Mr Heng. "We should use this opportunity to deepen mutual understanding."
Another way to promote cohesion is to address social inequality to better distribute the fruits of economic growth, he said.
THE ROLE OF YOUNG PEOPLE
The conference, an inaugural effort organised by S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, reached out to the “next generation of leaders” through the Young Leaders’ Programme (YLP), he said.
In a dialogue following his speech, which was moderated by ambassador Ong Keng Yong the executive deputy chairman at RSIS, Mr Heng elaborated on the role young people should play.
As the generation that will be inheriting the future, young people should be shaping it, he said, adding that diversity can be a strength if properly harnessed.
There are good initiatives by young people to promote harmony currently, and these are efforts should continue and grow, he said. He added that it is “very important” for young people to take a stand against extreme and intolerant views.
While it is easy to sow discord by representing religions in negative light, or picking on negative aspects, this can be combated by spreading constructive and positive messages online, he said.
“I hope our young people in particular, who are digital natives, will go out and rebut these falsehoods, or erroneous views which are being spread, and our social media space can become a constructive space,” Mr Heng added.
DEMOCRACY OF DEEDS
Apart from young people, every one has a part to play, he said, referencing the concept of “democracy of deeds”.
Mr Heng had also touched on the concept, first introduced by Singapore’s first foreign affairs minister S Rajaratnam, at a recent REACH-CNA dialogue session on how the country's fourth generation of leaders intends to have a new social compact with its citizens.
When asked to expand on the concept on Friday, Mr Heng said that democracy was not only about free speech and being free to talk about views.
“More fundamentally it’s about what each and every one us in our society can do,” he said.
On the topic of harmony, he said that every one, in their circle of friends, contacts and daily work environment can promote racial and religious harmony by helping people understand better, and having the courage to correct those who espouse the “wrong” views.
Giving an example of how the democracy of deeds works, Mr Heng said some Muslim residents in his ward, a family who used to own a restaurant, would invite people from the neighbourhood to celebrate Hari Raya every year.
They would erect a tent out their ground-floor home for the occasion, and Mr Heng, who has attended some of these gatherings, said it was a wonderful occasion.
“It’s about what we do, not just what other people do, and how can I play a part,” he said.
Mr Heng also spoke about how young people at a pre-university seminar had raised to him their concerns that disadvantaged students in schools are not coping as well as others. He had suggested to them that students from higher levels could help younger students for 10 min a day to make a difference, another example of democracy of deeds.
In rounding up the dialogue, Mr Heng said it is very important for people in Singapore to understand the global context they are operating in, in order to understand the major forces that are shaping societies around the world.
He urged them to stay cohesive.
“I hope that through this conference, you all continue to build a community that believes deeply in harmony, that believes deeply in treating all people regardless of race, language religion or beliefs as equals, with respect and that we build trust and understanding within Singapore and across the world,” he said.