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1. First, let me extend a warm welcome to the scholars and other invited guests to Singapore for this International Conference on Muslims in Multicultural Societies.

Rising multiculturalism
2. Throughout history, great civilisations and communities have always reached out to others. Through trading routes and networks such as the Silk Road, civilisations like China, India, Egypt, Persia, and Arabia flourished with the flow of ideas and commerce. Today, the metaphorical Silk Road has been replaced by countless silk threads interwoven into a global whole. It is not just products and ideas that are criss-crossing the globe, but also people, including economic migrants in search of jobs and a better life. As a consequence, multicultural societies are increasingly becoming the norm all over the world.

3. This diversity in beliefs presents societies with new challenges. Achieving social harmony in a multicultural society requires active management. Take the experience of European countries for example. They experienced a large influx of Muslim immigrants who arrived during the economic boom after the Second World War. Just last week, the Swiss President told me that within the last decade or so, the number of Muslims in Switzerland grew 10-fold from about 40,000 to 400,000. Initially, it was believed that these immigrants into Europe would be naturally socialised and hence gradually take on European values and ways of life. While many of them did pick up new languages and some aspects of European culture, many amongst the second or subsequent generations, continue to maintain and protect their distinct identities. This is not unique to Muslim communities. But their size and distinctiveness have led to unease and misunderstanding. So the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the building of minarets while the French government had banned the wearing of burqas in public places. European leaders now realise that they need to re-examine their approach towards the Muslim minorities in their societies.

4. This soul searching also extends to the Muslim minorities in those countries. They are grappling with how they can co-exist with the non-Muslim majority without losing their cultural and religious identity. Today’s conference is therefore very timely as it serves as a platform for Muslim and other communities from different countries to share their experience of embracing diversity and forging a harmonious multicultural society.

Singapore’s context
5. Not being a scholar, let alone a religious one, I will not presume to lecture on what followers of religions should or should not do to live as minorities in multicultural societies. Instead, I shall take a practical rather than a philosophical or ideological approach. I want to share with you how Singapore builds trust and religious harmony between the different communities. In doing so, I add that Singapore is open to learning from others as well.

6. For Singapore, multiculturalism was what we were blessed with at our independence in 1965. We were approximately 75% Chinese, 14% Malays, and the remaining 11% Indians and others. All the major religions in the world were also present here. As we took in immigrants from other parts of the world, our languages and religious beliefs became even more diverse. We are therefore extremely conscious that racial and religious fault lines could be exploited and passions inflamed, sometimes by external sources and events which had nothing to do with our domestic situation. This is not hypothetical. Racial and religious fault lines were exploited, and politically motivated violent riots in fact took place in the 1960s in Singapore. Many of us who witnessed the bloodshed then were determined to prevent such clashes from ever happening again in Singapore.

7. Ours is a secular society. This allows us to treat all religions equally and no one religion is regarded by the state as superior to another. To ensure religious harmony, the attitudes and roles played by the Muslim minority, the 75 percent Chinese majority, and the government are very important.

Role of Muslim minority
8. Let me illustrate with the critical contribution made by our Muslim minority. Our Muslim community understands and appreciates that Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious country with a common and secular space for all. The challenge is in contextualising and adjusting some of their religious practices according to their unique circumstances in Singapore.

9. As you know, Singapore, being a city state, is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. With people living in high-rise apartments and in close proximity, the call of prayer or azan amplified through loudspeakers at mosques during the early dawn or in the evening had to be modified. If not, it would have been an issue with the majority non-Muslims and would make it difficult for them to accept the building of new mosques in their vicinity.

10. At the same time, the Muslims had to be convinced that any changes to their public call for prayer were not aimed at curbing the practice of their religion. The changes were also made incrementally. First, the loudspeakers were tilted inwards and away from nearby houses, and limits were set on their volume levels. Later, a radio frequency was allocated to allow the call to prayer to be broadcast over the radio. In this way, all Muslims who wished to receive the call to prayer could just tune in to their radio. Over time, the mosques did away with loudspeakers. This showed the pragmatism of our Muslims and their sensitivity to the feelings of non-Muslims.

11. Other religions too have had to make adjustments. For example, the Taoists in Singapore had a long-standing practice of burning giant joss or incense sticks during their festival celebrations, not only in temples but also in the open. These joss sticks would burn for hours. However, because of our high-density living, the smoke from them caused irritation to a large number of people, many of whom were not Taoists. As a compromise, the Taoists agreed to limit the number and size of joss sticks and confine them mostly to temples.

Role of non-Muslim majority
12. It takes two hands to clap. So beyond what the Muslim community in Singapore could do to contribute to religious harmony, the attitude and role of the non-Muslim majority, in particular the Chinese, are also important. Their actions set the tone and provide an affirmation of the trust and respect needed to establish peace and harmony. If the majority uses its dominance to over-ride the interests of the minorities, we would not enjoy the social cohesiveness that we have today. Fortunately, our non-Muslim majority is tolerant and accommodative.

13. This spirit of acceptance is reflected in the many little accommodations made in our day-to-day lives. To illustrate, most non-Muslim Singaporeans are sensitive to the dietary requirements of their Muslim colleagues. So halal food is made available at functions or events involving Muslims. Non-Muslim employers also accommodate and allow Muslim men the time-off needed to attend weekly Friday prayers. When a Muslim employee intends to go on a Hajj pilgrimage, as every Muslim tries to do at least once in their lifetime, many non-Muslim employers and their colleagues make the necessary arrangements at the workplace to enable them to go on long leave. Such an understanding outlook by the non-Muslim majority is a major contributing factor to our social cohesiveness.

Role of government
14. Finally, the role of government is crucial.

Promoting dialogue and interfaith understanding
15. I believe that we must start by opening hearts and minds through sincere dialogue. In 2007, MUIS and the Diocese of Singapore jointly invited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to speak in Singapore at a Building Bridges Conference. During his lecture, he shared that the world can construct a new and more inclusive history by first accepting our religious diversity through dialogue. This does not mean we should ignore sources of tension in our pursuit to weave a cohesive society of diverse communities. Indeed, it suggests the opposite; we must face these tensions in open dialogue with an abundance of fairness, mutual respect and restraint.

16. To strengthen inter-faith understanding and to strengthen our networks of trust, we formed the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony, where apex religious leaders come together to discuss significant issues which impact communal relations. Beyond the religious leaders, followers and members of each religious community must also learn to work with other communities to build a strong bond. This creates a multiplier effect beyond the first-tier of leadership, connecting the ethnic and religious communities and providing opportunities for co-operation.

17. We have also set up Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) at the grassroots level to provide a platform for confidence building and developing deeper friendship and trust between communities. While similar platforms exist in many parts of the world, our IRCCs are unique in that they include almost every religious and ethnic leader in the communities. This ensures that the dialogue that takes place is inclusive, and does not only involve people who already believe in inter-faith dialogue.

18. I believe that having fair and balanced interfaith communication through such visible platforms has helped set the tone on the ground. For example, when the anti-Islam video Fitna was released in March 2007 by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Muslims in Singapore reacted calmly to the film despite being deeply offended. The non-Muslim public also rejected the views contained in the video and more importantly stepped up to make their stand known. The measured response and mutual respect are indeed exemplary steps towards overcoming the challenge of religious diversity.

Ensuring secular common space
19. Second, because we are a multi-religious society, we must ensure that we have secular common space where Singaporeans can feel comfortable whatever their beliefs. Our schools, our workplaces, our hospitals, our community clubs, for example, are all places where any person can expect to be treated in the same way regardless of his or her religion. Organisations that receive government funding or enjoy double tax deduction donations must similarly ensure that nobody is denied services due to his beliefs, and that no proselytisation occurs without explicit consent. By keeping religion out of the public square, we make it safe for everyone to congregate. This creates opportunities for interaction, mutual understanding and accommodation.

Holding the ring
20. Third, the government must be even-handed so as to be trusted to hold the ring if conflicts arise. We have enacted the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which enables the Minister for Home Affairs to restrain any person from causing ill feelings between the different religious groups. It signals the seriousness with which we view religious harmony and how fragile it could be. The Act is there to be used as a last resort, and fortunately, we have not had to invoke it throughout its 21-year history.

21. Despite our best efforts, tensions can still boil into the open from time to time. Religious fervour is rising here in Singapore, as it has all over the world with all faiths. Just this year alone, several incidents here have hit the headlines. For example, there were reports of Church youths evangelising to unaccompanied children at playgrounds. There were also cases of Church Pastors trivialising and belittling Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. All these naturally caused great annoyance and potential tension. In one case, after our Internal Security Department intervened, the Pastor apologised for the offence he had caused. In other cases, the churches and Pastors responsible, on their own, also regretted the incidents, apologised for causing offence, counselled their young members and explained the guidelines of evangelism to their congregations. These go a long way to defuse the tension and avert potential conflict.

22. Singapore’s religious harmony is the result of continuous and conscious effort with various stakeholders playing critical roles. At a personal level, Singaporeans of all faiths must continue to show tolerance and understanding, and adopt a live-and-let-live approach to life. In addition, Singaporeans must remain vigilant of disparaging remarks, or divisive or radicalised ideas by religious leaders. Followers have a social duty to speak out against those who hold offensive views towards other religions or communities. It is only through such swift and categorical rebuttals that people from other religions can be reassured that the offensive views are not held by the religion’s mainstream members.

23. In conclusion, we must accept that religious pluralism will increasingly be the norm of the modern world. The challenge faced by Muslim leaders and scholars is especially acute because many of them receive their theological training and inspiration from countries where Islam is dominant, and where adaptation of Muslim practices to suit a multicultural society is given less emphasis. For this reason, I commend MUIS for organising this conference with the Oxford University, the Department of Malay Studies in NUS, and the National Centre for Excellence for Islamic Studies in the University of Melbourne. We are fortunate to have with us distinguished scholars from a range of backgrounds whom we can learn a great deal from. I would like to congratulate the organisers for the vision and timeliness of this conference, and I wish all speakers and participants a fruitful exchange of views over the next two days.

Thank you

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