Stories > Building Bridges

2019 • Issue 3

Building Bridges

Global leaders discuss the virtues of a diverse yet cohesive society.


BY Toh Ee Ming


n a global climate of segregationist sentiments and distrust, societies have to focus on “building bridges and common spaces, not walls and watchtowers,” said President Halimah Yacob.

She was giving a keynote speech at the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), which took place in Singapore earlier this year, and brought together prominent global leaders of different faiths to discuss issues of belief, identity, and cohesion. She had mooted the idea of such an event, envisioning it as a high-level gathering of leaders of faith from around the world – similar to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which is attended by defence ministers and military chiefs from major world powers.

Almost 1,000 delegates from close to 40 countries attended the conference, which was organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University, with the support of Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. The list included academics, government officials and members of religious and civil society groups. Participants also took part in workshops to discuss topics such as overcoming hate, faith and technology, and peace-building efforts.

Participants also took part in workshops that explored topics on social harmony in a diverse society and interfaith dialogues aimed at promoting respect for all religions.

The conference is especially significant, given that it took place during Singapore’s bicentennial this year – a milestone in its history. President Halimah said social cohesion is of “existential importance” to Singapore, given its status as a multicultural, multi-religious, small city-state, with no natural resources except its people. Yet like many other countries, it faces a challenge in overcoming the forces of division.

President Halimah Yacob attended the inaugural three-day event held in Singapore, which saw a gathering of 1,000 delegates from around the world.

President Halimah pointed out that irrational fears and ignorance have fuelled the rapid rise of Islamophobia and acts of violence, even as globalisation makes the world more connected. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, more than a quarter of the 193 UN-recognised countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities that were motivated by religious hatred, mob violence, and harassment of women for violating religious codes.

“Moderate, Positive Voices Need To Reclaim This Space And Redirect The Dialogue Away From Misinformation, Insults And Fear, And Towards Understanding And Respect.”

King Abdullah Ii Bin Al Hussein, Ruler Of Jordan

Another threat is the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric, which takes on racial and religious overtones. “While it is natural for immigrants to seek out their own countrymen for a sense of belonging, such tendencies may result in host societies to see these immigrants as threats to their own culture,” she noted.

But what makes a cohesive society? A 2017 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development presents a quantitative, cross-country index of social cohesion covering more than 200 indicators. Based on the report, countries such as Canada and New Zealand with an important indigenous population, are able to achieve a high degree of social integration by successfully incorporating continuous recent waves of immigration.

The latter, for instance, scores highly on the measure of social cohesion and for having improved social harmony among diverse communities over the past two decades. The speakers outlined how building social harmony in Singapore has been made a top priority. Dr Mohamed Bin Ali, assistant professor at Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies, RSIS, noted that “in Singapore, government and communities work hand-in-hand to prevent cleavages and forge a cohesive society.”

At the national level, the government has established a common working language of English and introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of ethnic groups in public housing estates.

Singapore’s civic authorities, grassroots bodies and various cultural organisations also work together to rejuvenate important common spaces like hawker centres, conserve heritage sites like Kampong Glam, Chinatown and Little India as well as celebrate festivals of different ethnic and religious communities.

Bishop Emeritus Dr Wee Boon Hup noted that despite high religious diversity, Singapore has a high level of social cohesion driven by a combination of personal relations and formal structure as well as a continuous flow of information about other religions and practices.

Above from left Jordan’s ruler, King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein presented the keynote address; the event also brought together young leaders from around the region; a graphic visual from one of the workshops sheds light on values such as having a non-judgmental outlook, compassion and the willingness to learn in a diverse gathering.

Indeed, solutions are not “exclusively” the job of governments and big companies, said Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, who urged the youth to speak up on social media and networking sites, and use their talent for innovation to promote mutual understanding.

Notably, the World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) observed annually by the United Nations was first mooted by him in 2010. “Moderate, positive voices need to reclaim this space and redirect the dialogue away from misinformation, insults and fear, and towards understanding and respect. “A dialogue of respect is the bedrock of all societies,” said King Abdullah II.

From left: Indonesian Andri Rizki Putra (centre) is the founder of Yayasan Pemimpin Anak Bangsa, which provides free education to underpriviled students; Vietnamese Harry Pham founded Eco Vietnam Group non-profit organisation to serve the disadvantaged rural communities.

Two participants at ICCS discuss the universal ideals that bring communities together. The message of diversity resonated with Indonesian participant, equality-foreducation activist and lawyer Andri Rizki Putra. He is the co-founder of Yayasan Pemimpin Anak Bangsa (YPAB), a nonprofit organisation which provides free education to underprivileged students.

Since its establishment in July 2012, over 1,000 dropouts have benefited from the free education programme across three provinces – Jakarta, Banten, and North Sumatra – in Indonesia.

“We celebrate our differences by enagaging in educational activities as well as promoting tolerance among students who play an important role in tackling issues such as radicalism in the face of religious values,” he says.

YPAB’s students also interact and learn from volunteers, who hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds, religion and political views. Rizki adds: “We are proud that YPAB is known in Indonesia as an inclusive outfit that embraces people – volunteers and students – regardless of where they are from.”

The statement by Karen Armstrong, British author on comparative religion, left a deep impression on him, especially against the backdrop of the political elections in Indonesia, held earlier this year. Pointing out how Indonesia is founded by the value of ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (which means Unity in Diversity), he shares that the conference refreshed his “ideal towards [an] inclusive society” in Indonesia.

Likewise, the conference left a deep impression on Harry Pham, founder and president of Eco Vietnam Group (EVG), a non-governmental organisation set up in 2009 which provides quality education, ranging from primary school to high school to local students in rural areas, in addition to running community-specific initiatives. One of its projects includes building and managing the EVG Community Library for disadvantaged villagers. The facility functions like a school which caters to children between ages six through 18 years, and comes with multi-purpose classrooms with fully-equipped laptops to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, as well as a children’s playground.


“We serve different cultures such as the Kho Mu hill tribe as well as other religions,” says Pham. We need to respect and reassure people that despite our different ways of thinking and living, the intrinsic human values and principles do not differ from one society to another.”

Reiterating President Halimah’s point about unity, Pham says: “It is a call for everyone to act and contribute towards the unity, harmony and the peace that we all believe in.”


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