Wednesday, November 8, 2017

LIVING TOGETHER IN GENUINE HARMONY


Sunday mornings used to find me teaching Bible classes in church. That seemed like a lifetime ago. I left when I found my personal belief system and values at odds with the lessons I was conducting in Sunday school. Almost all the major religions claim theirs is the true religion that guarantees salvation for their disciples and followers, but eternal hell and condemnation for all others. They claim too that their religion is the one and only path to God. There are just too many false prophets around trying to convert the naive. I often wonder if all the religious strife in the world today is the result of man's (mis)interpretation of the holy books. I may change my belief systems in future. I don't know. But for now, I believe in universal truths and in the basic goodness that we all have within us.

What triggered my thoughts on this subject was an article published in the Straits Times yesterday (7/Nov/2017) by NUS Prof Tommy Koh who is also Ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore. He touched on the importance of cultural intelligence as one of at least three kinds of intelligence we need to succeed in life. The others are cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence. By cultural intelligence, he means being ready to accept the cultural differences of others in order to make friends and build relationships.

I agree absolutely with him. Diversity is very important to me. I make it a point to seek it in my friends, in my activities and also in my studies. Diversity enriches our experiences, and enhances creativity and innovation. It is sad that in Malaysia today we are seeing a rise in exclusivity, elitism and segregation in our schools and universities, in our workplace and in our social circles. This does not bode well for our future as a nation.


I am also reminded of a National Day speech given by Singapore's PM Lee Hsien Loong in 2009 where he spoke about the risks of religious fervour in a multi-racial society. What he says is applicable to the Malaysian context too. After all, both countries had a shared history for many years. I reproduce excerpts below taken from the Straits Times. You can also follow the speech on Youtube.

"SO WHAT are these risks? Let me just highlight three of them.

Aggressive preaching - proselytisation. You push your own religion on others, you cause nuisance and offence. You have read in the papers recently about a couple who surreptitiously distributed Christian tracts which were offensive of other faiths, not just of non-Christians but even of Catholics. They were charged and sentenced to jail.

But there are less extreme cases too which can cause problems. We hear, from time to time, complaints about groups trying to convert very ill patients in our hospitals, who don't want to be converted, and who don't want to have the private difficult moments in their lives intruded upon.

Intolerance is another problem - not respecting the beliefs of others or not accommodating others who belong to different religions. You think of this one group versus another group, but sometimes it happens within the same family.


Sometimes we have parents from traditional religions whose children have converted. The parents have asked to be buried according to traditional rites and their children stay away from the funeral or the wake. It's very sad. From a traditional point of view, it's the ultimate unfilial act but it does happen occasionally.

Exclusiveness is a third problem - segregating into separate exclusive circles, not integrating with other faiths. That means you mix with your own people. You'll end up as separate communities.


FOUR BASIC RULES

WE can never take our racial and religious harmony for granted. We must observe some basic principles to keep it the way it is.


First, all groups have to exercise tolerance and restraint. Christians cannot expect this to be a Christian society, Muslims cannot expect this to be a Muslim society. Ditto the Buddhists, the Hindus and the other groups. Many faiths share this island. Each has different teachings, different practices. Rules which only apply to one group cannot become laws which are enforced on everyone. So Muslims don't drink alcohol but alcohol is not banned. Ditto gambling, which many religions disapprove of, but gambling is not banned. All have to adopt 'live and let live' as our principle.

Secondly, we have to keep religion separate from politics. The People's Action Party reminds our candidates, don't bring all the friends from your own religious group. Don't mobilise your church or your temple or your mosque to campaign for you. Bring a multi-racial, multi-religious group of supporters. When you are elected, represent the interest of all your constituents, not just your religious group in Parliament. Speak for all your constituents.

Thirdly, the Government has to remain secular. The Government's authority comes from the people. The laws are passed by Parliament which is elected by the people. They don't come from a sacred book. The Government has to be neutral, fair. We are not against religion. We uphold sound moral values. We hold the ring so that all groups can practise their faiths freely without colliding. That's the way Singapore has to be.

You may ask: Does this mean that religious groups have no views, cannot have views on national issues? Or that religious individuals cannot participate in politics? Obviously not.

Religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues. And obviously many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists participate in politics. In Parliament, we have people of all faiths. In the Cabinet too. People who have a religion will often have views which are informed by their religious beliefs. It's natural because it's part of you, it's part of your personality.

But you must accept that other groups may have different views informed by different beliefs and you have to accept that and respect that. The public debate cannot be on whose religion is right and whose religion is wrong. It has to be on secular, rational considerations of public interest - what makes sense for Singapore.

The final requirement for us to live peacefully together is to maintain our common space that all Singaporeans share. It has to be neutral and secular because that's the only way all of us can feel at home in Singapore and at ease.
COMMON SPACES

Sharing meals. We have different food requirements. Muslims need halal food. Hindus don't eat beef. Buddhists sometimes are vegetarian. So if we must serve everybody food which is halal, no beef and vegetarian, I think we will have a problem. We will never eat meals together. So there will be halal food on one side, vegetarian food for those who need it, no beef for those who don't eat beef. Let's share a meal together, acknowledging that we are not the same. Don't discourage people from interacting. Don't make it difficult for us to be one people.

Our schools are another example of common space where all races and religions interact. Even in mission schools run by religious groups, the Ministry of Education has set clear rules, so students of all faiths will feel comfortable. You might ask: Why not allow mission schools to introduce prayers or Bible studies as compulsory parts of the school activity or as part of school assembly? Why not? Then why not let those who are not Christian, or don't want a Christian environment, go to a government school or go to a Buddhist school? Well, if they do that, we'll have Christians in Christian schools, Buddhists in Buddhist schools, Muslims in schools with only Muslim children and so on. I think that is not good for Singapore. Therefore, we have rules to keep all our schools secular and the religious groups understand and accept this.

Another example of common space - work. The office environment should be one which all groups feel comfortable with. Staff have to be confident that they will get equal treatment even if they belong to a different faith from their managers - especially in government departments, but in the private sector too. I think it can be done because even religious community service organisations often have people who don't belong to that religion working comfortably and happily together. This is one very important aspect of our meritocratic society.

THIS is an unusually serious and heavy subject for a National Day Rally. Normally, you talk about babies, hongbaos, bonuses. No bonuses tonight but a bonus lecture on a serious subject. We discussed this in Cabinet at length and decided that I should talk about this. I crafted the points carefully, circulated them many times. Different presentations in Mandarin, Malay and English, because different groups have different concerns, but a consistent message so that there's no misunderstanding.


I also invited the religious leaders to come and spend the evening with us tonight. They can help us to help their flocks understand our limitations, to guide them to practise their faiths, taking into account the context of our society. Please teach them accommodation, which is what all faiths teach. I look forward to all the religious groups continuing to do a lot of good work for Singapore for many years to come.

So let us rejoice in our harmony but let us never forget what being a Singaporean means. It's not just tolerating other groups but opening our hearts to all our fellow citizens.

OUR FUTURE
IF WE stay cohesive, then we can overcome our economic challenges and continue to grow. This is how we've transformed Singapore over the last half century - solving problems together, growing together, improving our lives. From the Singapore River to Marina Bay, we've totally transformed Singapore over the last half century. 1959 was a moment of great change but nobody at the Padang in June 1959 imagined the change in today's Singapore. We will continue to improve our lives, provided we work together and remain a harmonious and a cohesive society so that in another 50 years, we would have built another Singapore, which is equally unimaginable today.

The key is to stay united through rain or shine. To live peacefully together, we need good sense and tolerance on all sides, and a willingness to give and take. Otherwise, whatever the rules there will be no end of possible causes of friction."



With the elections looming, it is open season for political campaigners to start their rabble rousing. There will be the loose cannons ever ready to shoot incendiary rhetoric from their mouths without a thought about the damage they are inflicting on our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. There is never a more urgent time to embrace unity in diversity than now.

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