Remarks by President Halimah Yacob at the Opening Ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations in Beijing

15 May 2019

Your Excellency President Xi Jinping
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning. Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to China and President Xi for inviting me to speak at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations. Amidst the rising discord, distrust and division around the world, it is timely to exchange views on maintaining social harmony and cohesion.

Many countries today have populations which are ethnically and religiously diverse, and face the common challenge of uniting their populations around a shared national identity. Even nations with more homogeneous populations have to interact with and cooperate with other countries and populations, given how globalisation and technology have brought countries together. Dialogue and empathy are essential to build better understanding and trust and bridge differences.

Singapore is a small country with a very diverse population. We are majority Chinese, but with sizeable minority populations of Malays, Indians and Eurasians. All the major faiths of the world – Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism – are present in Singapore. It is common to see mosques, temples and churches in Singapore standing side-by-side on the same street. Geographically, Singapore is surrounded by neighbours that have majority non-Chinese populations. It is therefore vital for Singaporeans to live harmoniously both among ourselves, and with our neighbours in the region.

As a multiracial, multi-religious country, our founding principle is to treat all Singaporeans equally regardless of race, language or religion. Our founding fathers fought tenaciously for this principle when Singapore was originally part of the Federation of Malaysia. Eventually the inability to settle this fundamental issue led to our separation from Malaysia, and our independence in 1965.

Since then, Singapore has striven to promote tolerance, harmony, respect and mutual understanding between different races and religions. We foster cohesion through inter-ethnic and inter-religious institutions and organisations that promote interaction, understanding and cooperation between different groups in society. We use English as our common working language, not Chinese, so that no minority group is disadvantaged, and all the races can socialise and interact with ease. Our schools are racially integrated. We have deliberate rules to ensure that our public housing estates have a good racial mix, and to prevent ethnic ghettoes from forming. By living together, Singaporeans learn to get along with one another. All Singaporean young men do two years of national service together, which means generations of male Singaporeans interact with each other, learn the same values, and train together to defend our country and ideals. Our Constitution protects the position of minority communities and ensure their representation in our political system. Recently, we amended the Constitution to ensure that minorities will regularly be elected as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

We see religion as a positive factor to strengthen society, but we are a strictly secular state, and we are even handed in our approach to all the different religions. The different faiths make a cardinal virtue of tolerance and mutual accommodation. Each group maintains their own cultural and religious practices, and we do not allow any group to impose its practices or requirements on others.

We work hard to build inter-religious understanding and tolerance. We have strict laws against the denigration of other faiths and the mixing of religion and politics is prohibited. All groups have to respect other faiths, adopt a “give- and-take” approach, and be sensitive and restrained in proselytisation. Our community groups and grassroots organisations play an important role in reaching out and bringing together people across different faiths.

For us, religious harmony will always be a work in progress. In recent years, Singaporeans of all faiths have become more fervent in their religious convictions. 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.

Indeed, Singapore sees our diversity as a strength. The different backgrounds and perspectives offered by the diverse composition of our society add depth to our understanding of a fast changing world. The world is made of many types of communities, so our diversity helps us in understanding the differences of other global communities. Our effort to integrate and harmonise the different communities has made us a more resilient society.

Externally, our approach has also served us well. 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. 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.

Singapore’s situation is a microcosm of a larger challenge faced by the world in getting people of different religions, values and backgrounds live together harmoniously. We are still a young country, and have to find our own path forward. Next month, Singapore will host the International Conference on Cohesive Societies under the theme “Many Communities, One Shared Future” to facilitate dialogue on social harmony. We hope to use the opportunity to share our experience as well as to learn from others. Most certainly, President Xi Jinping’s initiative in organising this conference is a very good example of how we can conduct dialogue within the Asian civilisations, as well as a dialogue that reaches out to other civilisations in the world. I also agree with the previous points stated by the other speakers that this is what we need to do – understand our own civilisations better, and to create harmony, respect, tolerance, and understanding. However, that does not mean our civilisation should be exclusive. We should be a civilisation that can work with other civilisations because this diversity will enrich and enhance the world.

Let me conclude by reciting to you the National Pledge that our students recite every day in school. It is a summary of my speech today and it is an example of how we place human beings at the centre of everything that we do. The ability to do so and being able to navigate our own environment and work with others around us in order to achieve prosperity, progress not just for Singapore, but for the world as well.

“We the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society,
based on justice and equality,
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

Thank you.


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