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Fostering closer inter-religious ties has to be an effort by all: Shanmugam

Fostering closer inter-religious ties has to be an effort by all: Shanmugam
Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam was speaking about the roles that the government and community have to play in trying to bring Singaporeans of other religions and races together. TODAY File Photo

Fostering closer inter-religious ties has to be an effort by all: Shanmugam

It is important to avoid linking any particular religion with extremism, said Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam, adding that governments around the world have to guard against attempts by terrorist groups to sow deep divisions and Islamophobia within society. Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, made this point on Friday (Oct 13) when opening an international conference on the role of Muslim non-government organisations in promoting a culture of peace. Below is an excerpt of the speech by Mr Shanmugam, in which he also spoke about the roles that the government and community have to play in trying to bring Singaporeans of other religions and races together.

 

We live in troubled times. It has been the case for some years now.

Extremism is spreading in many parts of the world. Technology has been a big enabler in improving our lives, but it has also helped people who want to commit a variety of things, not just religious extremism, but also ethnic extremism, cybercrime.

In every way, new challenges have been brought about by technology, while it has greatly improved the lives of a very large number of people.

Most people are tolerant, most people believe in accomodation, but a small minority today hold the rest of us hostage. The Secretary General of Muslim World League made a point, that only one per cent of Muslims around the world are perceived to be extremists. Compared with the population of Muslims around the world, that is nothing. There are 220 million Muslims in Indonesia alone.

So likewise, I think we have to also get away from the idea of linking any particular religion with extremism.

The high profile nature of the attacks in the last few years linked with terrorists who do it in the name of Islam has created this mindset amongst a lot of people associating Islam with terrorism.

I think it is really important that Governments both here and in the developed world, Asia as well as in Europe and elsewhere, take an active part in dispelling that, because that is precisely what the terrorists want. They want to make a division between Muslims and non-Muslims.

And we have to bridge that, prevent that, and make the point that they are a small minority.

If the terrorists succeed, then they also succeed in not only sowing deep divisions within society, they will succeed in sowing Islamophobia amongst the mainstream. And that is a very serious issue that we really have to guard against.

The Singapore Government, I, as well as others, have repeatedly spoken about it. We repeat it because it is a critical message, because acts of Islamophobia, xenophobic bigotry, will serve to widen the gap in society.

You have the Finsbury Park attack in June of this year, a person taking a car and attacking people outside a mosque in retaliation for the London bridge attacks. Incidents like these play into the hands of terrorists.

Acts of fear and hatred will only increase. The cycle of violence will increase if we do not break it and if we do not actively work to break it.

ENSURING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

We have to build trust between different communities. Multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity and peace between religions do not come by themselves. It is the duty of Governments, it is the duty of communities, the duty of religious leaders to actively work for it. It is a constant work in progress.

If you look at it, at its most basic, what do people want, what do communities want?

They want to be successful. Most people define success in the external world, for example your career, what you have achieved.

But that is not going to be possible, unless internally you are confident. And for you to be internally confident, you have to have that access and strength and self-confidence in your own culture.

For many of us, religion is an inextricable part of our culture. I do not say therefore religion is essential, it is up to each individual, but for many, religion is a core part.

Societies have to make sure that every individual is able to practise his or her religion, religious freedom, worship, be it one per cent of the population or 10 per cent of the population.

You have to have that religious freedom, and the state must guarantee that. If we are confident in our own culture, in our own individual identities, within a larger entity, that then gives us a base to go out and succeed in the outer world as well.

The trouble is some of the teachings today, I will use the metaphor of a tent.

They try and put a tent and keep you inside, and not exist in the outer world.

So this is your religion, this is your culture, stay within it and that is how you should be. And some of the teachings and interpretations of the teachings try and keep you hemmed in, rather than allow you to succeed in the broader world, in the outer world.

It should be a formulation for you to soar, not attempt to keep you in.

If you look at this region, there are many countries which try and take that approach, but we do run the risk today, with the extremism that we are seeing, or the possibility that in US, in Europe, even in Asia, of people, non-Muslims, automatically associating extremism with Islam.

And there are risks to all of us for that.

I think Muslim communities, whether minority or majority, have a particular role in trying to rebut that, to try to put forward the right approach and the right interpretation, to reassure both themselves and the moderates as well as the other non-Muslim communities.

And the non-Muslim communities have an absolute duty to stamp out xenophobia, stamp out Islamophobia, and reach out across to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

COMMUNITY HAS A ROLE

In this context, we heard some remarks from one of the speakers that he has never heard anyone in Singapore say anything bad about another religion. It’s not just out of human kindness and goodness – there are laws in Singapore.

I believe that human beings are innately good, but you also need a framework of laws to make sure that the people of the extremes don’t go outside of it.

In some countries you can draw cartoons of the Prophet. The magazine Charlie Hebdo used to publish all sorts of cartoons of Jesus Christ, as well as Catholic nuns masturbating. They can do all of that in the name of freedom of speech, they can have cartoons of the Prophet.

In Singapore, you can’t have that. Not only that, if you suggest some statement that Muslims are terrorists, or Christians are like this, or Jews are like this, my internal security people will come and talk to you straightaway.

If you try to burn the Quran, or the Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, which you can in some countries outside of Singapore, if you try to do that in Singapore, you will be arrested straightaway, no questions. And you will have no doubt that you will be arrested, and you will spend some time in jail.

That framework helps so people understand, and they are careful, but we don’t stop there, because the laws cannot create positive feelings. They can prevent negative actions, but to create a positive community, you need to go beyond.

I’ve said this many times, we are a very activist government. 90-95 per cent of Singaporeans own their own homes. They live in homes which they own, but 80 per cent of that is public housing.

The Singapore Government tells you where you can live, where you cannot live in a sense. We have a requirement that the percentages of the different ethnic communities must not fall below a certain minimum in every housing estate.

So you don’t have housing estates entirely of a certain community, like you can have in a free-selection basis.

When 74 per cent of the population is Chinese, 15 per cent is Malay, 8 per cent is Indian, you can imagine enclaves being created. Enclaves are created in most countries, but we worked against that.

This causes unhappiness because some communities, some ethnic groups are able to pay more than others, but we intervene in the free market. Schools are integrated, National Service puts men, or our boys at age 18, together, and a whole variety of other policies.

It is not an accident because for more than 25 years, in fact I would say throughout our history of 50 years, we have been trying to bring religions together, and create inter-racial confidence circles in every community, with religious leaders in every single constituency.

Every Member of Parliament has a job to make sure the religious leaders in his constituency come together, so that if there is any kind of violence, the religious leaders will give the guidance and speak up against it. This has to be ground-up, but the Government has to work actively at it.

The Government has a very active role, but it is also something that NGOs, community leaders, religious leaders, everyone, has got to come together.

It can’t just be done by the Government.

It cannot be done without the Government, but it has to be done by all of us in partnership.

LIVING WITH EACH OTHER

How do we be both true to our religion, and at the same time be able to interact equally and economically successfully with the rest of the community. What do I mean? Earlier this year we charged an imam.

He was in his mosque for Friday prayers, and he had read out the Quran, which is not an issue.

Then he had some other sermon that the central religious authority set out, which is not an issue. And then he added some verses of his own, which I don’t think he understood, because he told me he didn’t understand.

But it was something that he had been taught, which basically asked for victory for Muslims over Jews and Christians. And it was in prayer, somebody took a video and circulated it, and it went viral.

We looked at it, and we were told there is no such phrase in the Quran. The Quran doesn’t ask for God to give Muslims victory over Jews and Christians.

We had to think about this, and the example I give to my people is, if you look at the Bible, there are also many passages. Of course at the time the Bible came out, there was no Islam, so it just talked about believers and non-believers. And there are passages there that invites Christians to go out and kill non-believers.

So if on the one side in the mosque, we have Islamic scholars asking for God to give victory over Christians, and on the other side in churches, and there are more Christians than Muslims in Singapore, we have got bishops asking for God to give Christians victory over non-Christians, what kind of society will we be creating?

Doesn’t the teachings have to be contextualised to a modern environment, where first of all, at least in Islam, there is no such text so there is only an incantation. In the bible, there is such a text, but the religious leaders will have to look at it and say, I need to be careful about this and contextualise it for my audience rather than simply stating it as a fact.

I will give this example, using the Police, which comes under me.

We have very strict gun control laws in Singapore. In fact, the death penalty if there is a discharge of weapons, and very serious penalties even if you possess the weapon. But the people who are armed are my Police officers.

And I don’t have Christian policemen, or Muslim policemen, I just have policemen.

But they happen to be Christians, and they happen to be Muslims, and they happen to be Hindus.

In my patrol cars, I could very easily have a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, or two Christians and one Muslim.

So, the Muslim goes off for Friday prayers and he hears this request for God to give victory over Christians. And the Christian goes off for Sunday prayers and he hears this request for God to give victory over non-Christians. And then they come back into the same car and both are armed – you can imagine.

So one of the practical things that conferences like these with moderate Islamic religious organisations can give guidance on, is the practices. To what extent should we become more and more exclusive?

To what extent should we become more and more integrated, without compromising our religious principles? For example, how do we eat together? How do we sit?

If communities are distanced, they don’t eat together, they don’t mix, they can’t shake hands, they can’t exchange greetings, and there are some Islamic scholars who say that you cannot say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali”, to what extent do we have those policies within Singapore?

And to what extent can that then allow for a successful community which is integrated with the rest of the majority? How do the majority and the minority come together, if people are split by these practices?

My understanding is that from the very early years, Muslims co-existed peacefully in Mecca and many other places.

Sometimes, the majority are Muslims and sometimes they are the minority. They all co-existed peacefully and integrated in a way that contributed to society.

Extremism and divisive practices are not reserved for any one religion. It is spread out everywhere.

We have a law since 26 years ago, thanks to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, called the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, I think only in Singapore. An actual legislation for the maintenance of religious harmony.

It primarily allows the Minister to take action against anybody who goes around saying things about other religions, or clerics who make speeches can be called up for an interview.

The last one was a Christian preacher. We also banned two Christian preachers from coming into Singapore, even though they didn’t say anything wrong in Singapore, but if you look at their history, they’ve got Islamophobic comments talking about the Prophet, talking about Muslims as a whole.

If we allow them to build up a following in Singapore, and their comments about Islam are available online, then we create divisive practices.

We have taken the same approach for Islamic preachers and we take the same approach for every preacher.

We are not against any religion. We are not, as a Government, for any religion. We are secular, but we support all religions.

We had a recent incident in Malaysia where a Muslim laundrette put up a sign which said that only Muslims can come and wash their clothes here.

Is that right? Is that wrong? One or two Muslim scholars said he is right.

The rulers have come out and said no, this is not acceptable.

So I think there are some questions that are beyond the philosophy and the high ideals. We need to get down also to the practical day to day issues, how to live with each other.