Religious harmony will always be a work in progress for Singapore, President Halimah Yacob said on Wednesday (May 15) as she pointed out Singaporeans of all faiths have become more fervent in their religious convictions in recent years.
“It is important that our people are good citizens of Singapore, at the same time as they are good Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, or Hindus,” said Mdm Halimah.
She was speaking at the opening of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations in Beijing this morning - a key Chinese event that aims to promote exchanges between civilisations and cooperation among countries.
Elaborating on Singapore's experience, Mdm Halimah said while religion is seen as a positive factor that can strengthen society, the country is a “strictly secular state”.
It is also even-handed in its approach to all faiths and the country has worked hard to build inter-religious understanding and tolerance.
For instance, there are strict laws against the denigration of other faiths, and the mixing of religion and politics is prohibited.
“The different faiths make a cardinal virtue of tolerance and mutual accommodation,” said Mdm Halimah.
“Each group maintains their own cultural and religious practices, and we do not allow any group to impose its practices and requirements on others.”
For Singapore, Mdm Halimah said the country’s founding principle has been to treat all citizens equally regardless of race, language or religion.
This is something Singapore’s founding fathers “fought tenaciously” for, eventually leading to separation from Malaysia in 1965 and independence.
She pointed to various policies that have since been introduced to promote interaction and understanding - ranging from racially integrated schools, to public housing rules and national service.
Recently, the country also amended the Constitution to ensure minorities will be regularly elected as President, she added.
“Singapore sees our diversity as our strength,” said Mdm Halimah.
“The different backgrounds and perspectives offered by the diverse composition of our society add depth to our understanding of a fast changing world.”
Singapore’s effort to integrate different communities has also made it more resilient and this approach has served it well in its external interactions.
“Cultural and language similarities as well as familial ties do help Singaporeans make friends with other Asian countries, and to create a sense of affinity because we can understand one another well,” said Mdm Halimah.
“But we conduct our relations with other countries as a Singapore nation, and not as a Chinese nation, a Malay nation, or an Indian nation.”
Mdm Halimah said Singapore’s situation is a microcosm of a larger challenge faced by the world, in getting people of different religions, values and backgrounds to live together harmoniously.
“We are still a young country, and have to find our own path forward,” she added.
Mdm Halimah is on a three-day visit to China, which concludes on Thursday.