Source: Halimah Yacob/Facebook

President Halimah Yacob underlines importance of appreciating diversity and upholding social cohesion in three-day conference

The importance of “engaging meaningfully” with and upholding social cohesion among members of a diverse Singapore society were the key messages conveyed by the President of Singapore Halimah Yacob throughout a three-day conference, which began on Wed (19 Jun).

Speaking to reporters on the second day of the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies yesterday (20 Jun), she said that the pledge made by over 250 religious organisations in Singapore can be taken up by members of Singapore society beyond the context of such religious communities.

“This is a commitment that can be used in different settings, such as community settings. It can be used to reinforce the values of cohesion, the need to preserve peace and harmony, used in schools, workplaces,” she added. “There is a multiplier effect, and that is something that we want to see,” said Madam Halimah.

In her opening address on Wed (19 Jun), Madam Halimah acknowledged that despite the advent of “globalisation and technology” that transcend borders, allowing “people, goods and ideas to move across borders more freely than ever before”, people have the tendency to “instinctively bond and connect with those who are like them”.

“The colour of one’s skin, the beliefs one holds, the customs one cherishes, are markers of identity, and can sometimes also become the fault-lines of mistrust and conflict. Indeed, there is growing urgency to our work in our respective countries and communities, to build bridges across such divides,” she added.

Citing the spread of the Daesh movement which has spurred similar terrorist attacks worldwide, and the subsequent “rapid rise of Islamophobia and acts of violence promoted by a resurgent Far Right”, Madam Halimah warned that the tendency to “find fellowship” only among those of the same race and/or religion “can invite host societies” to perceive immigrants as “threats to their own cultural cohesion”.

“Global mass migration of peoples has also created its own challenges, by fuelling both segregationist and nativist instincts. Quite understandably, immigrants seek out their countrymen upon arriving in an unfamiliar land, and adherents of a faith find fellowship with their co-religionists,” said Madam Halimah.

This is where strong leadership and deep social mobilisation come into play, according to the President.

“Leaders play an important role in promoting peace and social cohesion at both the national and international levels. But often, we see political leaders articulate division and conflict for their own personal agenda.

“Hence, all societal actors must play a part in managing diversity … From government leaders to individuals, from the media to educational institutions. We need to take ownership of our social harmony. We need to be role models for one another,” stressed Madam Halimah.

She called upon the audience to share similar positive values “universal to all religions and cultures” and practicing acceptance of differences among different communities, to create “dialogue and interaction to foster familiarity and friendships with one another” via shared passions such as sports, music, the arts, and even through eating together daily.

Madam Halimah observed that while “Singapore has come a long way from the days our immigrant forefathers formed ethnic enclaves” during the British colonial era and has since built a national identity in the form of “unity from diversity through legislation, policies and programmes”, the success of efforts in building social cohesion also lies beyond the government’s measures.

“We expanded common spaces so that all Singaporeans can live, study and work together. No one is discriminated or disadvantaged on the basis of race, language or religion. That is also enshrined in our national pledge, recited by all the children in schools every day. Everyone progresses based on their abilities and talents,” she said.

“Social cohesion is not something that can be commanded by any government. It can only be nurtured and inspired by each of us, and what we do every day. Friendships and connections will have to be built, face to face. Social trust has to be forged, one positive encounter at a time. Strength from diversity can only grow from dialogue, give and take, speaking and listening,” stressed Madam Halimah.

Local netizens, however, did not appear to take too kindly to the President’s message, as their comments suggest feeling patronised by the President’s address:

Several netizens also raised their lingering discontent with Madam Halimah’s ascension to the Presidential post, claiming that she does not represent their interests, given the circumstances in which she had taken up the role:

Madam Halimah has drawn flak from the public over her lineage, as her father is of Indian descent. The 2017 Presidential Election was a reserved election, in which candidacy was limited to Singaporeans of Malay ethnicity.

Prior to being elected – or “appointed” as many Singaporeans, including the above netizens, have argued – as the President of Singapore, Madam Halimah was a Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC under PAP. She was also the Speaker of Parliament.