Diverse forms, common ideal | Daily News


International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS)

Diverse forms, common ideal

Halimah Yacob's swearing in.
Halimah Yacob's swearing in.

An International Conference on Cohesive Societies was held in Singapore recently. Highlights of some presentations are featured today. We have many lessons to draw.

Speech by President Halimah Yacob

We are here because we believe in a common ideal – that diversity in all forms, within and across societies, is a source of strength that can enrich our lives, our countries and our world.

The colour of one’s skin, the beliefs one holds, the customs one cherishes, are markers of identity, and can sometimes also become the fault-lines of mistrust and conflict. Indeed, there is growing urgency to our work in our respective countries and communities, to build bridges across such divides.

In the past 10 years alone, there have been nearly 20,000 terror-related fatalities worldwide annually. Religions have been hijacked by terrorists and radical preachers to justify murder and destruction. Since its proclamation as the Islamic State in 2014, the terrorist group known as ISIS has directed or inspired terrorist attacks around the world, from Bandung to Berlin to San Bernardino, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries. The direct human cost has no doubt been devastating. But just as extreme and deadly and fuelled by the same irrational fears and ignorance, is the menace and rapid rise of Islamophobia and acts of violence promoted by a resurgent Far Right.

King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

A nation cannot prosper if its people are divided. A society cannot be proud if its people distrust each other. Only a cohesive society built upon mutual trust can harness the strength of its diversity, so that its people can build a better future. And this trust has to begin with a discourse anchored on cohesion, not division; on unity, not discord; on respect, not distrust; and on building bridges and common spaces, not walls and watchtowers. Leaders play an important role in promoting peace and social cohesion at both the national and international levels. But often, we see political leaders articulate division and conflict for their own personal agenda. Hence, all societal actors must play a part in managing diversity - from government leaders to individuals, from the media to educational institutions. We need to take ownership of our social harmony.

Upholding the common good means holding our differences not in opposition to one another, but bringing our differences together to build a future that we all share. What makes us different is what we are; what unites us is what we do. However different we all are, we rely on one another for security, stability and prosperity. Ultimately, our victories – and our failures – are shared.

Ultimately, social cohesion is not something that can be commanded by any government. It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day. Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face. 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.

Keynote speech by King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

I say “single most” because every global challenge in this 21st century demands we resist hatred and exclusion. Economic growth, peacemaking, protecting the environment, global security, inclusive opportunity—all these critical goals require that we cooperate, and combine our strengths to our common benefit. After the recent, murderous attacks on houses of worship in Christchurch and Sri Lanka, after so many terrorist actions around the world, who hasn't seen the evil that extremists will do to drive us apart?

But we must also see, clearly, the tremendous power we have, as a united world, to defeat these evils and secure the future our peoples deserve.

The vast majority of people on earth are members of a spiritual community. Each has its own traditions and convictions. But our world religions also have something profound in common—the commandment to show compassion and respect for others.

In 2015, seeking a new paradigm for international cooperation in global security, Jordan initiated the Aqaba Process. At the heart of this ongoing effort is addressing the narrative of hate wherever it is found. Dialogue between governments, civil society, and the technology sector has been central. And we are seeing results. In fact, as we have seen time and again, we all do better when we speak to each other, and work collectively. But solutions are not exclusively the job of governments and big companies. In a very real way, the Internet belongs to its users. Moderate, positive voices need to reclaim this space and redirect the dialogue away from misinformation, insults and fear, and towards understanding and respect. Young men and women have a vital role in speaking up on social media and social networking sites, and using their talent for innovation to promote mutual understanding and hope.

We face a complex and evolving threat. Meeting it demands a holistic approach addressing security and also the issues that extremists exploit. And that means investing in inclusive, sustainable development, so that all people—especially the young people—can share in opportunity, fighting the war of ideas to combat divisive ideologies.

Perspectives on Cohesive Societies

Associate Professor Paul Hedges spoke on behalf of Katherine Marshall, who was unable to attend the ICCS. Marshall’s argument was that diversity was a feature of today’s society and while we all developed notions of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ to make sense of the world, the key was how the relations between these groups were managed to build social cohesion. To promote cohesion, we need development, inclusion and engagement of youth, engaged dialogue, and leadership. Leaders served as agents of social change, and representation of diverse communities.

Ms. Karen Armstrong spoke on the religious reasons for a need for social harmony. She argued that God was not comprehensible, God was intrinsically unknowable and transcendent, but different religious traditions each had a particular insight into God. What all religions did have in common was a Golden Rule: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” She argued that this was not just a nice idea but an urgent global imperative. She suggested that religion was not a private affair but all contained a call for compassion, with an imperative to create just and decent societies where all people are treated with respect.

Democracy of deeds

Closing remarks and dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance of Singapore, Heng Swee Keat.

To build cohesion, DPM Heng said every society needs to find its own path. He related the Singapore experience and stated that the country need to stay vigilant against divisive forces, including evolving policies to move with the changing challenges. He said the Government is committed to working in partnership with Singaporeans through a ‘democracy of deeds.’

How we come together

Dr. Anna Halafoff said there was a clash within civilisations, between those with inclusive ‘Cosmopolitan’ and exclusive ‘Anti-Cosmopolitan’ views. Anti-cosmopolitan actors feel threatened by globalisation – and this may lead to anti-cosmopolitan extremism.

The interfaith movement has four aims: Developing understanding of diverse faiths, challenging exclusivity and normalising pluralism, addressing global risks and injustices, and creating peacebuilding networks. She called for a critical religious pluralism focused on liberation from inequality, acknowledging religions’ roles in both creating and ameliorating structural violence.

Lessons for us

April 2019 reminded us cruelly our fragility as a nation to maintain peace amongst ethnic groups. A surprise given our contemporary history. The task of stitching back together sensitively our torn fabric remains. An effort to create a national action plan was announced in the print medium. The piece today provides very many leads to assist us.


What we believe (Faith)

Christian Picciolini recounted he felt alienated as a youth, which pushed him to delinquency, but not extremism. The push to extremism was not ideology, but from ‘potholes’ such as traumas, abuse, poverty, joblessness, or even privilege that keeps one in bubbles. At the fringes are extremists who offer alternative narratives, which could include racists, the Islamic State, drug abusers, or criminals.

Successfully engaging with extremists was not about telling them they are wrong, but addressing the ‘potholes’ that make them susceptible to extremism. Hatred is a learned behaviour, and can also be unlearned. He said it needed to be treated in a ‘public health’ way: One had to treat the sick, but also inoculate the public from the ideology. 

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