This speech by Lee Hsien Loong is widely circulated on the Internet. As always, there will be those who miss out on it. This is published here specially for them. It may be late but it’s still a good read anytime.
"To live peacefully together, we need good sense and tolerance on all sides, and a willingness to give and take. Otherwise, whatever the rules there will be no end of possible causes of friction." PM Lee, on how fragile religious and racial harmony is in Singapore and how crucial it is to be tolerant
SO what are these risks? Let me just highlight three of them.
Aggressive preaching - proselytisation. You push your own religion on others, you cause nuisance and offence. You have read in the papers recently about a couple who surreptitiously distributed Christian tracts which were offensive of other faiths, not just of non-Christians but even of Catholics. They were charged and sentenced to jail.
But there are less extreme cases too which can cause problems. We hear, from time to time, complaints about groups trying to convert very ill patients in our hospitals, who don't want to be converted, and who don't want to have the private difficult moments in their lives intruded upon.
Intolerance is another problem - not respecting the beliefs of others or not accommodating others who belong to different religions. You think of this one group versus another group, but sometimes it happens within the same family.
Sometimes we have parents from traditional religions whose children have converted. The parents have asked to be buried according to traditional rites and their children stay away from the funeral or the wake. It's very sad. From a traditional point of view, it's the ultimate unfilial act but it does happen occasionally.
Exclusiveness is a third problem - segregating into separate exclusive circles, not integrating with other faiths. That means you mix with your own people. You'll end up as separate communities.
We foresaw these dangers 20 years ago. We passed the Bill, Maintenance of Religious Harmony, in 1989/1990.
Before we did that, then PM Lee Kuan Yew and the key ministers met all the religious leaders. We had a closed-door session at MCYS. We spoke candidly. We explained our concerns, why we wanted to move this Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The religious leaders spoke up candidly, they gave us their support. We moved with their support.
We continue to keep in close touch with them, to meet regularly. I do that personally, exchange views, keep the line warm and the confidence on both sides so that I know you, you know me. If there is a problem, we are not dealing with strangers but with somebody we know and trust.
Once or twice, I've had to meet them over specific difficult cases. No publicity, relying on mutual trust and the wisdom of our religious leaders to defuse tensions. I'm very grateful for their wisdom and for their support. Because of this active work behind the scenes, we've not needed to invoke the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act for 20 years. But it's something which is important to us which we must keep for a long time.
Four basic rules
We can never take our racial and religious harmony for granted. We must observe some basic principles to keep it the way it is.
First, all groups have to exercise tolerance and restraint. Christians cannot expect this to be a Christian society, Muslims cannot expect this to be a Muslim society. Ditto the Buddhists, the Hindus and the other groups.
Many faiths share this island. Each has different teachings, different practices. Rules which only apply to one group cannot become laws which are enforced on everyone. So Muslims don't drink alcohol but alcohol is not banned. Ditto gambling, which many religions disapprove of, but gambling is not banned. All have to adopt 'live and let live' as our principle.
Secondly, we have to keep religion separate from politics. Religion in Singapore cannot be the same as religion in America, or religion in an Islamic country.
Take Iran, an Islamic country. Nearly everybody is Shia Muslim. Recently, they had a presidential election which was fiercely contested between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, and the outcome was disputed. Both sides invoked Islam. So Mousavi's supporters had a battle cry - Allahu Akbar (God is Great).
In Singapore, if one group invokes religion this way, other groups are bound to say: 'I also need powerful support. We'll also push back invoking our faith.' One side insists: 'I'm doing God's work.' The other side says: 'I'm doing my God's work.' Both sides say: 'I cannot compromise. These are absolute imperatives.' The result will be a clash between different religious groups which will tear us apart.
We take this very seriously. The People's Action Party reminds our candidates, don't bring all the friends from your own religious group. Don't mobilise your church or your temple or your mosque to campaign for you. Bring a multi-racial, multi-religious group of supporters. When you are elected, represent the interest of all your constituents, not just your religious group in Parliament. Speak for all your constituents.
Thirdly, the Government has to remain secular. The Government's authority comes from the people. The laws are passed by Parliament which is elected by the people. They don't come from a sacred book. The Government has to be neutral, fair.
We are not against religion. We uphold sound moral values. We hold the ring so that all groups can practise their faiths freely without colliding. That's the way Singapore has to be.
You may ask: Does this mean that religious groups have no views, cannot have views on national issues? Or that religious individuals cannot participate in politics? Obviously not.
Religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues. They have done so on the IRs, organ transplants, 377A, homosexuality.
And obviously many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists participate in politics. In Parliament, we have people of all faiths. In the Cabinet too.
People who have a religion will often have views which are informed by their religious beliefs. It's natural because it's part of you, it's part of your personality. But you must accept that other groups may have different views informed by different beliefs and you have to accept that and respect that.
The public debate cannot be on whose religion is right and whose religion is wrong. It has to be on secular, rational considerations of public interest - what makes sense for Singapore.
The final requirement for us to live peacefully together is to maintain our common space that all Singaporeans share. It has to be neutral and secular because that's the only way all of us can feel at home in Singapore and at ease.
Let me explain to you with specific examples.
Sharing meals. We have different food requirements. Muslims need halal food. Hindus don't eat beef. Buddhists sometimes are vegetarian. So if we must serve everybody food which is halal, no beef and vegetarian, I think we will have a problem. We will never eat meals together. So there will be halal food on one side, vegetarian food for those who need it, no beef for those who don't eat beef.
Let's share a meal together, acknowledging that we are not the same. Don't discourage people from interacting. Don't make it difficult for us to be one people.
Our schools are another example of common space where all races and religions interact. Even in mission schools run by religious groups, the Ministry of Education has set clear rules, so students of all faiths will feel comfortable.
You might ask: Why not allow mission schools to introduce prayers or Bible studies as compulsory parts of the school activity or as part of school assembly?
Why not? Then why not let those who are not Christian, or don't want a Christian environment, go to a government school or go to a Buddhist school? Well, if they do that, we'll have Christians in Christian schools, Buddhists in Buddhist schools, Muslims in schools with only Muslim children and so on. I think that is not good for Singapore .
Therefore, we have rules to keep all our schools secular and the religious groups understand and accept this.
For example, St Joseph 's Institution is a Catholic brother school but it has many non-Catholic students, including quite a number of Malay students. The Josephian of the Year in 2003 was a Malay student - Salman Mohamed Khair.
He told Berita Harian that initially his family was somewhat worried about admitting him to a Catholic school. He himself was afraid because he didn't know what to expect. But he still went because of SJI's good record. He said: 'Now I feel fortunate to be in SJI. Although I was educated in a Catholic environment, religion never became an issue.'
Indeed that's how it should work. I know it works because I understand that Malay students in SJI often attend Friday prayers at Baalwie Mosque nearby, still wearing their school uniforms. SJI thinks it's fine, the mosque thinks it's fine, the students think it's fine, and I think it's fine too. That's the way it should be.
Another example of common space - work. The office environment should be one which all groups feel comfortable with. Staff have to be confident that they will get equal treatment even if they belong to a different faith from their managers - especially in government departments, but in the private sector too.
I think it can be done because even religious community service organisations often have people who don't belong to that religion working comfortably and happily together. This is one very important aspect of our meritocratic society.
Thus we maintain these principles: exercise tolerance, keep religion separate from politics, keep a secular government, maintain our common space. This is the only way all groups can live in peace and harmony in Singapore .
Aware and responsible church leaders
This is the background to the way the Government looked at one recent issue: Aware.
We were not concerned about who would control Aware because it's just one of so many NGOs in Singapore. On homosexuality policy or sexuality education in schools, there can be strong differences in view but the Government's position was quite clear.
But what worried us was that this was an attempt by a religiously motivated group who shared a strong religious fervour to enter civil space, take over an NGO it disapproved of, and impose their agenda. It was bound to provoke a push back from groups that held the opposite view, which indeed happened vociferously and stridently.
The media coverage got caught up and I think the amplifier was turned up a bit high.
This was hardly the way to conduct a mature discussion of a sensitive matter where views are deeply divided. But most critically of all, this risked a broader spillover into relations between different religions.
I know many Singaporeans were worried about this, including many Christians. They may not have spoken aloud but they raised one eyebrow.
Therefore, I'm very grateful for the very responsible stand which was taken by the church leaders. The National Council of Churches of Singapore issued a statement that it didn't support churches getting involved. There was also the statement by the Catholic Archbishop. Had these statements not been made, we would have had a very serious problem.
The Government stayed out of this but after the dust had settled, I spoke to the religious leaders, first the Christians and then the religious leaders of all faiths, so that everybody understood where we stood and what our concerns were. So we can continue to work together to strengthen our racial and religious harmony.
Unusually serious subject
This is an unusually serious and heavy subject for a National Day Rally. Normally, you talk about babies, hongbaos, bonuses.
No bonuses tonight but a bonus lecture on a serious subject. We discussed this in Cabinet at length and decided that I should talk about this. I crafted the points carefully, circulated them many times. Different presentations in Mandarin, Malay and English, because different groups have different concerns, but a consistent message so that there's no misunderstanding.
I also invited the religious leaders to come and spend the evening with us tonight. They can help us to help their flocks understand our limitations, to guide them to practise their faiths, taking into account the context of our society. Please teach them accommodation, which is what all faiths teach. I look forward to all the religious groups continuing to do a lot of good work for Singapore for many years to come.
Finally, let me share with you one true story which was published recently in an Indian newspaper, The Asian Age, and picked up by The Straits Times. It was about a young man from Gujarat , a Muslim, who migrated to Singapore after the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.
A train carrying Hindu pilgrims was stopped in Ahmadebad and set on fire. The circumstances were unclear but 50-odd men, women and children burnt to death, trapped in the train. The Hindus rioted. They had no doubt what the cause was. One thousand people died, mostly Muslims because Ahmadebad has a large Muslim community.
So this young Muslim decided to come to Singapore after the riots. We call him Mohammed Sheikh. It's not his real name because he still has family there. The article said: 'During the bloody riots, he watched three of his family members, including his father, getting butchered. His family had to pay for being Muslim.
'Besides losing his family and home, Mohammed lost confidence and faith in the civil society. He didn't want to spend the rest of his life cursing his destiny. He wanted to move on.'
So seven years ago, Mohammed came to Singapore and got a diploma in hospitality management. Now he is working in an eatery and he hopes to open his own business one day. He told the interviewer, had he stayed in Gujarat , 'I would have been hating all Hindus and baying for their blood, perhaps.'
Now 'he loves it when his children bring home Hindu friends and share snacks'. He told the interviewer proudly, 'My children have Christian, Buddhist, Hindu friends.'
He even hopes to bring his mother to Singapore so she can see for herself that people of different races, different faiths can be friends. The interviewer asked him what Muslim sect he belonged to and which mosque he went to in India. He said: 'I don't want to get into all that. Now I am just a Singaporean. And I am proud of it.'
This story reminds us that while we must not neglect to strengthen our harmonious society, we are in a good position.
So let us rejoice in our harmony but let us never forget what being a Singaporean means. It's not just tolerating other groups but opening our hearts to all our fellow citizens.
If we stay cohesive, then we can overcome our economic challenges and continue to grow.
This is how we've transformed Singapore over the last half century - solving problems together, growing together, improving our lives.
From the Singapore River to Marina Bay, we've totally transformed Singapore over the last half century. 1959 was a moment of great change but nobody at the Padang in June 1959 imagined the change in today's Singapore.
We will continue to improve our lives, provided we work together and remain a harmonious and a cohesive society so that in another 50 years, we would have built another Singapore, which is equally unimaginable today.
The key is to stay united through rain or shine.