PM Lee stresses need to tackle threats against religious harmony here

PM Lee: Laws must be up to date so authorities can act against those who sow discord among religious groups here

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday highlighted the need for unceasing efforts to maintain religious harmony in Singapore, as well as the importance of religious leaders who support the Government in building common ground.

He also said Singapore will have to update laws that allow the authorities to act against anyone who sows discord among religious groups, among other things.

Speaking at an international conference organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), Mr Lee noted that the Government has never had to invoke the powers granted by the 26-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

Nevertheless, the Act - by its very existence - has made an important contribution to Singapore's religious harmony, he said.

"We will have to keep the Act up to date, to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that may emerge, " he added.

Asked about these new threats, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli told reporters they have arisen from external influences that try to shape the way Singaporean Muslims live.

"For the longest time, I remember, we lived comfortably with our neighbours, whatever race or faith they were," he said at the two-day conference in the Grand Hyatt.

"And suddenly, there is a call to carve ourselves a niche; a particular identity that is very exclusive."

Taken to extremes, this can lead to the call for Muslims to set up their own caliphate in Syria, Mr Masagos added.

During his address, Mr Lee also spoke of the importance of building understanding between faiths.

This requires religious leaders who understand the broader social context, support the Government's efforts to build common ground and guide their followers on the right path, he said.

"By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise tear our society asunder," Mr Lee added.

He was addressing some 350 people, including religious scholars, interfaith leaders and asatizah, or religious teachers.

Mr Lee said that to build on existing efforts, Singapore will hold an international conference next year to bring together prominent thinkers, policymakers and practitioners to exchange views on social cohesion, with a focus on building interfaith relations.

Religion plays a vital role in every society, but it is also a deeply personal matter that can cause friction or misunderstanding if religious sensitivities are ignored, he said.

The current climate in many societies is one of heightened religiosity, with people more conscious of their religious identities and convictions, he noted.

"Therefore, fostering good interfaith relations is critical for multi-religious societies like Singapore."

Singapore, Mr Lee said, has established social norms of compromise and accommodation between people of different faiths after years of hard work.

"We were not always like this, but through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation, we have got here."