Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation Annual Awards Dinner on 23 September 2019

24 September 2019

Source: PMO

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Founder and President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation
Mr Stephen Schwarzman
Dr Henry Kissinger
Religious leaders
Business leaders
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Ladies and gentlemen

A very good evening to all of you.

First of all, let me first congratulate my fellow award recipients tonight, Mr Timotheus Hottges, Mr Stephen Ross and Ms Susan Wojcicki. It is very good to be in your company.I am delighted to be here amongst friends old and new. First, let me thank Mr Schwarzman and especially Dr Henry Kissinger for reading my award citation. I am immensely honoured. I have known both of them for a long time - Dr Kissinger, especially, has been a great and a long-time friend of Singapore. He and I have known each other for more than 30 years and he was also a close friend of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister. So this means a great deal to me personally, and I think it would have meant a great deal to my father too.

I also want to thank Rabbi Schneier and the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for conferring on me the great honour of this award. It is especially significant to me, and to Singapore, because the values of the Foundation – tolerance, respect and harmony – are congruent with the values that bind Singapore together as a nation.

The Singapore Experience

For over half a century, Singapore has worked hard to uphold the principle of equality among our different races and religions. It was over this fundamental principle that we separated from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent country. Indeed, on the very day that we became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew declared that in Singapore “Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”. And our National Pledge, which students recite every morning in school, declares that as citizens of Singapore, “we … pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion … to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation”. At the time we created the pledge, this was a dream and an aspiration. But over half a century in substantial measure, we have made it come through and we continue to strive towards this ideal.

This founding philosophy has enabled us to grow into a diverse but harmonious society. We are racially and religiously diverse: 5.7 million Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others living together on an island slightly smaller than New York City. All the great religions are represented in Singapore - Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jews, and also Zoroastrians, the Parsis. The Pew Research Centre ranks us as the most religiously diverse country in the world. And today, it is a harmonious society.
We did not become so because Singaporeans are a uniquely virtuous people. In the Federalist Papers No 51, the author (probably James Madison) wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Singapore’s approach to race and religion is based on a similar insight. We created structures – constitutional, political, social – that discouraged intolerance, curbed chauvinism, and nudged social behaviour in positive ways, long before nudging became intellectually fashionable.

Constitutionally, our state is strictly secular, but not anti-religion. Our religious communities trust the authorities to treat all faiths completely impartially. Laws are based on national interest, and not on religious commandments. One of the first constitutional measures we passed after independence was to create a Presidential Council for Minority Rights. This Council scrutinises all legislation to ensure that they do not discriminate against any race or religious community. We also created a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which empowers the government to act against religious leaders or groups who cause feelings of enmity, hatred or hostility between religious groups, or who use religion to promote their political cause. Fortunately, we have never had occasion to use the Act in 30 years of its existence, but its very existence has been of considerable deterrent value.

We designed electoral rules to encourage multi-racial politics, instead of the politics of race and religion. In Parliamentary elections, political parties are required to present multi-racial slates to contest multi-member seats. You put up a team of four, five or six – one member of the team must belong to the minority race designated for that constituency and you compete against another team – team against team, and the better team wins. The point of this is to discourage political parties from championing particular racial or religious groups, and dividing our society along primordial fault lines. Because if you do that, you are undermining the minority members of your community and if you champion on minority rights, you alienate the majority members of your team and you alienate the majority of members in your constituency, all of which are racially mixed. This prevents us from being divided along primordial fault lines and it also guarantees that Parliament will always have a minimum number of legislators from the minority communities, so that minorities do not feel shut out.

Recently we took this further. We amended the Constitution to ensure that our President, who is a directly-elected Head of State – we ensure that he or she will come from one of the minority races, if no President from that race has been elected for some time. So it is a fail-safe position, you have a free election if after five elections you have not had a President from a particular race, the next election is a reserved one for candidates of that race. And so we have made multi-racialism not just a political aspiration, but a structural feature of our political system.

This is reinforced by our public policies. For example, in public housing estates, where houses are sold to people and after some years you can then freely transact and resell the houses - we have ensure that every township, every precinct, every residential block, we have an ethnically mixed population. Since over 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing, we have no racial enclaves, we have no ghettoes. Every part of Singapore looks something like every other part – diverse and multi-racial. And every Member of Parliament looks after a multiracial constituency, he does not represent a constituency who’s boundaries have been drawn to include only a particular group. Had we not done this and intervened in the housing market, our population would have become racially segregated, as has happened in many other countries, with very serious social consequences.

In our schools, students of all races and religions study together. This is also a result of having mixed constituencies because they live in in mixed residential areas and therefore they go to schools which are also mixed without being bussed. They are all taught a secular national curriculum, even in schools affiliated to religious groups. And in our media, we do not allow blasphemous cartoons, songs or other offensive material that denigrates or disparages other races or faiths, whether this is done in the name of entertainment or freedom of speech.

Within this constitutional, legal and policy framework, Singaporeans have learnt to live peacefully together. Mosques, temples, churches, and synagogues, are often within walking distance of each other, and sometimes even hold events together. I went to a Catholic school – there is a church in the school grounds and across the road, there was a synagogue – one of two in Singapore catering to a very small Jewish community, a few hundred people, but part of the diverse and the freedom of religion and the harmony of the faiths which we have generated in Singapore. Religious groups make compromises and adjustments in their practices, mindful of the sensitivities of other faiths. For example, mosques tone down their loudspeakers that carry the prayer call, the azan, and to make up for this, we broadcast the azan on national radio. On their part, Christians exercise restraint proselytising to people of other faiths. Because to you, it is the gospel – the good news - but to people of other faiths, if it is not done sensitively, it can be taken amiss and can cause offense. So we have made our adjustments, we have learned to live harmoniously together and we have made this accommodation of the faiths not just through our policies and edicts, but in our daily lives.

We are also fortunate that religious leaders in Singapore understand the multiracial and religious context, and guide their flocks responsibly. They have worked together to promote mutual understanding, and strengthen ties between the groups, for example through interfaith dialogues. We have an organisation in Singapore called the Inter-Religious Organisation and almost all the faiths are there and they have existed for 70 years – I just celebrated their 70th birthday with them, and they are probably the oldest such organisation in the world. The different leaders have cooperated quietly with one another to resolve sensitive issues which inevitably arise from time to time, and prevent them from flaring up and causing wider misunderstandings.

Our Challenges

These policies and practices have served Singapore well. Over decades, Singaporeans have become more united, we have strengthened our identity as one people. But circumstances are changing, the world is changing and we have to adapt. I want to highlight four forces – four mega trends if you will – that are impacting us greatly.

First, our society is experiencing growing religiosity among all faiths, even though the non-religious form a growing minority. The people who are religious, are becoming more religious, more fervent, more formal in their beliefs. It is a worldwide phenomenon. People everywhere take their faiths more seriously and practise them more fervently. In itself this is not a bad thing at all because religion is a deeply held personal conviction – it guides one’s conscience and gives one a profound sense of the meaning and purpose of life. But as convinced as one may be of one’s own faith, we cannot get carried away, and show disrespect to other people’s faiths or other people’s gods.

In Singapore, we strongly oppose exclusionary practices that discourage people of different faiths from interacting with one another as fellow citizens. This year our religious leaders came together and made a formal collective declaration - that it is entirely proper, and indeed praiseworthy, for people of different faiths to befriend one another, to exchange felicitations on each other’s religious festivals, and eat together despite different dietary rules. All common sense – none to be taken for granted.

Second, being a small open society, Singapore is particularly susceptible to external influences. Every racial and religious group in Singapore has extensive links with larger communities abroad belonging to the same race or the same faith. All our religions have their roots elsewhere, and take guidance from superior authorities somewhere else. We are a small island, but we are not an island onto ourselves. It is not possible.

With globalisation, these links have blossomed. They enrich our society and allow us to learn from others, but they can also import disputes and troubles from other lands that will undermine our social cohesion. We do our best to insulate ourselves from other people’s problems, knowing full well that complete disengagement is impossible. So, we ban or expel foreign preachers who bring their foreign quarrels to Singapore, or who seek to persuade Singaporeans to practise their religions in ways that are not appropriate to our society. At the same time, we explain to Singaporeans that different societies often practise the same religion in different ways, and we try to inculcate in ourselves confidence and pride in our own way of doing things, our own practices and norms.

Thirdly, social media has altered the way people communicate. It helps provocative views to circulate and gain currency. Charismatic, radical preachers have built followings in the tens of millions online. A single offensive or thoughtless post that goes viral can be seen by millions within a few hours and create a tense situation when all was peace and calm the night before. It has become dangerously easy for people both to cause offence and also to take umbrage.

We must not allow those who spread toxic views and poison on the Internet to get away with what may literally be murder. Policing the Internet is a Sisyphean task, but we must keep our laws updated, and devise fresh and effective countermeasures. Thus we recently passed a new law – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – it gives the Government and the courts powers to require the correction of misinformation and falsehoods online, to take action against those who deliberately spread such untruths, and to deal with websites that give them a platform to do so. It is a problem which many countries are grappling with, this is our approach to it. We continue to learn from others, and maybe other people will find something interesting in the way we have decided to tackle our problem.

Fourthly, violence in the name of race or religion is a real and present danger. There will always be some people who pervert and misuse religion to justify their violent ends. For example, just after the September 11 attacks in 2011, we uncovered in Singapore a jihadist group linked to al Qaeda. It was a total surprise to us. They were planning to attack multiple targets in Singapore, including the US Embassy and visiting US armed forces, and advanced in their plans. Had they succeeded, Singapore would have been Ground Zero. It would not only have caused death and destruction, but could have torn apart our social fabric. Non-Muslims in Singapore would have looked at their Muslim compatriots with suspicion and anger, while Muslim Singaporeans would have feared for their safety from non-Muslims.

Having pre-empted the physical attack and neutralised the group, we immediately strove to reinforce trust and confidence between the religions. We talked openly about the danger, so that everyone knew these were the actions of extremists who did not reflect the views of Singapore Muslims in general. Behind closed doors, we shared sensitive intelligence about the threat with religious and community leaders of all faiths. We put them together in the same room when we briefed them. So that we speak candidly and everybody knows that we are briefing everybody the same message. We are not broadcasting different messages to different groups. We have to confront this problem together as Singaporeans.

The leaders understood the problem, felt trusted, and did their part to keep Singapore united. Muslim leaders came out to condemn the terrorists, and affirm their solidarity with non-Muslims. Non-Muslims leaders in turn expressed understanding, and continued confidence in their Muslim brethren. A group of respected Islamic scholars and teachers volunteered to set up the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), to counsel and rehabilitate radicalised individuals as well as look after their families and offer support and guidance.

You can lock a terrorist away, but for how long? What do you do with their families, and how do you explain to the community? But if you can persuade him, turn him around, get him to see the light, and be able to get back into the community and integrate back and find a job, find his place and understand the error of his ways, then we have not only saved a soul; we have kept our community together. We have not succeeded in every case. There are a few who are still there since 2001, and it will take a very long time to persuade. For the majority, we have been able to rehabilitate, to release and to bring back to normal life. We have done that probably to 80 to 90 per cent of the people we have picked up; with only a couple who have relapsed and come back again. With conviction, cooperation and confidence, it is possible to get religious leaders – responsible and respected ones on your side, doing good work, helping to bring a very multi-religious society together.

Through these strenuous efforts, we have succeeded in maintaining multi-religious confidence. Since then, we have kept up our efforts. The danger of a terrorist attack continues, whether from ISIS or al Qaeda, or recently in the last few years, some misguided soul self-radicalised by extremist propaganda which he or she found online. If such an attack ever happens, Singaporeans must hold together as one nation.


Singapore is very fortunate that our founding generation set us in the right direction. They laboured mightily to lay the foundation for the harmonious relations we enjoy today. Their successors have maintained tolerance and respect between the different faiths, and bonded more closely together despite serious challenges to our social cohesion.

I hope future generations will cherish this harmony, realise how precious it is, and strengthen it further. We must never allow religion to be weaponised, or used as a front for other conflicts. As Rabbi Schneier has put it: “A crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion”.

Government actions alone cannot bring about this religious harmony. Responsible voices need to speak up, set the example, and spread the message of acceptance and respect. Thankfully, organisations like the Appeal of Conscience Foundation have been doing precisely that. In fact, you have been at this for as long as Singapore has, because the Foundation was founded in the same year that Singapore became independent, in 1965.

I commend your good work, and am humbled that you have decided to confer the World Statesman Award on me this year. I accept it not just on behalf of myself, but of all those who have contributed to building a harmonious society in Singapore. May this award continue to inspire us all to pursue our unchanging ideal, of people living together in peace and harmony, regardless of race, language or religion in every country in the world, and in the world as one together.

Thank you.

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