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Singapore hosts inter-faith leaders from Asean, set to hold international conference next year

Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times

3 December 2018

SINGAPORE - Singapore is set to host its first international conference on social cohesion and inter-faith harmony in 2019, President Halimah Yacob confirmed on Monday (Dec 3), as 40 inter-faith practitioners and activists from around the region gathered here for an inaugural exchange programme.

This comes about half a year after she mooted the idea of holding a high-level dialogue on the topic.

"Constructive dialogue is fundamental to forging mutual understanding, respect and trust," she said at the launch of the regional inter-faith exchange programme, Faithfully Asean, at the National Library Building. "These are the building blocks of any cohesive society, as well as a united Asean."

In her opening address, Madam Halimah noted that "there are forces which tear at the fabric of our societies", such as the dangerous ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which continues to influence people around the world.

"We need to guard against their divisive narratives, which seed prejudice within our societies," she added. "It is through diversity that we generate ideas and practices which are more resilient to external changes."

She urged inter-faith practitioners and activists from Asean countries who are taking part in Faithfully Asean to work together and share their experiences, as well as help those in need.

"Through finding common ground, we can deepen mutual trust and understanding so that we can navigate through an increasingly complex world together," she said, stressing Singapore's commitment to working towards a united and cohesive Asean as well.

On Monday, the 40 participants joined their counterparts from Singapore's faith institutions and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle at the start of Faithfully Asean, a four-day programme supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

The exchange includes a lecture by and a dialogue with Dr Noor Huda Ismail, visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. It also features dialogues on food and pilgrimages by Common Senses for Common Spaces, a series of inter-faith discussions first conducted by the South East Community Development Council in 2016.

Over the next three days, participants will visit the Mahakaruna Buddhist Society, the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, the Islamic Religious Council's harmony centre, as well as the Church of St Mary of the Angels.

In his opening address, Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman called Faithfully Asean a "timely initiative and reminder that we need to step up our engagements... given the increasing menace of radicalism, extremism and exclusivism that has penetrated our region".

"Diversity is beauty with bountiful benefits and blessings," he said. "But it has to be properly managed, else it can turn regrettably ugly, or bloody, as we have witnessed in some parts of the world and our region."