What does it take to get along? | Daily News

What does it take to get along?

To the west of Singapore lies Radin Mas. In the early years, it was called Kampong (village) Radin Mas, a small Malay village situated on the foothills of Mount Faber, in Telok Blangah. As Singapore grew, so did Radin Mas, and the Kampong turned into yet another high-rise suburb of the city-state.

Interventions in the form of the Ethnic Integration Policy which were introduced in 1989, to address the issue of ethnic enclaves in the Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates, made sure that your neighbour would always be of a different race and religion to you.

By 2015, electoral needs turned it into one major constituency consisting of five suburbs and 28,906 voters. A Pew Research Survey in 2014 declared Singapore to be the most religiously diverse place on the Earth with 10 officially recognised religions living side by side in every street and neighbourhood. Government intervention in schooling, housing and work has over the years ensured that people of all religions and ethnicities mix with each other, live side by side and have equal access to state resources. Things were going on fine until December of 2001 when the government uncovered a terrorist plot by a homegrown terror outfit calling themselves Jemaah Islamiyah, three months after the 9/11 attacks in the US - the cracks in their carefully crafted ethnic policy were beginning to show.

The government in a bid to introduce a programme that would mobilise the community in a time of crisis and to help further improve inter-community ties introduced the concept of Inter-Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) in 2002. An IRCC would be formed in every constituency, and grassroots leaders would work with religious leaders and groups to bring them together to deal with racial issues on the ground. More importantly, they were to help different religious communities in learning about each other while resolving any misunderstandings. Their role would also be to ‘calm the ground’ if racial tensions flared up in the event of a terrorist attack or any other racial attack took place and assist in the recovery process to help the communities return to normalcy.

Radin Mas IRCC Chairman Sarjit Singh came to Singapore when he was four years old. His father, like many Sikhs at the time, worked for the Police and moved with his young family from Malaysia to Singapore for better prospects. Though a Sikh, he studied at a Christian Brothers School in Radin Mas and grew up as a part of the generation which would experience Singapore changing from the Third World to the First. He was also a part of the generation which experienced race riots in 1964, where 22 people were killed as a result of a clash between the Chinese and Malays.

“As a boy, I remember what the clashes were like. We should do our best to not have a repeat of that,” said Singh. As an active member of the Sikh and neighbourhood communities, the IRCC work has become second nature to him. The 72-year-old electrical engineer sifts through his Whatsapp messages and points to the IRCC group which he has created. “We all are quite connected, all the religious leaders in the area are here. If there is an issue, we can contact each other immediately and resolve it before it blows up,” he said.

An IRCC village like Radin Mas does not have to deal with terror plots on a frequent basis, but their role has become important when it comes to diffusing everyday ethnic tensions. In highly urbanised and dense neighbourhoods, the possibility of a small annoyance turning into a major issue is high.

Singh talks of the time when he, as a member of the Community Mediation Board, had to intervene when non-Indian neighbours got annoyed with their Indian neighbour for burning incense sticks, “We talked to them and asked them why they were opposed to it and they said, ‘Oh! No, we don’t like the smell’. Then we explained it’s the cultural significance and tried to find a solution that both parties could accept.”

Members of the IRCCs are chosen by the government and MP of the area. The organisation operates through a top-down approach as government funds help run these groups. The members believe that without the government’s intervention in promoting ethnic harmony, the job cannot be done successfully.

Ammer Ali (67), the former Chairman of the Pasir Ris IRCC is a retired civil servant who now runs the Muslim Kidney Action Association. His office is lined with awards for public service and he was recently re-appointed as a Justice of Peace by President Halimah Yacob. His most coveted one, however, is a framed certificate from former President Nathan in recognition of his 31 years of service to his country.

“I look at myself as a true-blue Singaporean. Being an Indian is my ethnicity and of course my religion is Islam,” he said.

Ali also believed that a government needed to be proactive rather than reactive when it came to race relations in a country.

“It is the duty of the government to make sure there is stability in the country. So this is not interfering but intervention; interfere has negative connotations. The government won’t interfere with your religious beliefs, culture and way of life. But a responsible government must take proactive rather than reactive or remedial measures.”

Close to 80 percent of all Singaporeans live in high-rise Housing Development Board or HDB flats. This is a public housing programme where you are able to get a house through a lottery scheme. However, it is not free and the owners are bound to pay for it over a period of 30 years or more. Further every housing estate needs to maintain a certain ethnic quota to ensure that no particular community dominates. In addition, strict laws such as the Religious Harmony Act, Sedition Act and broadcasting rules ensure that anyone who tries to stir up tensions against another ethnic group would be strictly dealt with under the law.

As people moved into the high-rises, the government created the People’s Association (PA), a statutory board which would oversee neighbourhood grassroots communities and social organisations. It helped to bring neighbours together for various activities to promote social cohesion and multi racialism.

Though the PA worked on racial harmony, religious institutions remained in silos. After 9/11 attack, the government felt that religion should not operate in isolation and there needed to be a common understanding about each religious group and people, so they started to encourage a culture where people would visit each other’s institutions of worship, explained Ali.

“This was unheard of before. The religious groups were happy to share their customs and more importantly, their sensitivities. People needed to understand the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts, so they would not unwittingly offend any person of that faith.”

There are 89 IRCC groups today and each of them has links with religious leaders in the area, Ali believes that it has helped bring the religious communities together and move on from tolerance to acceptance.

“Tolerance has slightly negative connotations, tolerance does not remove ignorance - awareness does,” he said.

The IRCC groups also have helped Singaporeans build a culture of ‘curiosity of the other,’ stressed Ali.

Joseph Silverayan (78), a member of the Radin Mas IRCC representing the Catholics from the St. Theresa Church has firsthand experienced the benefits of this cultural difference.

“I am now more open and condone other religious practices. If not for the IRCC, I would detest practices like the burning of paper sometimes happens at the flat below causing pollution and ash, but now, I am more tolerant. If I were to go down somewhere, and there is a Hindu temple organising a wedding, the sounds of drums could irritate, but now I am more tolerant and come back later. These are adjustments you make in your life once you are more aware.”

“The IRCC has got its latent benefits. Earlier I would not tread into a Hindu temple, this was how I was brought up – ‘Don’t go there, don’t go near burning paper, there are bad spirits’. I did not have that exposure, so you become very intolerant. Look at the mosque and temple, you have to remove your shoes; I do not want to dirty my feet, but now we hold meetings inside temples. The IRCC taught me this,” he added.

When asked about the ‘culture of curiosity’ among Singaporeans, he said that given the fast-paced urban lifestyle of many, they not only showed little interest in other’s religion, but also their own, posing quite a challenge for IRCC activities.

“Even if we put up posters, hire a bus and appeal to people to come to see a new church, the attendance is paltry. So I can’t say that just because we are visiting a Hindu temple, the response is less, it is the same for all. People have their own likes and dislikes - and priorities. I go on that basis, rather than aversion. They are not averse to a group of people visiting a temple.”

With at least a few people like Silverayan being aware of the customs of other communities, it is useful when there are tensions on the ground. “If you have a problem with your neighbour, people will not run to the religious leaders. The first person they approach is people like us and we can respond because I am also an IRCC member. This approach here is more immediate, been contained, and the problem can be resolved. If 10 people come to know, there will be 10 interpretations, saying this temple has offended the church, but we don’t allow this to become a big issue.”

IRCC member training

Since the establishment of the IRCC, the government has rolled out several awareness and training programmes to educate IRCC members on topics such as ‘crisis management strategies’, ‘the current security climate’ and ‘combating the misuse of charities for terrorist financing’. They also conduct simulations on how the IRCCs should act in times of a terrorist attack or religious riot. Further, they also encourage religious organisations such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to come up with its own ‘crisis plans’ which would highlight what their own plan of action in times of crisis would be.

At a ‘Counter-Terrorism’ Seminar held in February 2017, organised by the Culture Community and Youth Ministry which manages the IRCCs, the Ministry’s Deputy Secretary Hugh Lim asked, “Firstly, when a terrorist attack occurs, how will our religious organisations respond? What will happen at a place of worship if it is attacked? Secondly, what role will other religious organisations play? How can they step forward to show leadership, to help, and to demonstrate resolve and unity in a time of crisis? Thirdly, before a terrorist attack occurs, what do religious organisations need to do, both as individual organisations and more importantly, as part of a larger community, to prepare themselves to deter and safeguard against terrorism, to say unambiguously that we reject terrorism and we stand united with fellow Singaporeans to guard against it?.”

Though the emphasis and interest in the government to set up the IRCCs has mainly been driven by a necessity to deal with increasing religious extremism around the world, the government, according to Lim, has also come to realise that “preparing our crisis response must go hand in hand with being an active member of the community in peacetime - recognising that we all are here together. This means that we understand one another better, we build friendship and trust across races and religions through cooperation and mutual support on everyday issues.”

Will it work without the government?

Despite the community engagement and ‘Harmony days’ to share each other’s cultures, Singh believed that the IRCC would not work if the government did not take a leading role in it.

“You need somebody to lead. I can stand up and say, come together, but people will ask, who are you? Why are you doing this? Who do you belong to? Are you trying to convert us? Are you trying to start a cult?”

Further, the strong push of the government to get people to mix in their own communities is also needed as societies develop ‘enclave mentalities’. “It is human nature for people to mix with their own group, that is what they are comfortable with,” admitted Singh.

With the government taking a neutral stance towards all religions, Singh explained that it allowed them to openly discuss any misunderstandings or worries they may have about each other.

Challenges

The biggest challenge which all IRCC members agree was getting the youth to participate. The success of the IRCC depended on how active the local IRCC was. Radin Mas IRCC Bahai member Susie Wong (57) lamented that the youth in Singapore were less interested in engaging in religion, even though there has been a general increase in religiosity overall. Being a Bahai, she is a minority within a minority with just 2,000 members in her community. Whilst the IRCC has helped make more people aware of her faith, her IRCC, in general, is having issues in finding more members and youth to replace them.

Her Chairman, Singh said they have tried many ways to get the youth hooked on social media to meet IRCC members, but have had little success. Most members are over 50 and everyone has been asked to nominate a young person from their own community to the group; few such persons attend meetings.

According to Silverayan, the practicalities of modern life make it very difficult to expect a young person who is starting a family and progressing in his or her career to divert time for community work. But cultivating the next generation - a generation which has not seen large-scale ethnic riots would be the key to ensure that Singapore’s formula continues to work in the coming decades.

(This story was written as a part of a research conducted during the Asia Journalism Fellowship 2018 in Singapore)

Inaugural IRCC Convention being addressed by Singaporean President Halimah Yacob.


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