SINGAPORE — It is important for religious leaders to weigh in on matters concerning people in their communities because their guidance has helped to foster and nurture religious harmony, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.
The minister was touching on online comments that people have been making — about how religious leaders should not be involved in giving guidance or advice to their community with regard to the Israel-Hamas war.
“I am at a loss to understand why some think this. This is not how we have the peace and harmony that we have today in Singapore,” Mr Shanmugam said.
In response to TODAY’s queries, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that his remarks were not directed at any particular comment or incident.
The minister said this in a speech before a documentary screening organised by the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO). Titled Technologies of the Soul, it showcases the richness of Singapore’s religious landscape.
Mr Shanmugam said that over the years, the IRO has organised many inter-religious dialogues and initiatives to “set the example at the highest levels of religious leadership” for Singaporeans, as well as to reinforce the importance of religious harmony.
The screening takes place against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas, which the minister noted has left more than 10,000 Palestinians dead and more than 1.5 million people displaced.
What is happening in Gaza is a political conflict, and that “there are actors on all sides who are misusing religion for their particular political aim”, he said.
“Given that religion is being invoked by many around the world, in this region, religious leaders and the IRO have a role and important duty to guide our communities,” he added.
“We have seen how this issue, around the world and in our region, has caused tensions. For example, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Jews and non-Jews, communities turned against each other.”
The situation in Singapore has been quite different, he said.
“One of the key reasons for this: Our religious leaders have given guidance,” he continued.
“The Mufti (Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir) has given guidance — for example, on how to pray for those suffering, on contributing to humanitarian efforts, and the importance of checking the information we see for accuracy.”
He noted that just one week after the Israel-Hamas war started, Singapore’s Chief Rabbi Mordechai Abergel and Dr Nazirudin exchanged letters with each other, affirming the longstanding trust, confidence and friendship between Jews and Muslims here.
They also made a “common plea for the lives of the many thousands of Israelis and Palestinians caught in the conflict”, Mr Shanmugam said.
PAST ACTIONS BY RELIGIOUS LEADERS
The minister gave several examples of how Singapore’s religious leaders had guided their communities in past incidents.
After the events of Sept 11 in the United States, the Mufti, or religious leader of the Muslim community, at the time had condemned the terrorist attacks and emphasised that suicide bombings were against Islamic teaching.
Then in 2014, following the escalation of violence in Gaza and the Islamic State capturing some parts of Iraq, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore had issued guidance on how to pray for the victims and for the region, and how to contribute to humanitarian aid.
In the past five years, the National Council of Churches of Singapore and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) had issued religious guidance or statements on more than 10 issues, relating to national or international developments, Mr Shanmugam pointed out.
“It is, in fact, important for religious leaders to weigh in on matters that concern people in their communities,” he said.
“We draw a line between religion and politics, but it is important that religious leaders give guidance to their communities — on prayer, on assisting, on how they can help others in distress — this has always been the practice in Singapore.”
During a recent Muis forum, Dr Nazirudin revealed that the council is refining a religious advisory to help the Muslim community better manage their religiosity in a positive way when affected by conflicts such as the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Mr Shanmugam described the inter-religious harmony in the country as “quite unique and remarkable”, especially when looking at what is happening elsewhere.
He referred to a Pew survey in 2022, which found that a majority of Singaporean adults who are religious are “very tolerant and accepting” of other faiths.
It also found that most Singaporeans see the country’s religious diversity as something that makes Singapore a better place to live in.
“What we have today did not happen by chance,” Mr Shanmugam said to his audience at the screening.
“Generations of leaders in Government, religion and community — like many of you here — have put in hard work, deliberate effort, to foster and nurture the religious harmony we enjoy today.”