See More on Facebook

Diplomacy, Opinion

Forging community ties, one friendly gesture at a time

Straits Times Editor in Chief Warren Fernandez writes for ANN’s editor’s circle.


Written by

Updated: July 8, 2019

Singapore is well known for its Third to First World economic transformation, its efficient, effective Government, as well as for being a very fine, clean and green city.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue, when defence chiefs from many countries gather on the island to thrash out the geopolitical issues of the day, is also well established.

Now, thanks to Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob, the Republic might also come to be recognised for its painstaking efforts over the years to foster a society where a disparate people manage to live in peace and harmony, despite their differences in race, language and religion.

This did not happen by chance. It took conscious, dogged effort.

Political, religious and community leaders made it possible, with the active support of the people. Over time, and through bitter experience, an abiding awareness emerged that this happy state of affairs remains a work in progress, requiring continuous tending.

Indeed, this unnatural state is all the more precarious in today’s “with me or against me” world.

False prophets and populist demagogues are wont to pit communities against each another, and trumpet the building of walls rather than bridges.

It was against this backdrop that Madam Halimah threw up the idea of an international conference on cohesive societies, equal in scale and stature to the annual defence ministers’ meet, but to talk about peace and promote harmony instead.

It was a bold, visionary proposal, and I am glad she made it happen, with help from many others, of course. The three-day event at the Raffles City Convention Centre in downtown Singapore drew about 1,000 delegates from 40 countries, people of all faiths and experiences.

But their message was a unified and clear one. This was summed up in a thoughtful opening speech by President Halimah.

She declared: “We are here because we believe in a common ideal – that diversity in all forms, within and across societies, is a source of strength that can enrich our lives, our countries and our world.

“Only a cohesive society built upon mutual trust can harness the strength of its diversity, so that its people can build a better future. And this trust has to begin with a discourse anchored on cohesion, not division; on unity, not discord; on respect, not distrust; and on building bridges and common spaces, not walls and watchtowers.”

Social cohesion, however, cannot be mandated by government edict.

“It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day. Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face. Social trust has to be forged, one positive encounter at a time. Strength from diversity can only grow from dialogue, give and take, speaking and listening,” she added.

More than 250 religious and community organisations responded by stepping up, right after her speech, to make a pledge to do their part to safeguard religious harmony in Singapore.

This included grand assertions to “uphold the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion”, and calls for simple everyday efforts such as the sharing of meals with people of other faiths, each with their own dietary needs, or joining in each other’s festive celebrations.

This might seem natural enough, but therein lies the pity, because even these are anathema in some parts of the world. Indeed, in building community ties, it is sometimes the everyday things which seem the hardest to do that have the biggest impact.

Making this point when he joined the discussion, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat argued that more trust and understanding was needed all round to tackle common challenges, like countering religious extremists and terrorism.

Fostering such trust called for actions and deeds, not just grand pronouncements.

He said: “I hope that we can build a democracy of deeds, where everyone chips in with our various strengths and passions to build a society we can all be proud of.

“In many countries when they have democracy, they think of it just in terms of elections. But really, it is not just about free speech, but more fundamentally about what each of us can do in society.”

This idea of a “democracy of deeds”, first coined by Mr S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first foreign minister, is one that the Republic’s leaders have often alluded to.  It is a powerful if abstract notion that isn’t easy for the man in the street to fathom.

To put it simply, if democracy is the rule of, for and by the people, then a “democracy of deeds” might be a society in which the challenge of addressing common problems is shared by a broad sweep of the people, coming up with practical solutions and working together to make things happen, rather than simply lamenting the state of the world, or waiting for someone else to sort things out.

This might mean doing things like attending a wedding or funeral even if it is held in another community’s place of worship, or joining Muslim friends in a breaking of fast during Ramadan. In other words, making the effort to treat the “other” more like “one of us”.

Loftier initiatives to do that were also highlighted during the conference. In his keynote address, for example, Jordan’s King Abdullah II recounted how the “Common Word” was launched in 2007 with an open letter from Muslim leaders to their Christian counterparts.

Urging peace between Muslims and Christians, the letter pointed to common ground between both faiths, citing a line in the Quran that goes, “Say: ‘O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word as between us and you, that we worship none but God,” as well as the biblical commandment to love God and one’s neighbour.

Such efforts to bring these two great religions closer have spanned the ages, as I learnt during a chance encounter at the conference.

An old friend told me about an event to be held here in August as part of commemorations of the 800th anniversary of the historic dialogue between St Francis of Assisi and the Egyptian Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil.

That unlikely meeting took place in 1219, at the height of the Fifth Crusade, when Christians and Muslims were butchering each other. Undeterred, Francis decided to reach out to the Sultan to offer dialogue instead.

According to one account, when Francis and his party approached, soldiers “seized them fiercely and dragged them before the Sultan”.

Francis greeted the Sultan with the invocation, “May the Lord give you peace,” similar to the traditional Muslim salutation of “assalamualaikum” or “peace be upon you”.

Surprised, the Sultan asked why they had come, and who sent them.

Francis replied that “they had been sent by God, not by man, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation”. Struck by the diminutive friar’s courage and piety, he urged him to stay, and they went on to engage in a dialogue and forge a relationship.

But fostering interfaith understanding is not just the work of saints and sultans.  Which is why I was heartened that the event’s organisers took the message out of the conference hall and into the community, by setting up an exhibition, titled Many Beliefs, One Future, in the heart of the Raffles City Shopping mall.

It showcased artefacts from various religious groups, from a 150-year-old Jewish Torah scroll to a family Bible that dates back to 1892.

One image that struck me was that by British prisoner of war Richard Walker who, while interned in Changi Prison during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, painted a picture for the chapel in 1942. It depicted a scene from the birth of Jesus Christ, portraying the Virgin Mary as an Asian woman, and with one of the three Magi dressed in Chinese garb, to make the point that faith transcends race and culture.

Perhaps it was British author Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun who has written many books on comparative religion, who summed up the conference best. At the heart of all our discussions on diversity and cohesive societies is the basic question of how we are all to live together on this shared planet, and what each of us might do to make things a little better each day.

She said: “It is about being human. It is about how we can live together… It is about imagining yourself in other people’s circumstances so that you will enlarge your understanding and make a place for them in your minds and hearts.”



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Asia News Network
About the Author: Asia News Network is a regional media alliance comprising 24 media entities.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Diplomacy, Opinion

U.S. lawmaker supports Taiwan arms sales

China has protested the sale in strong terms. Representative Michael McCaul, member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on July 14 that the committee approved a recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in response to increased Chinese “aggression.” Speaking to Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures, the Texas Congressman, who was one of the lawmakers to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday during her layover in New York, said “Chinese are getting very aggressive in Hong Kong, as you just heard. They are also getting very aggressive in Taiwan.” Green-lighting the arms sale, McCaul said, sends a very strong message to China. “We’re going to arm Taiwan, so she can defend herself from what’s become a very aggressive Chinese Communist Party right on their doorstep,” the Republican told host Maria Bartiromo. The U.S. announced July 8 a US$2.22 billion arms package to Taiwan th


By ANN Members
July 16, 2019

Diplomacy, Opinion

S. Korean biz groups in emergency mode

Japan has ban the export of high tech materials to South Korea. South Korea’s major business groups are shifting to emergency mode, setting detailed contingency plans for a variety of scenarios amid concerns that the restrictions on exports of key tech materials from Japan to Korea could stay in place for a long time, according to the industry on Monday. The leaders of the country’s five biggest conglomerates — Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor Group, SK Group, LG Group and Lotte Group — are tightening their reins on the groups’ operations, bracing for possible ripple effects on the global economy and business environment as a result of Japan’s decision. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong is spearheading an array of contingency plans. After coming back from a six-day trip to Tokyo last week, Lee convened a meeting with the top brass of the company’s semiconducto


By The Korea Herald
July 16, 2019

Diplomacy, Opinion

Japan sees decline in value-added trade surplus with Korea

Tokyo’s export curbs to negatively impact global economy due to correlated trade structure. Japan’s trade surplus in value-added goods and services (TiVA) with South Korea took a downturn during the 2005-2015 period, reflecting the diversifying structure of logistics and trade, statistics showed Sunday. In light of the interconnection of the global value chain, the country’s recent curbs on hi-tech exports to Korea are likely to affect not only the two countries but also the regional and global economy in general, Seoul’s government officials noted.\ According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan logged $135.2 billion in aggregated TiVA from 2005 to 2015. Its total trade surplus during the same period stood at $303.2 billion. TiVA, in international trade is equivalent to operating profits of corporate business transactions, figuring out the value added by eac


By The Korea Herald
July 15, 2019

Diplomacy, Opinion

The counter-terrorism challenge in West Asia

A action plan must be hatched and implemented in Pakistan and its surrounding countries. Pakistan has stepped up its anti-militant campaign, apparently to steer clear of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force. Pakistan had already narrowly escaped that listing, with the support of China, Malaysia and Turkey, during the last FATF review meeting held in Orlando, Florida. Read: FATF compliance will require all-out effort Yet the country remains under immense pressure to take action against all militant groups that are proscribed by the UN Security Council. Pakistan has also been viewed as employing a selective approach towards different militant groups. The FATF meeting held in Paris last February had rejected Pakistan’s assessment based on a classification of militant groups into diff


By Dawn
July 15, 2019

Diplomacy, Opinion

India, Russia discuss joint production of space systems

The two countries met to discuss joint-cooperation projects. India and Russia on Friday discussed the possibilities for the production of space systems in India as part of the ‘Make in India’ programme. Director General of Russia’s ROSCOSMOS and former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin held detailed high-level talks with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval on all aspects of the India-Russia space cooperation. Senior representatives of ROSCOSMOS, GLAVCOSMOS, Energia and Energomash were present from the Russian side while the Secretary, Space and the Director of the Human Space Flight Programme were present from the Indian side, besides other senior officials. Both sides agreed to take a strategic approach to elevate bilateral cooperation to the next level keeping in view the special and privileged partnership between the two countries. Cooperation in futuristic technologies, includ


By The Statesman
July 15, 2019

Diplomacy, Opinion

Hong Kong protests: Chaos speads to Sha Tin mall after rally ends

Protests continue, this time against Chinese vendors. Violent clashes between law enforcers and some protesters erupted yet again on Sunday (July 14) following a largely peaceful march hours earlier in the New Territories town of Sha Tin. About three hours after the rally ended at 5pm, police in riot gear began clearing the streets, setting off a game of cat and mouse with them and protesters trying to corner one another. Tensions peaked at about 9.30pm when officers armed with shields and batons entered New Town Plaza mall in Sha Tin and tried to disperse the crowd that was hiding there, resulting in chaos. Police officers were seen chasing after a protester, hitting him with batons and ripping his clothes off as they tried to pin him down before he managed to flee to safety with help from fellow protesters, who were trying to dodge pepper spray. Elsewhere in the mall, protesters surround


By The Straits Times
July 15, 2019