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Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Closing Session of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies, 21 June 2019, at Raffles City Convention Centre

21 Jun 2019
Minister Grace Fu,

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished guests, 

Ladies and gentlemen, 


1. It is very heartening to see so many religious leaders and scholars gathered here, to share ideas to strengthen social cohesion. 

2. Over the last two days, this conference has covered a wide range of issues on cohesive societies.  As the international community becomes more diverse, both within each society and across societies, it is critical to recognise our shared humanity and uphold harmony. 

a. Both President Halimah and His Majesty, King Abdullah II highlighted that everyone has a role in upholding interreligious harmony 

i. We saw the religious leaders of Singapore re-affirm their commitment to safeguard religious harmony in Singapore. 

ii. As King Abdullah II reminded us, we all have a role to play in reclaiming the moderate voice on the internet, on social media, and in the public space.  

3. The conference also confronted difficult questions, like how we should balance the different identities that we all carry – whether religious, communal or national – and more importantly, how we can enable these identities to coexist in harmony.  

4. These are important questions, because in order to draw strength from diversity, we must first live in harmony with people who have different beliefs, customs and practices. 

a. Throughout human history, we have had diverse societies.  Not all have been peaceful, but many of those that embraced their diversity thrived. 

b. In this region, the Malacca Sultanate of the 15th Century stands out in the annals of history.

i. The Sultanate became Muslim when Parameswara, later known as Iskandar Shah, converted to Islam after he met Chinese admiral and diplomat Zheng He. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim, was on his way to Africa. Islamic culture blended with the Hindu and Buddhist teachings of the archipelago. 

ii. As a port city, Malacca was remarkably cosmopolitan. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Turks, Siamese and Burmese, who were also Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Jews lived alongside each other.  They also intermarried, and exchanged cultures. The rich culture of the Peranakan and the Chetti Melaka communities are the legacies of these unions.  

Challenges to Cohesion-building 

5. How we draw unity from diversity is more important than ever because we live in an era marked by unprecedented levels of global trade, technological advancement and human migration. These three forces have combined in a way that has not worked for some people, and this has fuelled tension and conflict.

a. In some developed economies, while global trade has benefited many, it has also sharpened the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

b. Industries and jobs are being disrupted by new technologies, creating much uncertainty.

c. Against this backdrop of anxiety, fault-lines have deepened between different segments of society.   

6. This is exacerbated by the ease with which falsehoods, extremist and exclusive ideas proliferate through the internet. 

a. This has been exploited by those who seek to spread misinformation and sow discord to further their own agenda. 

7. Increasingly, nationalism and intolerance are displacing openness and harmony.

a. We have seen a resurgence of ultra-nationalist and supremacist hate groups, 

b. and increasing hostility towards minority communities, breeding disenfranchisement, and generating a vicious cycle of conflict.

How We Build Cohesion 

8. Every society will need to find its own path to cohesion, one that is shaped by its history, context, culture and demands of the time. But there is much we can learn from each other, and work with each other, in our effort to build cohesive societies. 

9. Allow me to share Singapore’s experience. 

a. Modern Singapore began as an entrêpot.

i. People from all over the world came here to trade, and many stayed. These traders brought their own religions and beliefs. 

ii. The Pew Research Centre has named Singapore the most religiously diverse country in the world. 

b. Today, we are fortunate to have peace and stability in our multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society. 

10. But Singapore was not always like this. We learnt how to build cohesion the hard way. 

a. Like many other British colonies, Singapore was managed along racial and religious lines before our Independence in 1965. Communities were kept apart geographically. So we had Chinatown, Little India and Geylang Serai, where different ethnic groups were placed.  

b. Racial tensions were not uncommon, and the 1950s and 1960s were turbulent times for Singapore. Over those two decades, several racially-motivated riots took place and a total of 58 people were killed while 835 were injured.[1]

11. When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, building a cohesive multi-cultural and multi-religious society was the Government’s top priority. To build cohesion in Singapore, over the years, we have approached this in three ways: 

a. First, we expand common spaces and shared experiences, while preserving racial and religious diversity. 

i. We established English as the working language of Singapore, so that people from different ethnic communities would have a common language to work and interact with one another, and with the world. 

ii. We introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989 to make sure that our HDB or public housing estates have a balanced mix of ethnic groups to promote interactions and foster racial harmony.

iii. We regularly rejuvenate our common spaces such as hawker centres, community centres and civic spaces - sometimes all rolled into one, like in Our Tampines Hub in my constituency!

iv. We emphasise the importance of shared experiences through our national school system and National Service in the uniformed services. Through these, Singaporeans from all walks of life, regardless of race, language or religions, come together. 

v. At the same time, we conserve our cultural and religious landmarks, and protect our heritage in precincts like Kampong Glam, Chinatown and Little India. We also observe and celebrate the festivals of the various ethnic and religious communities in Singapore. 

vi. But like most other countries, our demography is evolving. Life experiences and needs are also more varied. So Singapore is more diverse today than before. 

vii. Our increasing diversity means that our common spaces will be harder to maintain, and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded. 

b. The second way that we use to build social cohesion in Singapore is to stay vigilant to guard against forces that can tear society apart. 

i. We built and supported institutions to work together and foster understanding between different communities and groups.

a) We established the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which scrutinises bills that pass through Parliament to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

b) We formed the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which advises the Government on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony in Singapore. 

c) We also set up the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony (NSC), whose membership comprises apex leaders from major faith and ethnic groups, to guide the Government’s engagement on racial and religious harmony. 

d) At the constituency level, we have 89 Inter-Racial and Religious Circles (IRCCs) that act as platforms for community and religious organisations to network and collaborate.  These IRCCs bring together people of different faiths – to interact, to perform charitable acts and community services together. Through this process, we deepen understanding and trust. 

ii. Besides institutional structures, we have also put in place legislation to ensure that our fault-lines are less easily exploited by those who seek to do us harm. 

a) To deal with hate speech and the spread of misinformation, we have in place laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which allow us to intervene where necessary to protect our society.  

b) This is an evolving threat, and we must continue to be vigilant.

iii. As our racial and religious demographics shift, so too, must our approach to building bridges and encouraging discourse. 

a) For example, homogeneity of religion within ethnic groups is on the decline in Singapore. We have more interfaith families in Singapore now, where each generation may hold different religious beliefs. We should use this opportunity to deepen mutual understanding.

b) More people are also choosing not to affiliate themselves with traditional ethnic identities, or religion. Today, 22% of marriages in Singapore are between people of different ethnic groups, and nearly 20% of Singaporeans do not identify with a religion. We must learn to include their perspectives in our discourses. 

c. The third way that we promote cohesion is to work hard to provide Singaporeans with better lives, and to ensure that all Singaporeans get to share in the fruits of our progress. 

i. In growing our economy, we put a special focus on creating good jobs for all Singaporeans, regardless of which community they belong to. Our National Trades Union Congress, our labour movement, encapsulates this well with their tagline, ‘Every Worker Matters’. 

a) Some workers have benefitted more from this growth than others; this is why we continue to work hard to address social inequality, to better distribute the fruits of growth. We have been doing more to help low-wage workers, better provide for seniors in their retirement years, and to give children from underprivileged backgrounds a good start in life.  

12. Building an inclusive and cohesive society in Singapore is always a work in progress, and this is true for every other country. 

a. This is why conferences like the ICCS are important, so that we can learn from each other, and exchange best practices. 

13. This conference brings together people from government, academia, religious groups and the civic sector. Through the Young Leaders’ Programme (YLP), which is part of this conference, we reached out to the next generation of leaders. Everyone has a role to play in building cohesive societies. 

a. To Singaporeans in this audience, the Government is committed to working in partnership with you, to build a future where everyone plays a part, and feels a sense of belonging. 

i. I hope that we can build a democracy of deeds, where everyone chips in with our various strengths and passions to build a society we can all be proud of. 

b. To those who have come from 40 countries around the world to take part in this conference, I thank you for the perspectives you have contributed to broaden our horizons.  Countries around the world are all facing common challenges – be it global warming, global security, global economic growth, and sustainable development.   These common challenges can only be tackled effectively if the global community work closely together.  The foundation for this is mutual trust and respect, deeper understanding and harmony.  

i. We must build this foundation not only in our own society, but across societies around the world.  To combat extremist and intolerant views, we must work together to create an ever widening ripple of understanding, trust and respect. 

ii. I commend the initiatives of The Amman Message, A Common Word, the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, the Christchurch Call to Action, and other similar initiatives to deepen dialogues, and understanding.  

iii. The many religious leaders gathered here have also called on all of us to distil the commonality across all religions, which teaches us to be good, and to do good for one another, so that humans can continue to progress.

iv. Just as each society achieves more together than as disparate individuals, the global community achieves more together when all societies can pursue common goals and tackle common challenges. 


14. To conclude, humans have a deep spiritual impulse, to seek the meaning of life and the profundity of existence.  For thousands of years, religious beliefs in different parts of the world have guided and nourished people. But sometimes, differences have led to wars.    

15. So it is very meaningful to bring together leaders, thinkers and activists of all major faiths, across different continents, to engage in dialogues, learn new perspectives, and unite in a fellowship of respect and trust.  I applaud you for your commitment to building cohesion as well as deepening understanding and trust. Thank you for joining us in this conference. I look forward to continuing the discussion with you during the dialogue.  


[1] Sum of recorded casualties in the 1950 Maria Hertogh Riots, 1954 National Service Riots, 1964 Race Riots, and the 1969 Race Riots.