Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Inter-Faith Dinner Reception
2 January 2007SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG AT THE INTER-FAITH DINNER RECEPTION, 2 JANUARY 2007, 7.30PM AT SINGAPORE EXPO
Habib Hassan, Imam of Ba’alwi Mosque,
Master Chin Kung, Amitabha Buddhist Society,
Community and Religious Leaders,
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. I am happy to join you tonight for this inter-faith dinner. I wish everyone a Happy New Year, and my Muslim friends, Selamat Hari Raya Aidiladha.
2. The impetus for this event came from Imam Habib Hassan and Master Chin Kung, both of whom have long been actively involved in inter-faith efforts. They reached out to their network of friends, including those from other faiths and inter-faith organisations. Let me also commend the other joint organisers of this event – the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, the Hindu Endowments Board, the Singapore Taoist Federation, and the 14 supporting organisations which cover almost the entire spectrum of faiths in Singapore. The result is this gathering of 2,000 people from Singapore and around the world.
3. Inter-faith dialogue is an important way for people of different religions to engage one another, and build mutual trust and understanding. The roots of such dialogue can be traced back to the late 19th century when the World Parliament of Religions was held in the US. The inter-faith movement has gathered momentum since then, but in recent years it has become increasingly important and relevant.
4. Globalisation has connected us all together more closely than ever before. As religious communities and as nations, our futures are inextricably linked. Along with globalisation has come the worldwide movement of people. All over the world people of different religions live together, in mixed societies. The map of the world cannot be colour-coded based on Christian, Muslim or Hindu identity, but each part of the world is now marbled with the colours and textures of the whole. These trends have made religious relations a pressing issue in many countries.
5. Some people are not comfortable with the idea of inter-faith dialogue and interaction. This is understandable. Different religions may preach similar moral standards and values, but there are very real and distinct differences between the faiths. Furthermore, as religion is a highly personal and spiritual matter, evoking the deepest responses and convictions of a person, these perceived differences can become very emotional and hard to bridge.
6. But in today’s world, we cannot afford to be ignorant of one another, or to have enmities between different faiths. Extremist groups are seizing every advantage to sow distrust and hatred in our communities, especially between Muslims and non-Muslims. They are perverting and abusing religion to radicalise attitudes, justify violence and recruit new members. To root out the stereotypes and prejudices that form the faultlines in a multi-religious society, it is crucial to have a process of dialogue and engagement. Such dialogue is not aimed at achieving agreement, but at building relationship. When we get to know one another, we not only appreciate how others in different religious communities encounter the divine, but also enhance our understanding of our own religions. In the process, we will widen the common ground which we all share together.
7. This is why we launched the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) last year. Under the CEP, we established a National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony for religious leaders to come together, strengthen their bonds of friendship and deepen mutual trust and understanding. The Steering Committee will set new directions for inter-racial and inter-religious cooperation. It will guide the Inter-Racial Confidence Circles or the IRCCs which will focus on activities at the local level where most people-to-people interaction takes place.
8. I urge all religious leaders to support these activities. You can help to create opportunities for interactions among your members in different religious settings, and encourage them to cross boundaries and get to know people of other faiths. We should build these linkages now when conditions are tranquil, and relations are not under stress. Then in times of crises, we will have a strong and resilient network to hold our society together.
9. All the major faiths of the world are present in Singapore. We have different gods, different holy books and patron saints. The rituals governing birth, marriage and death will always remain different. Yet Singapore is neither a Christian country, nor a Buddhist country, nor a Muslim country nor a Hindu country. Instead we are a secular country, where churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are located next to one another, where Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and other faiths have to live side by side, and where all enjoy equal rights under the law, and in real life. In an inter-faith event like this, we can come together to celebrate our differences and share a meal with vegetarian, kosher and halal food on the table.
10. This is a testimony of the strong support for inter-faith cooperation which we have nurtured over the years. It is also a unique and precious achievement. In many countries where people of different faiths live together, religious tensions are commonplace, and inequality is taken for granted. In a troubled world, we have made ourselves an oasis where we can live in peace and harmony together. What we have achieved, very few others have done. We must treasure this and do our best to keep it this way.
11. Preserving the trust and understanding among our different religious communities requires a spirit of give and take. Every religious group will be protected and assured of fair treatment, but no group should press its claims too hard to the exclusion of the others. This is the accommodation that we have come to accept in Singapore. Singaporeans of different faiths have learnt to trust one another, and to accommodate each other’s different customs, traditions and ways of life. We must continue with this pragmatic and responsible approach, and work together as partners for a common cause. Then we can keep our society cohesive, and keep Singapore special and harmonious for many more years to come.