“A nation cannot prosper if its people are divided,” stressed Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob. She was speaking at the opening dinner of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), organised by RSIS from 19 to 21 June 2019. “Social cohesion,” she said, “can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day.”
More than 1,000 delegates from government bodies, religious groups, civil society organisations, and academic institutions from close to 40 countries were gathered in Singapore for the ICCS, an idea that was mooted by President Halimah herself in May 2018. The objective of the conference, which was supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was to provide a platform for conversations on forging stronger interfaith understanding and sharing best practices for building more cohesive societies.
Delivering a keynote address at the conference, His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, underlined the need to address the narrative of hate that permeates many societies today. Among the priorities he singled out was the need for “moderate, positive voices” to reclaim “the tools of the modern world” that extremists have manipulated for their ends and use them instead to “redirect the dialogue away from misinformation, insults and fear, and towards understanding and respect.”
Apart from six breakout sessions and three plenaries, the conference featured a special presentation titled “Perspectives on Cohesive Societies”. The presenters were Assoc Prof Paul Hedges of the RSIS’ Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme and the prominent historian of world religion Ms Karen Armstrong, OBE; FRSL. The session was moderated by Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS, and Executive Coordinator of Future Issues and Technology. The plenaries revolved around discussions of how religious doctrines and practices can influence the way faith communities relate to one another, how identities can create perceptions of distinct communities, how competing interests stemming from different identities can be reconciled, and how diverse communities can engage with one other and recognise commonalities towards building cohesion. Preceding the conference was a two-day “Young Leaders’ Programme”, which provided a platform for the next generation of leaders to address challenges to social cohesion.
Bringing the conference to an official close was a dialogue with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat. In his remarks, Minister Heng talked about how Singapore had managed to maintain peace and stability by (i) expanding common spaces, while preserving racial and religious diversity; (ii) remaining vigilant to guard against forces that can tear society apart; and (iii) working hard to ensure that Singaporeans enjoyed bettered lives and all were able to share in the fruits of the country’s progress. But he stressed that building an inclusive and cohesive society in Singapore is always a work in progress especially as the country grows increasingly diverse.
The day after the conference, delegates were taken on a half-day visit to places of worship and cultural institutions in Singapore, which gave them the opportunity to discover the diversity of religious communities and cultures in Singapore. An exhibition titled “Many Beliefs, One Future“, which was organised in parallel with the conference, presented community artefacts and artworks that capture how people of different beliefs connect with one another. A weekend programme, “Heartland Dialogues and Experiences”, curated by Singapore’s OnePeople.sg, gave the general public the opportunity to experience elements of the conference.