“Diversity is a source of strength for societies, and engaging meaningfully with difference is not easy, but it is necessary,” President Halimah Yacob said at the opening dinner of the International Conference on Cohesive Societies on 19 Jun.
Organized by the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the conference aimed to discuss ways of forging interfaith understanding and social cohesion.
Some 700 academics, government officials and members of religious and civil society groups from ASEAN countries and 34 others from around the world are attending the conference.
Madam Halimah stated three foundations for social harmony – accommodation, dialogue and social cohesion, which must be nurtured by individuals rather than just governments.
In her speech, she elaborated on these key components of social cohesion in any society.
First, there should be accommodation where communities can celebrate their own unique cultures in their own spaces. Communities must accept the differences amongst them and refrain from imposing their own practices on others.
Second, dialogue and interaction can help foster familiarity and friendships that “can go a long way to improve relations among diverse groups.”
Lastly, social cohesion has to be “cemented by a shared conception of the common good, and a felt reality of collective belonging”. This is to prevent community groups from becoming pressure groups representing sectional interests, Madam Halimah said.
She also spoke how a diverse nation, with different communities, contributes to a more interesting and vibrant national life.
“The world would be all the poorer if it had no room for difference. If we were all the same, we would have nothing special to offer, nor anything to learn from others. The more diverse we are, the richer we become.”
However, she also noted that some communities have the risk of becoming fault lines of mistrust and conflict as seen in the spread of extremist ideologies or anti- immigrant rhetoric which can take on racial and religious overtones.
In order for a nation to prosper, its people cannot be divided. Madam Halimah added. To harness the strength of diversity, a cohesive society must be built upon mutual trust which in turn, a better future.
Madam concluded her speech by stressing that social cohesion is not something that can be commanded or dictated by the government and that it can only be fostered by each of us, and what we do every day.