Think Tank (6/2023)
(L-R) ) Assistant Professor Lee Foong Ming, Associate Professor Paul Hedges, and Amb Ong Keng Yong
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Religion, Nationalism & Secularism: Intersection & Contestation
15 Nov 2023

The 6th SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium, convened by the Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, was held on 15 November 2023. Themed “Religion, Nationalism and Secularism: Intersection and Contestation,” the symposium featured distinguished lecturer, Prof Mark Juergensmeyer from the United States, as well as esteemed keynote speakers, Prof Rajeev Bhargava from India, Dr Ahmad Suaedy from Indonesia and Prof Lily Kong from Singapore. The event was attended by about 200 religious and community leaders, interfaith practitioners, public officials, academics, students, and other members of the public.

The symposium opened with welcome remarks delivered by Ambassador Alami Musa, Adjunct Senior Fellow at RSIS. In his speech, he highlighted the importance of building and shaping Singapore’s interreligious ecology through collaboration between community partners.

Prof Kumar Ramakrishna, Dean of RSIS, then spoke about global trends relating to hardline religious nationalism, the implications for Singapore, and offered some policy recommendations to address these trends.

Prof Mark Juergensmeyer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara; began his distinguished lecture by surveying the various strands of religious nationalism present globally today. He juxtaposed these instances with examples of nation-states that embrace secular multiculturalism. When concluding his lecture, he urged the audience to consider the trajectory ahead and contemplate the choices we can make to shape our future. Thereafter, Prof Juergensmeyer engaged in a two-way discussion with RSIS Senior Fellow, Dr Mohamed Ali.

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, Honorary Fellow and Director of the Parekh Institute of Indian Thought at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, explored the dynamics between religion and secularism in his keynote lecture. He explained that until recently, India provided a model of secularism that is distinct from other models, especially those from the West. He concluded that both religion and secularism must be continuously reimagined for religious pluralism to thrive.

Dr Ahmad Suaedy, Dean of Islam Nusantara Faculty at Universitas Nahdlatul Ulama, discussed the ways in which religion and nationalism have interacted in the Indonesian context historically. He emphasised that unity and plurality can be cultivated through the strengthening of civil society and civil Islam, both of which promote democratic principles and human rights.

Focusing on the Singaporean context, Prof Lily Kong, President of Singapore Management University, illustrated how the careful management of secular priorities and religious interests, specifically in relation to land use and religious attire, has enabled social cohesion in our multi-religious society.

The distinguished lecturer and keynote speakers then gathered for a lively Q&A session moderated by RSIS Distinguished Fellow, Ambassador Barry Desker. The panellists addressed questions relating to secularism, the public space, dialogue, the growing number of religious “nones” and more.

Finally, the symposium concluded with an animated conversation featuring Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman of RSIS, and Assistant Professor Lee Foong Ming of Buddhist College Singapore, and was facilitated by RSIS SRP’s Associate Professor Paul Hedges, which provided a lighthearted end to the day.

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