The Straits Times | 19 June 2021
SINGAPORE - Care and consideration for others, and the ability to give and take in interactions with one another, must take precedence over Singaporeans' individual faiths, beliefs and practices.
And within the Republic's diverse, multi-religious setting, moderation is key, as is the capacity for people to engage others and clarify issues instead of falling into conflict.
These were some of the main points raised at an interfaith dialogue on Saturday (June 19) led by four panellists from the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Taoist faiths.
Part of the Common Senses for Common Spaces series organised by non-governmental group Humanity Matters, the event at the Furama RiverFront Hotel in Havelock Road saw speakers and a physical audience of 50 deliberate the dynamics of religious practice amid a pandemic.
The discussion also spilled over to incidents that have recently been in the news.
These include the furore over a Malay couple's wedding photo being appropriated for a decorative Hari Raya standee; a viral video of polytechnic lecturer Tan Boon Lee accosting an interethnic couple with racist remarks; and another widely circulated clip showing a woman of Chinese appearance clanging a gong as her Hindu neighbour rings a bell as part of his prayers.
Panellist and master's student Losheini Ravindran said that Singaporeans should not go to the extent of imposing their identities on others.
Instead of getting into arguments, people should try to simply talk, ask questions, find out more and try to understand one another, she added.
Awareness of one's surroundings is also key, said fellow panellist Edwin Ignatious, a former president of the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore.
The other two panellists were building and construction consultant Pung Zheng Jie, who actively volunteers at Buddhist temples, and optometrist Lee Kang Lian, an ordained Taoist priest.
Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who was in the audience, said that religious groups now had a key part to play in addressing tensions that may arise out of pandemic circumstances.
"The current environment is making people unconsciously become more extreme," he suggested. "It's not just the Government's role; I think religious groups have a very good opportunity to tell their followers that this is an unusual period in Singapore's history… and this is when we should try to make extra effort to moderate our views."
Also present was former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi, a permanent member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. He said the concept of "tolerance" in Singapore's multicultural setting was insufficient, noting that the word had negative connotations.
"You tolerate something you don't like but have to bear with," he said.
Ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, chairman of Humanity Matters, called on Singaporeans to "better appreciate the diversity and comfortably accept each other's cultural distinctions".
In a closing speech, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Eric Chua, who was guest of honour, said he was not sure that Singapore's brand of diversity could be described as a melting pot. "It necessarily suggests that the ingredients meld together... become fused together," he mused.
"Rojak", instead, might be a more adequate way to describe how multiculturalism thrives in Singapore, said Mr Chua.
"Each of the religious groups, each of the ethnic groups, retains its own flavours. And in the process, we also get a flavour of the other groups, because over time, as we live, work and play together, we have also rubbed off some of those other characteristics onto ourselves," he added. "I think that's the ingenuity, that's the marvel and that's the wonder of Singapore society for the past many decades."