Let's Talk About Religion

As the government moves to encourage more open discussions about religious differences through several initiatives and funding, ground-up events are sprouting too.

Why do some Buddhists avoid certain foods? What does the term “jihad” really mean? Can Christians do yoga?

These were some questions raised in a Channel NewsAsia (CNA) documentary, “Regardless of Religion”, made in collaboration with OnePeople.sg. It was a follow-up to a CNA documentary on race, with both presented by OnePeople.sg chairman Janil Puthucheary.

Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse nation, according to the Pew Research Center. But many Singaporeans are still uncomfortable talking about religion. Many are afraid to speak about other religions for fear of causing offence. As the documentary reveals through several social experiments, people also tend to have different ideas about what is offensive to other communities.

But in the wake of rising extremism globally, it has become crucial to deepen the understanding between religions. And one way to get different perspectives is through dialogue.

“If there is a reluctance to even talk about religion, there’s probably general misinformation [happening],” says Senior Assistant Director (Community Relations) Norhazlina Yusop at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Building bridges

In March 2017, the MCCY launched BRIDGE, a series of community-driven initiatives to provide more opportunities for discussing sensitive issues of race and religion, and deepen shared undertanding among Singaporeans.

BRIDGE, or Broadening Religious and Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education, is supported through the MCCY Harmony Fund. More than $3 million has been set aside over three years, to support ground-up projects that deepen the understanding of sensitive issues of race and religion through dialogue. Since the launch in 2017, more than 5,000 participants — from religious and community leaders to youths and working professionals — have participated in BRIDGE activities.

The intent is for people to go beyond the surface of religious differences. For example, participants might learn that there are diverse experiences, practices and interpretations even among practitioners of the same faith, says Ms Norhazlina.

BRIDGE also aims to produce content and share knowledge of religious practices and beliefs. In interfaith dialogues, sharing sessions may begin with an activity, such as a play, to highlight certain practices and misperceptions of the religion in focus.

Participants then break up into smaller discussion groups. Event organisers are free to design the scope of these conversations, without defining any one set way of practising or interpreting religion.

In the wake of rising extremism globally, it has become crucial to deepen the understanding between religions. And one way to get different perspectives is through dialogue.

Along the way, participants learn to agree and disagree respectfully. Before any sensitive topics and questions are broached, facilitators may set expectations for civil dialogue and non-judgement, which the participants agree to.

Besides dialogues, other formats for pondering the issues of religion (and race) have emerged. The play Without Reason during the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival featured the trials of an inter-racial, inter-religious young couple. As part of BRIDGE, a Music and Faith dialogue was organised in conjunction with the Esplanade’s Tapestry of Sacred Music festival.

Even as laws to safeguard religious harmony will be toughened, it is hoped that by creating greater space for discussing religion, one will create a more resilient Singapore – should any terrorist attack or act of discrimination occur here.

Where to go for interfaith dialogues

Ask Me Anything series

Started by the Association of Muslim Professionals, this is a “no-holds-barred” dialogue series to address sensitive issues and questions about Islam. In partnership with different religious organisations and OnePeople.Sg, the series now covers other major religions in Singapore.

Lectures on Confucianism

The Nanyang Confucius Association’s lectures draw links between Confucianism and faiths such as Christianity and Islam. The sessions are in Mandarin to reach out to older Singaporean Chinese.

Roses of Peace

This initiative is named after an event where volunteers hand out roses to members of the public. Each rose carries a message of peace from religious figures such as Buddha and Jesus. The organisers also run forums — its first Faith in Action Conference in 2017 had speakers representing Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

SG Muslims for Eid

The Interfaith Youth Circle runs a campaign during Ramadan to invite non-Muslims into the homes of participating Muslims to break fast and have dinner together.

Harmony Games

For its 10th iteration in 2017, dialogues were held to share little-known facts about the Sikh, Jainism and Baha’i faiths. A “Human Library” session allowed participants to “borrow” time with faith practitioners to hear their personal stories.

Explorations into Faith

Under the South East Community Development Council, the programme includes regular interfaith dialogues and also training for interested participants to become dialogue facilitators. An upcoming session on April 7 will focus on what different religions have to say about the intersections of faith and art. For more details, visit their facebook page.

The MUIS Harmony Centre

  • The Abdul Aleem Siddiqui Memorial Lecture

    In this yearly event, religious leaders and interfaith community leaders share their perspectives of contemporary issues or trends affecting humanity. The public lecture series is named after the founder of the Inter-Religious Organisation. Watch their past presentations on youtube.

  • Building Bridges Programme

    This seminar programme invites representatives from different faiths to present papers on a common theme. Past seminars include one with the Singapore Buddhist Federation discussing Islam and Buddhism. The seminar, on March 24, is in collaboration with the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

Watch the “Regardless of Religion” documentary on Channel NewsAsia. To learn more about different religions, visit the Harmony in Diversity SG Gallery.

    Mar 29, 2018
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Roses of Peace and Ask Me Anything
  • link facebook
  • link twitter
  • link whatsapp
  • link email