Singapore

Draw from diversity as source of strength: President Halimah

President says accommodation, dialogue and social cohesion essential for social harmony

Diversity is a source of strength for societies, and engaging meaningfully with difference is not easy, but it is necessary, President Halimah Yacob said last night in a speech where she outlined three key ingredients for social harmony.

These are accommodation, dialogue and social cohesion, which must be nurtured by individuals rather than just governments.

"Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face," she said.

"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."

Madam Halimah was at the opening dinner of the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies, a platform she had mooted to discuss ways of forging interfaith understanding and social cohesion.

Around 1,000 academics, government officials and members of religious and civil society groups from close to 40 countries are attending the three-day conference.

Jordan's King Abdullah II will deliver the keynote address at the Raffles City Convention Centre today.

In her speech, Madam Halimah spoke of how each community within a diverse nation contributes to a more interesting and vibrant national life.

"The world would be all the poorer if it had no room for difference. If we were all the same, we would have nothing special to offer, nor anything to learn from others. The more diverse we are, the richer we become," she said.

But she also noted that people instinctively bond with those who are like them, meaning that skin colour, beliefs, customs and other markers of identity can become fault lines of mistrust and conflict.

EXTREMIST IDEOLOGIES

This is seen in the spread of extremist ideologies or anti-immigrant rhetoric that can take on racial and religious overtones, she said.

"A nation cannot prosper if its people are divided. A society cannot be proud if its people distrust each other," Madam Halimah added.

"Only a cohesive society built upon mutual trust can harness the strength of its diversity, so that its people can build a better future."

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies executive deputy chairman Ong Keng Yong also spoke at the dinner on the importance of interfaith dialogue in light of intensifying identity politics and conflicts between communities. This year, mosques in Christchurch and churches in Sri Lanka were targeted in major terror attacks.

"We live in a time where conversations surrounding race and religion are often marred by negative emotions such as hatred and fear," he said. "The place of worship has become the target of violence instead of a peaceful sanctuary for believers."

Madam Halimah, in her speech, said forging unity and drawing strength from diversity has always been and will continue to be part of the Singapore story. Social cohesion is not something that can be "commanded or dictated by any government", she added.

"It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day."

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