Opening Address by Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies 2022
6 September 2022
Mr Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security
Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman of RSIS
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good morning. Welcome to the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS). To our friends from overseas, a warm welcome to sunny Singapore!
I am delighted to host such a diverse gathering of great minds and influential voices for this second edition of the ICCS. When we held the inaugural ICCS three years ago, it was a vastly different time. Participants from all around the world came together to discuss faith, identity and cohesion. Since then, COVID-19 has changed our world. This year, we continue to focus on the same three pillars, but with a different lens informed by lessons from the pandemic.
The pandemic was a public health crisis with serious social implications. People were confined to their homes, constraining the basic human need for social interaction. Religious communities also faced difficult decisions as houses of worship worldwide had to limit or suspend their activities in order to comply with public health measures. Perhaps the most heartrending accounts were of those who could not bid a proper farewell to the loved ones they lost to the pandemic.
In a period of heightened social anxiety, tensions rose and in certain cases triggered hate, bigotry and xenophobia. This descended into violence in some places, with reports of hate crimes against persons of Asian ethnicity who were blamed for the spread of the virus. Even public health measures like vaccinations became points of contention.
Singapore too was not immune to such challenges. The pandemic deepened fault lines in societies across the world, when what was urgently needed to recover from the pandemic was collective action and cooperation. This reminds us that social cohesion is a necessary condition for our collective security. Societies cannot survive, let alone thrive, without the social glue that bonds people together. National resilience and stability are the result of people working together towards a common cause, united in the face of challenges and threats facing a country. Cohesive societies do not exist spontaneously. They are borne of choice and conviction. The pandemic has reinforced this.
To address these challenges, we need to understand factors that contribute towards social cohesion. A regional study by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the organiser of this Conference, found that 69% of those surveyed in Southeast Asia believed that their country is socially cohesive. According to the study, the level of trust and acceptance between each other and the social networks that people build over time are elements that help strengthen social cohesion. Harnessing these aspects can provide a useful springboard towards action. Such insights presented in the Southeast Asian Social Cohesion Radar study can help inform our discussions to develop meaningful approaches towards building cohesive societies. Indeed, the study recommended that the engagement of community and religious leaders and other relevant stakeholders are critical to this effort. RSIS will share more about these findings this afternoon.
In view of these findings, initiatives like the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony have become even more pertinent. Launched at the last ICCS, religious leaders pledged to be united in promoting the common good, and to stand against division and discord. They undertook to build strong bonds across religious communities through interactions such as attending each other’s festivals. More than 750 of Singapore’s religious organisations have affirmed this Commitment. It is our hope that ICCS too provides a platform for people to learn from one another and be comfortable with differences.
Moving forward, how do we safeguard and promote social cohesion amidst these challenging times? How do we bridge divides and harness our diversity for the common good? These questions remind me of a quote I came across two months ago when Singapore celebrated our annual Racial Harmony Day. I quote, “Racial harmony means we can all be friends because we are all human beings.” Unquote. These words were spoken by Gaia Amedi, a four-year-old pre-schooler. It is a moving reminder that despite all our differences and disagreements, we are human beings at the end of the day, equally fragile, yet equally resilient. We may come from different backgrounds, countries, cultures, and religions, but we share the same core values of kindness, compassion and love. We are connected. And yes, Gaia, we can certainly all be friends.
The theme of ICCS 2022, ‘Confident Identities, Connected Communities’, echoes Gaia’s words. Building on the foundations of ICCS 2019 where we discussed who we are, what we stand for, and how we can find common ground with one another, ICCS 2022 will explore the role of our identities, beliefs, and faiths in shaping social connections and cohesion.
I am glad to welcome over 800 participants from more than 40 countries. You come from different countries and disciplines. There are religious leaders, policymakers, academics, and civil society practitioners in your midst. With such a diverse group of speakers and delegates, I am confident that there will be a rich exchange of views and ideas over the next three days.
Building social cohesion is an experiential endeavour. This is why we have arranged visits to Singapore’s multicultural communities as a way to spend your evenings. I encourage you to sign up for these community explorations if you have not done so. I wish to thank our community and religious leaders for opening up their community spaces and houses of worship to our ICCS participants.
We also need to develop our youth to take the lead in shaping their communities. I am glad that we have gathered 120 youth leaders for the second run of our Young Leaders Programme (YLP). They join the first cohort of YLP participants from 2019, many of whom have gone on to drive social cohesion initiatives in their communities. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of young people being involved in building cohesive communities. An article in The Straits Times today made the point that there are not many young people involved in interfaith activities. In the Harmony Circle for instance, the average age is about 60. Young people need to be involved to ensure that the building of social cohesion continues to the next generation.
Two of these YLP alumni are Basil Kannangara and Nicholas Pang from Singapore. They met through YLP and share a passion for facilitating deep conversations about race, religion, nationality and disability. Basil and Nick believe that it is possible to have fun while generating constructive dialogue. They developed a card game called Diversity by Default, which features diversity-related questions. Such initiatives help to dispel misperceptions, build bonds, and create trust. The pair are among us today as mentors to the new batch of YLP delegates. Basil and Nick – thank you for returning to nurture fellow youth leaders.
This year’s YLP will help our young leaders harness their energy and creativity to discuss common challenges, develop capabilities and form partnerships to advance their ideas. They will have an opportunity to pitch their proposals to a judging panel at the end of the YLP on Thursday. Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth will provide funding to develop the selected projects.
We face common challenges globally as we emerge from the pandemic. We must continue to create and build safe and open platforms to discuss sensitive issues and work together to strengthen unity and resilience in our societies. I hope that the ICCS can be such a platform for you.
I thank RSIS for organising this Conference. The importance of its work cannot be overstated, and it can go further. RSIS can play a role in strengthening the body of research, studies and programmes in the region and globally to promote social cohesion. It can pilot and act as an incubator for innovative ideas for such work and enable useful experiences to be shared broadly, especially through harnessing the drive, talent and creativity of our young. RSIS can continue to groom local researchers to expand on the studies to help us identify the emerging threats and opportunities to promote social cohesion, supporting RSIS’ mission of understanding traditional and non-traditional security challenges.
In closing, I encourage everyone to use this opportunity to speak our minds respectfully and without prejudice, and to keep our hearts open to learning from one another. In this way, we can improve the quality of our conversations, relationships and practice in forging social cohesion.
This is a time to come together as a family, to recognise the beauty in our diversity and use that to our advantage in tackling greater challenges to come, so that we can build brighter and more cohesive societies for all.