Living with Diversity: Religious Harmony in Singapore

Calendar 22 Oct 2020
Time 4.00 pm – 5.00 pm, GMT+8 
Location Zoom
cpd2 SIP CPD Pts 
BOA-SIA members: no lectures or webinars will award CPD points this year as CPD requirements are waived


Cities grapple with managing social diversity, such as increasing polarisation in race and religion. Professor Yaacob Ibrahim shares Singapore’s lessons in achieving harmony between diverse faith communities. Professor Lily Kong highlights the changing nature of religion and its implications for managing religious groups, spaces and relations in cities.

This webinar is jointly organised with the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. 

Webinar Video




Selected Findings on Religious Relations from the (PDF: 256kB)

Webinar Takeaways

Four pillars of government action

Prof Yaacob highlighted the active participation of all sectors – the people, public and private sector – in managing racial and religious harmony. He shared how the Singapore government’s role rests on four key pillars:

  1. Laws to protect minorities and uphold religious harmony such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act;
  2. Institutions to protect minorities rights such as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) that evaluates legislation for unintended biases towards any race;
  3. Policies to uphold fairness and equality such as the bilingual policy and land planning for adequate places of worship, and
  4. Programmes to bring different communities together, such as the Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCCs) where local and religious leaders meet regularly to forge trust and understanding.

Prof Kong also agreed that the government is responsible and well positioned to be the arbitrator and manage conflict between different religious communities. She added that governments should always have a sense of the thoughts of different segments of society, and keep the needs of the people in mind, to avoid being railroaded into taking the views of the vocal minority on social media or in petitions.

Community and religious leaders need to lead the way

Both Prof Yaacob and Prof Kong emphasised the importance of the community and religious leaders in maintaining racial and religious harmony. Prof Kong shared that religious leaders played a big role not only in building relations within religious groups, but also bridging relations between different groups. Prof Yaacob shared that religious leaders need to consistently share inclusive messaging to their congregation, manage inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations through existing platforms, and teach the congregation how to relate to people of other religions.

Private sector rarely mentioned, but still important

Prof Yaacob noted that the private sector is rarely mentioned, but is still important for maintaining harmony. He shared how human resource (HR) policies should allow different groups to be employed and ensure all religious needs are met. Prof Yaacob qualified that he was not proposing businesses to adopt racial quotas, but was emphasising how cross-cultural understanding must underpin businesses operations in Singapore. Advertising and media companies also have the added responsibility of ensuring that their messaging does not promote stereotypes.

The goal to increase the common spaces

Prof Yaacob defined the common space as where all religious communities co-exist, such as housing estates, public schools, hawker centres and public parks. He shared that the goal is to increase common space for greater interaction among the different communities. Prof Yaacob also noted that where religious spaces are close to housing estates, religious institutions should become part of the community. Prof Kong similarly highlighted that organising common activities can bring different religious groups together, bridging relationships and enhancing understanding.

The Changing Nature of Religion

Prof Kong noted that religion is not an immutable category, and thus there will be differences in the way the same religion is practiced across societies in different countries, due to cultural norms. Prof Kong shared that people thus need to be “constantly conscious” of evolution and transformation, and how religious groups, even within the same faith, interact. Prof Kong emphasised that what might have worked as a practice of policy or management may not always remain relevant, and one needs to be alert to these changes, or risk breeching relations both within and between groups.

Emerging Trends and Challenges

Prof Kong shared five areas of global change that may impact religion: increasing mobilities, increasing digitalisation of societies, ageing population, environmental change and degradation and growing urbanisation. With increasing mobilities and migration, different practices of the same religion may lead to divergence and division. Prof Kong gave the example of the migration of Northern Indians to Singapore, which has led to greater diversity and differing practices in the local Hindu population in Singapore, who are mostly from Southern India. Similarly, the digitalisation of society may result in the importing of foreign practices. An example is Halalfication, or the extension of halal into areas beyond food, such as washing machines, laundromats, gated communities and internet browsers. Prof Kong explained that while this is mainly in Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and has not yet been observed in Singapore, such trends may impact spatial planning if it did, as it would be difficult for land-scare Singapore to cater space for different denominations of a religion. Prof Kong also shared that as virtualisation of prayers, rituals and commemorations become more common, regulators and planners may need to consider the implications for managing cyber space and the changing need for physical religious spaces.

Secular city with a soul

Prof Yaacob revealed how a religious group’s need for private spaces to worship creates a false dichotomy. He explained that people cannot be tolerant of each other in the common spaces but despise each other in private, and emphasised how everyone needs to be tolerant to live harmoniously. Borrowing a quote from Ambassador Zainal Abidin Rashid, Prof Yaacob called Singapore as a “secular city with a soul” and described Singapore’s approach to addressing issues of conflict as “operating along secular lines”, but understanding the religious needs of the community. Prof Yaacob shared how he worked with interest groups to address recurring issues like noise and pollution during the yearly Seventh Month Festivals, and with different parties to educate the purpose of wearing Tudungs or head scarfs. Prof Kong affirmed the need for continuous dialogue and education so that people learn to embrace and celebrate diversity. 

About the Speakers


Prof Yaacob Ibrahim

Professor Yaacob Ibrahim
Singapore Institute of Technology

Prof Yaacob Ibrahim is currently a professor of engineering at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) where he is also Advisor to the President of SIT. He started as a Member of Parliament on 2 January 1997 till his retirement after the 2020 General Elections. He served as a Minister in the Ministries of Communications and Information (2011 – 2018), Environment and Water Resources (2004 – 2011) and Community Development and Sports (2002 – 2004) while being Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. He graduated from the University of Singapore with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1980. He worked as a structural engineer from 1980 to 1984 and then pursued his Ph.D at Stanford University graduating in 1989. After two years as a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University, he joined the National University of Singapore as a faculty member in 1990 where he became a tenured member. He took a leave of absence from NUS from July 1998 till his resignation from NUS in August 2018. He is currently advising several start-ups and sits on several boards of private companies and unions.


Prof Lily Kong

Professor Lily Kong
President and Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences
Singapore Management University

Professor Kong is President of Singapore Management University, the first Singaporean to lead the 20-year old institution.  She is also the first Singaporean woman to head a university in Singapore.  She is internationally known for her research on social-cultural change in Asian cities, focusing on issues ranging from religion, cultural policy, creative economy, urban heritage, to smart cities.   Her recent books include Religion, Hypermobility and Digital Media in Global Asia (with Catherine Gomes and Orlando Woods), Religion and Space: Competition, Conflict, and Violence in the Contemporary World (with Woods), and Religion and Place: Landscape, Politics and Piety (with Peter Hopkins and Elizabeth Olson).


Dr Mathew Mathews

Dr Mathew Mathews
Head, Social Lab & Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore

Dr Mathew Mathews is Head of IPS Social Lab, a centre for social indicator research and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. To date, Mathews has been involved in over fifty research projects, using both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine religion, race, immigrant integration, family, ageing and poverty. Mathews work on religion includes regular surveys on religious practice and belief and how these are related to a range of social attitudes. Mathews currently sits on several boards and panels including and Families for Life Council.  


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