Closing Address by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, Republic of Singapore, at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies 2022
8 September 2022
Ladies and gentlemen,
All too soon, we have now reached the last few hours of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) 2022, 2nd edition.
Lovely to see everyone, but time has just flown by, hasn’t it? It seemed only a moment ago that we had President Halimah open ICCS, standing right here.
I must say that not long after the first ICCS which we hosted in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately hit us, and we were not sure whether or when we could host the second one. But we were determined to find a place to hold the second one. And looking back on those days and seeing you all the past couple of days, we are so glad we did. Thank you very much to all of you.
This event has been a tremendous opportunity for us to rekindle old friendships and make many new ones. After all, building cohesive societies start with you and I. All of us, each of us, building strong friendships, fostering a deep sense of camaraderie, lasting ties, amongst all of us. And what we build here, we can bring back to our own countries. And that can grow exponentially.
On this note, my colleagues and I in Singapore are very glad to have all of your support in making ICCS 2022 a very successful one.
We are so honoured to host more than 50 speakers, 800 delegates from about 40 countries, including 120 youth leaders. As I was saying, we have also been joined by 300 online participants over the past three days.
I hope that this has been a fruitful conversation, fruitful Conference, but more importantly, your presence, each of your presences from so many different parts of the world, is a reflection of the strong, deep interest, in the topic and the collective, shared sense of responsibility that we all have. We all see this as our mission to build a culture of cohesion in our own societies.
This also tells us that while we might live in different societies, different parts of the world, in different continents, with our own different nuances, cultures, practices, traditions, each with our own sets of different circumstances and challenges. I think our shared commonality is that we are bound by responsibility to make cohesion happen in our own societies. And we all see value in listening to, and learning from one another.
Overview of ICCS
So let me thank all the speakers that we’ve had past couple of days for your thoughtful and thought-provoking speeches, and for sharing your experiences so richly and so generously. It left us with a lot to think about.
I also want to thank our moderators for facilitating the discussions, and all our delegates for actively participating and lending a lot of vibrancy and vibe to ICCS 2022.
I hope you all found it to be also a very practical-driven session. We were very careful to try and plan this so that it was not just about the theory, but about exposing you to practices and reality.
Indeed, social cohesion is not just a theory, it must be a culture of practice, of lived experiences, powered by active and engaged citizenry, with open, frank, respect for each other.
To this end, at this year’s ICCS, we’ve had many rich discussions over the course of 3 special addresses, 3 plenary sessions, 9 breakout sessions and 1 community dialogue.
What stood out to me were the 9 community explorations, where many of you had a chance to visit a place of worship, met our multi-racial and multi-religious community leaders, and gained first-hand, our experience of multicultural living in Singapore.
And I am very glad to hear that the Community Experience in particular has allowed many of participants to experience for yourself and also ask questions about a different faith and you’ve not had a chance to experience before. You got to probe, ask questions, understand, know. Because it is only with understanding and knowing can we foster acceptance and eventually, embracement of each other’s beliefs, and different practices.
In addition, I’m also very glad to see that the discussions were grounded on the extensive use of data, including the Southeast Asia Social Cohesion Radar that RSIS just launched. It is important that it gives us a good grounding and good reality check at what we’re doing, continue to cultivate, and to look at the different needles that mark fault lines. And we learn better how to address it.
I am heartened to know, from the many discussions we have had, the experience shared by so many of you thought leaders out there, tells me that we face many common challenges in building cohesive societies.
Some of the difficulties, after we speak about it, are not quite so different. And even though we come from different parts of the world with different contexts, I’m glad to see that this has become a platform for us to exchange ideas that we can bring back to our own countries, our own societies and perhaps with a little bit of nuancing and contextualising, we can use them to good effect.
This is why it is important to continue to have a platform like ICCS. To learn from one another, share insights and experience, and work together to develop solutions to address our common challenges.
As our President said in her opening address, we have to understand the drivers and dimensions of social cohesion more deeply, so that we can bridge divides and harness our diversity for a common good.
All of your enthusiasm enriched the deeply robust interactions we’ve had, frank exchanges with our moderators and our speakers, reflects our shared purpose and our urgency.
As Professor Katherine Marshall said, we are in a “Kairos” moment in history where we should go beyond talking and towards actively building a better future for all.
Professor Lily Kong also emphasized why building social cohesion and resilience is today more important than ever.
And all of these theories and themes exemplified our conference theme of “Confident Identities, Connected Communities”.
So, as we close, I thought I’d share my reflections from this Conference what we’ve learnt over the past three days.
It is not possible to capture the breadth of wisdom that we’ve heard in all the sessions, but let me try to encapsulate the key points.
One common thread across our discussions that I’ve seen in our dialogues and practice sessions about Faith, Identity and Cohesion has been that mutual trust and shared experiences are critical in building cohesive societies. They’re a fundamental building block.
Faith can bridge divides. Some of the deepest chasms in society are a result of differing ideological or religious beliefs. And in recent times, perhaps driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve become more insular as a people.
Fault lines, often around the lines of identity, have been deepened. What we can do more to foster peace and harmony is to appreciate the commonalities, rather than the differences, across different faiths. Look at what binds us, rather than what divides us.
Dr Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Lord John Alderdice, Venerable You Shi Guang, and Imam Uzair Akbar all spoke about how our different beliefs could connect us through universal values that bind society together.
It is often in crises and times of insecurity where differing beliefs can widen divides. Therefore, dialogues and occasions like this are all the more important for us to generate greater understanding, and foster a sense of respect among different communities.
And it is in such times, that our respective beliefs can indeed guide us to be the best version of ourselves in engaging with and being open to people from different backgrounds and different faiths, people who are totally different, look different, from each of us.
Our diversity can also increase our resilience in the face of divisive narratives and global challenges. For example, Master Tan Zhixia shared how a Singapore community organisation Humanity Matters brought people of different faiths together to provide local and regional pandemic and disaster relief, working side by side.
Such efforts don’t just tell us how compassion can go a long way in bridging our differences, but also that the challenges we face as a society, as humanity, they don’t cut across different colours and different creeds. Everyone is affected by the pandemic and how we respond to it as a unified front makes us much stronger.
Second, our diversity can in fact be often harnessed for the common good. And central to harnessing this diversity is mutual trust and respect.
As Mr André Azoulay said, we must treat each other with the same dignity and freedom that we enjoy ourselves. What we want for ourselves, we do to other people. A very simple principle, but perhaps not often used enough.
I was particularly captivated by Professor Ashiwa’s suggestion of “finding the otherness in yourself”. This was particularly poignant to me. And I believe that if we can do that, we can begin reaching out to those we see as “other” and in turn, we’ll have more authentic shared experiences and foster a deeper sense of mutual trust and respect.
In the same vein, we can also do more to harness the strength of our diversity through dialogue, education, shared goals and action.
For example, Dr Iyad Abumoghli spoke about how faith and non-faith actors can come together, work together on our sustainable development goals, such as food security and climate change. These, as I said, are all universal issues, they cut across boundaries, and they are not particular to any race or religion.
Here in Singapore, we try to find strength in diversity. And most of you know we are one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world.
We ourselves are a small nation that sits in the middle of ASEAN in Southeast Asia (itself the most religiously diverse region in the world with more than a thousand dialects and languages).
But this diversity is fundamental to the fundamental aspect of our respective identities. Each of us as Singaporeans must have their own space and freedom to practice their own customs, traditions, and beliefs so that this uniqueness remains and we value this uniqueness. We find ways to assimilate and not force anyone to conform with another, or even to conform with the majority.
There is space for everyone. We may be of different ethnicities, or different colour, or creed, but we bound by a singular national identity as Singaporeans.
I believe this approach truly makes us stronger than the sum of our parts as Singaporeans.
Third, we spoke a lot about technology and how it can be used to lever and build mutual trust and a stronger sense of respect for one another.
Over the past three years with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced the power of technology. After all, everyone knows what Zoom is, everyone knows what Skype is, though we’re a little sick of it now, staring at our screens and at a small little box.
In the context of social cohesion, however, I must say that we’ve seen the best and possibly also the worst of technology.
Technology can bring people together across vast distances. President Halimah spoke about a project that Basil was involved in, he set up something using virtual reality, allowing people to connect with one another and learn something different sitting in the comfort of your own home without having to travel. A lot of information can go across in a positive way.
But at the same time, technology can also widen divides, especially through the spread of misinformation and hate speech. We have seen the strife and tension that’s been caused by such uncalled for and callous behaviour. Some were accidental but many were not; many of them were deliberate.
The question then is “what can we do?” We can’t rewind the advancements that we’ve made in technology.
But I will say that technology itself is values-neutral: it is neither good nor bad. It is completely neutral in the sense that much depends on the user and how that user marshals the use of technology.
With mutual trust, we can use technology as a truly powerful and positive enabler for social change. And with the right approach, we can transform the digital space into a catalyst for building cohesive societies.
On that score, I agree with Dr Shashi Jayakumar on the potential dangers of social media, but also with Dr Patrice Brodeur and Mr Jasvir Singh that we should collectively tap on the power of digital platforms to strengthen outreach and understanding, thereby foster a greater sense of unity, trust, and foster respect between communities.
And in my view, with the quick advancement of technology, we must urgently take steps to move ahead of the curve, move faster than technology, to mitigate technology’s most adverse and hateful effects, and stamp out hate, violent extremism, and misinformation.
Our Young Leaders have discussed how they could use social media to promote the good, to promote positive communities and counter negative portrayals of their respective faiths by bringing depth and authenticity to their social media content and interactions. We need to put this into practice and into motion.
Investing in our Youth
Finally on that note, let me speak about investing in our youths.
On this note, I really agree wholeheartedly with Cardinal Parolin, who spoke on the first day, that youth leadership is crucial in building a better society based on justice, fraternity and solidarity.
And that is why we are investing heavily in our next generation of community leaders through efforts such as the Young Leaders Programme (YLP) here in ICCS.
I hope our young leaders out there (and those young at heart out here), have had an exciting and impactful programme over the last three days. You’ve all had opportunities to make new friendships from around the world, and I believe that these types of networking and building social relations is every so critical, in this fast-paced world.
And I bet our youth leaders have also picked up new skills through a Faith in Leadership workshop, and were inspired by youth speakers to be fellow changemakers through community projects and social media. And our youth leaders also came together to develop projects.
I am also glad to see some of the YLP alumni from the 2019, three years ago, have become invested in our outcomes here and are now coming back to give back to the programme. Some of them have been part of the design team while others have served as peer facilitators.
Some YLP alumni like Venerable Shi You Guang and Farahnaz Ali Ghodsinia have also “graduated” (though you never fully graduate from this; you’re always a part of this programme), but you return as speakers for the main conference. I think all of this, coming back, serving, lending experiences, have been one highlight for me at this ICCS.
Going Beyond ICCS 2022
Finally, before I finish off with this speech, let me do a little bit of a look-ahead.
After we’ve had three good days of discussion, thought-provoking, deep, sustainable conversations, and building networks and making friends from across the globe, how do we keep this going? How do we build on this?
And I will say that we must leave today with the clear notion that ICCS does not end here. It does not end in ICCS 2022.
We want the conversations that we started here, and the relationships we have forged, to continue to grow and spur collective action, not just in Singapore, but in the region and well beyond.
So let me offer what I think we can do to build on what we’ve discussed the past few days, to deepen the conversations and indeed, more importantly, like many of our speakers have said, how to put our ideas and suggestions into action.
Research stream – First, this year’s regional survey is just a first step. Lots of research went into it, lots of data. The study creates an awareness of the factors that contribute towards social cohesion in Southeast Asia. These insights help us to more deeply understand the challenges faced by our respective communities. With this knowledge, we are much better equipped to seek meaningful solutions to strengthen cohesion. We should have this study continued and conducted regularly so that we can track how social cohesion trends evolve in the region, and our actions can then be powered by this data.
YLP – Second, let me talk to the YLP and the young leaders here. We will continue to support the young leaders in developing their projects and continue to build a strong community of young social cohesion champions.
The YLP, after this afternoon, will make a pitch of their projects this evening. After that, MCCY will provide funding and support for your respective ideas to be scaled up, implemented, and put into practice and used to foster a stronger sense of social cohesion in our communities.
We will also continue to build up our YLP alumni. The youthful thought leaders of today will become the experienced thought leaders of tomorrow. And we must continue to create a path for the alumni to pay it forward. Just as the 2019 alumni have done.
We will also support YLP projects, through our Harmony Fund, and perhaps also the Youth Action Challenge, to turn proposals, ideas, and aspirations into reality.
Virtual Partners’ Showcase – Finally, the virtual Partners’ Showcase will remain online as a resource for all of you. I hope that this will help to build our collective knowledge and showcase the work so many of the organisations here are doing to support social cohesion-building. So it becomes a repository of good ideas, of exchange of information, and a place we can all turn to for resources.
As I conclude, on behalf of MCCY and RSIS, I would like to thank all of you, our speakers, our delegates, our youth leaders, everyone for your active participation over the last three days.
My colleagues and I really cherish this time spent with all of you and we hope to be able to keep in touch.
To all our overseas participants, in particular, I hope that you have enjoyed your stay in Singapore, that it was eye-opening, and you had a chance to be exposed to some differences you have not seen in your own countries. And that you will bring back special memories, not just of Singapore, but also of the networks and friendships you’ve made here in Singapore, and that we can continue to serve, because it starts with each of us here in this room. And if we can go back to our home countries and home societies to multiply that, that would be a great market for ICCS.
To our organizing partners, I thank you for your support. It’s not been an easy task to manage such a large conference in these times, but you pulled it off successfully.
I want to thank you for all the work we see and also the work we often don’t see, often behind the scenes at very late hours of the evening as well.
I thank you for all this and to all our friends from overseas, I hope we’ve left you with some good memories to want to come back the next time we hold ICCS again.
Finally, I must say that the friendships we’ve made at this conference have been the highlights. To be able to see many of you, to chat with many of you, to build relationships have been the true highlights.
So on that note, as I leave, I will leave you with a video that captures the highlights of the last few days, you’ll see many of you there, and I hope that this little memento will remind you of ICCS 2022, of the hospitality of Singapore and will remind you that even as you go back to your home countries, that ICCS 2022 does not end here.