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Room for improvement for inter-faith dialogue in Singapore. Terence Lee.

Constructive disharmony

Organisers of inter-religious dialogues in Singapore seem to like playing it safe, focusing too much on preaching harmony rather than facilitating constructive disharmony.

IF YOU'VE never been to an inter-religious dialogue, my advice to you is this: go for one.

Having attended one myself yesterday, I must say it has been a real learning experience where I've picked up a new fact or two about other religious faiths. The experience has also made me realise that Singapore is truly a unique place where different faiths can co-exist together in harmony.

(Photo: Religious conflict is a tragedy Singaporeans have managed to avoid after independence. Courtesy of Jordi Martorell / Creative Commons)

I'm not trying to sound like I'm speaking from some official government channel, but this is my insight fashioned from my interactions with the crowd who attended the dialogue.

My impressions

The monthly inter-faith dialogue was organised by South East Community Development Council, a quasi-governmental body that ensures the smooth running of the various estates in Singapore. While I feel generally positive about the whole dialogue, there were several things that I feel can be improved.

For example, for much of the dialogue, I felt that the various speakers and participants were too politically correct. A lot of niceties were exchanged, but they did not say anything substantially meaningful. Instead, such "harmony" talk dragged down the whole event, almost reducing it to a useless homily not unlike a boring Sunday sermon.

Face it, as much as we love harmony, talking about harmony is boring. I suppose the reason why people come for such dialogues is to learn about other faiths and to clear up certainmisconceptions and contentious issues about religion. Fortunately, during the Q&A session, things got a little bit more interesting when several interesting questions were asked.

Being slightly peeved by all this talk about harmony and how religions should always seek to agree, I spoke up during the session and talked about "constructive disharmony", and the need for constructive conflict rather than destructive conflict. While we should seek to find commonality among different faiths, there is also a need to sort out what the differences are, and what Truth is.

The fact remains that the Hindu Truth differs from the Christian Truth and the Buddhist Truth. My sense was that the various religious leaders were trying to assert their version of the Truth up on stage, but without overtly doing so. Already you see a contestation of beliefs, so why pretend it doesn't exist?

Thankfully, some of the religious leaders on stage did talk about the need to have robust debate as well, which gave me a sense of relief.

What happened at the dialogue

The whole event started with participants breaking up into groups and doing various activities together.

Firstly, we had to split into pairs and "exchange hats", meaning we try to tell one another what we know about each person's religious faiths. My partner was a Buddhist, so I had to tell him what I knew about Buddhism.

After that, we had to play a game where the group was split into two, and each subgroup had an architect. The job of the architect was to form a symbol using his group members to represent inter-faith relations. I was volunteered by the rest to be the architect, so I had my comeuppance by making them get down onto the floor and form a heart shape.

The whole session concluded with a discussion of interfaith issues.

After the breakout session, we gathered into the main hall where we listened as various leaders from the different religious faiths spoke out about religious harmony from their point of view. This was then concluded with a Q&A session.

What I've learnt

Nonetheless, despite some slight misgivings, I came out of the event learning more about other religious faiths, and getting a better sense of the overall religious landscape in Singapore:

1) Buddhists don't believe in a God.

Actually I was quite surprised to learn about this, because my impression was that they teach that anyone can become god -- or Buddha -- by attaining nirvana. But I left the dialogue with even more questions. If they don't believe in a God, then how do they answer the question of origin? How did things come to be, and who created the law of karma? These things can't always have existed, can they?

2) Hindus believe that everything is God.

An analogy was given of a spider's web. The spider can be likened to God, and the web the universe. However, since the web comes from within the spider and is a part of it, then the web can be described as God as well. However, if that's the case, then I'm still puzzled by the Hindu worship of various gods like Shiva and Vishnu. Why worship these specific gods when everything in life should be worshiped, say the computer in which I type this article on?

3) Conversions out of Islam

One area of concern I have about Islam is the topic of religious conversion. This is because I've heard of stories where a Muslim who wants to convert out of Islam is ostracised by the Malay community. In Singapore, the Malay community and Islamic faith are intimately intertwined. So if you are born in a Malay family, it would automatically mean that you are a Muslim.

However, a chat with the Muslim Imam (I forgot his name) made me understand that such emotional reactions from the family and community is not just exclusive to Islam, but to other faiths like Christianity as well. Instantly I was able to relate the Christian experience, where a believer who wants to opt out of the church is often faced with concerned enquiry from his churchmates.

As a result, a "backslider" often leaves quietly, choosing to make himself uncontactable to the rest. The backslider's situation is also not helped if his or her family is Christian.

The Imam told me that in the case of Islam, families will usually reconcile with their children after the initial emotional trauma, despite there being some religious bigots around. There is also the issue of the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) -- the Islamic religious council in Singapore -- counselling the ex-Muslim about his or her conversion, after the backslider informs MUIS of the decision.

But I was told that they have nothing to fear, as the counseling session is meant to ascertain if the religious conversion is genuine. If this is so, MUIS will then inform the family of their child's decision, and advice the parents to respect it.

However, while this process may seem innocuous, I do wonder if there is any coercion involved in practice still. After all, MUIS is an Islamic body, and the counselors are surely Muslim who have a vested interest in ensuring a person remains Muslim.

Final thoughts

One major area of concern I have with this dialogue however is that it is ultimately still government-driven. I wonder if citizens are taking their own initiative to organise their own dialogues, instead of leaving everything to the state.

Also, it seems that very few people I know have actually attended such sessions. Perhaps if Singaporeans are encouraged to organise their own dialogues, greater awareness and understanding between different faiths will result.

As a start, various religious clubs in the varsities can organise religious debates in the universities and schools. The objective is not to incite disharmony, but to create better understanding among groups. Even individuals can do their bit by blogging about inter-religious issues and discussing contentious issues that has to do with religion.

While we may be deterred by the Seditions Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, we will be safe as long as we are constructive in what we write about.

But the most important thing we must remember is that we need to get out of stale soliloquy about the merits of harmony, instead discussing constructively about what we both agree and disagree with. Ironically, one of the ways to foster harmony is to focus on conflict, because it remains the most effective way to generate interest.

In that sense, government officials can take a page from journalists, who are maestros of contention. After all, the journalism student is often taught that conflict often makes the best stories.

This article is also published in Irreligious, the author's blog on Christianity and religion.