TL;DR – “Religion is like fire, it can warm, comfort and heat but fire can also destroy.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier had said that. But just who is Rabbi Arthur Schneier?
Well, he’s the president and founder of The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and he was also the person who had presented the 2019 World Statesman Award to our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 54th Annual Appeal of Conscience Awards Dinner to be held in New York, on Monday evening September 23, 2019.
“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be recognized for fostering a society that embraces multiculturalism in which ethnic communities maintain their unique way of life while at the same time living harmoniously,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
“For supporting a knowledge-based economy and an education system that provides its citizens with the necessary skills and knowledge to survive in a globally competitive environment and for implementing a renowned world-class health infrastructure.”
The World Statesman Award honors leaders who support peace and freedom by promoting tolerance, human dignity and human rights by championing these causes in their homeland and working with other world leaders to build a better future for all.
Congratulations, PM Lee!
PM Lee had given a speech when he received the award.
“It is my honor to accept the World Statesman Award. Singapore has embraced diversity and multiculturalism as fundamental ideals of our society. We strive to build a multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-religious society where people live peacefully and harmoniously together.”
“Singapore shares the Appeal of Conscience’s vision of a world underpinned by human dignity and respect.”
In his acceptance speech, PM Lee had touched on the Singapore experience, the challenges and also how we intend to tackle the. You can click here if you want to read the full speech.
“Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”
It was over this fundamental principle that we separated from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent country. Indeed, on the very day that we became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew declared that in Singapore “Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”.
The Pew Research Centre ranks us as the most religiously diverse country in the world
This founding philosophy has enabled us to grow into a diverse but harmonious society. We are racially and religiously diverse: 5.7 million Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others living together on an island slightly smaller than New York City. All the great religions are represented in Singapore – Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jews, and also Zoroastrians, the Parsis. The Pew Research Centre ranks us as the most religiously diverse country in the world. And today, it is a harmonious society.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
In the Federalist Papers No 51, the author (probably James Madison) wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Singapore’s approach to race and religion is based on a similar insight. We created structures – constitutional, political, social – that discouraged intolerance, curbed chauvinism, and nudged social behaviour in positive ways, long before nudging became intellectually fashionable.
Our state is strictly secular, but not anti-religion
Constitutionally, our state is strictly secular, but not anti-religion. Our religious communities trust the authorities to treat all faiths completely impartially. Laws are based on national interest, and not on religious commandments.
PM Lee explains our GRC system
We designed electoral rules to encourage multi-racial politics, instead of the politics of race and religion. In Parliamentary elections, political parties are required to present multi-racial slates to contest multi-member seats. You put up a team of four, five or six – one member of the team must belong to the minority race designated for that constituency and you compete against another team – team against team, and the better team wins.
The point of this is to discourage political parties from championing particular racial or religious groups, and dividing our society along primordial fault lines.
PM Lee explains the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for our HDB
This is reinforced by our public policies. For example, in public housing estates, where houses are sold to people and after some years you can then freely transact and resell the houses – we have ensured that every township, every precinct, every residential block, we have an ethnically mixed population. Since over 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing, we have no racial enclaves, we have no ghettoes. Every part of Singapore looks something like every other part – diverse and multi-racial.
PM Lee on social media
Thirdly, social media has altered the way people communicate. It helps provocative views to circulate and gain currency. Charismatic, radical preachers have built followings in the tens of millions online. A single offensive or thoughtless post that goes viral can be seen by millions within a few hours and create a tense situation when all was peace and calm the night before. It has become dangerously easy for people both to cause offence and also to take umbrage.
We must not allow those who spread toxic views and poison on the Internet to get away with what may literally be murder. Policing the Internet is a Sisyphean task, but we must keep our laws updated, and devise fresh and effective countermeasures. Thus we recently passed a new law – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – it gives the Government and the courts powers to require the correction of misinformation and falsehoods online, to take action against those who deliberately spread such untruths, and to deal with websites that give them a platform to do so.
Violence in the name of race or religion is a real and present danger
You can lock a terrorist away, but for how long? What do you do with their families, and how do you explain to the community? But if you can persuade him, turn him around, get him to see the light, and be able to get back into the community and integrate back and find a job, find his place and understand the error of his ways, then we have not only saved a soul; we have kept our community together.
“A crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion”
I hope future generations will cherish this harmony, realise how precious it is, and strengthen it further. We must never allow religion to be weaponised, or used as a front for other conflicts. As Rabbi Schneier has put it: “A crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion”.
Dr Henry Kissinger had nominated PM Lee for the award
An interesting tidbit from PM Lee winning this global interfaith award is that US politician Henry Kissinger had nominated PM Lee for the award. The former US Secretary of State is a close friend of Mr Lee Kuan Yew as well as a longtime friend of Singapore. PM Lee had said,
“So this means a great deal to me personally, and I think it would have meant a great deal to my father too.”
Dr Kissinger, 96, said: “When Singapore prime ministers arrive in Washington, they are always received by the President, not just as a courtesy, but to have an understanding about that part of the world.
“Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his son have taught us what it is like to live in a very small city, in a place surrounded by many big countries… I have had the good fortune of knowing the Lee family for most of my public life, and I have always believed in their contribution to peace and stability in Asia.”
Just one more! Madam Ho Ching’s in a dress!
PM Lee was accompanied by Mrs Lee at the event, and he had taken a photo of her with these lovely ladies. So rarely do we see our Madam Ho Ching clad in a floor-length dress!
She’s positively glowing!