SINGAPORE, Sept 9 — Around 120 delegates joined the Young Leaders Programme (YLP) in conjunction with the International Conference of Cohesive Societies (ICCS) here this week, which aimed to develop leaders on issues affecting ethnic and religious harmony.
Over three days, the YLP delegates joined events which included workshops to sharpen their leadership skills, dialogues on contemporary issues of faith and diversity, and a fireside chat with faith-based influencers on utilising social media for social cohesion.
Defined as the state of affairs enabling stable interactions between society, “social cohesion” is also simply known as social harmony, unity or inclusion.
On the sidelines of the ICCS, Malay Mail spoke with two Malaysian delegates who joined the YLP, and two other young delegates who attended the conference, on their experience:
YLP delegates Ooi Win Wen, 22 and Shahira Jamaluddin, 27, from Arts-ED
Ooi and Shahira are members of Arts-ED, a Penang-based non-profit focusing on community-based arts and culture education in rural and urban communities.
“We are over 20 years old and we work with mostly young people, using arts and local culture,” Ooi, a programme officer, said of the group.
The duo said they were connected with ICCS when producing Kaki Lima, a strategy board game about pedestrians going about their daily lives, running errands and meeting up with friends in George Town while thinking about using five-foot ways to do so.
While working on the project, they were introduced to Singaporean board game publisher Origame which had participated in the inaugural ICCS in 2019.
Origame’s art director Nick Pang is also an independent publisher of the Smol Tok card game, whose Diversity by Default extension was among the ground-up social cohesion initiatives showcased in this year’s ICCS.
The duo said being invited to join ICCS was a great opportunity for Arts-ED to discover other regional approaches toward social cohesion
“I want to find out more [about works on social cohesion] other than what Malaysia has been doing,” Shahira said of her maiden foray into international conferences.
Ooi said Singapore’s situation is interesting due to the historical connection with Malaysia. Both countries gained independence from the British and were part of a federation before going on their separate paths.
She also pointed to the different ethno-religious demographic compositions between the two, in addition to the fact that Singapore is a city-state.
“Those have shaped really interesting situations in which different groups relate with one another, especially in schools,” she said, relating her experience in an ICCS dialogue session discussing discrimination and exclusion in the education system especially involving minority vernacular languages here such as Malay and Tamil.
Shahira added the ICCS has reminded her to shift the focus from managing differences to finding universal issues and values that different societies share.
“Here we look at more of the similarities that we have each other,” Shahira said.
The duo said Arts-ED is currently consolidating its 20 years’ worth of programmes and resources online which can then be adapted by others into their own local communities, and is looking forward to collaborating with other YLP delegates in order to exchange and emulate their methods and syllabus.
Wan Atikah Wan Yusoff, 29, from Penang Harmony Centre
Wan Atikah was formerly with Arts-ED as well, and pointed to the similarities she found between the “Harmony Street” in Penang — the Masjid Kapitan Keling Road (formerly Pitt Street) where six houses of worship are located — with Singapore’s list of harmony streets of Waterloo Street, Telok Ayer Streets, and South Bridge Road.
“In George Town, it started historically — there were communities backing the establishment of these houses of worship. I found out here in Singapore, a similar thing also happened,” she said, highlighting the knowledge gleaned in the Harmony in Diversity Gallery here.
Wan Atikah gave the example of Singapore’s Chinatown which contains houses of worship dating to the 19th century such as the Thian Hock Keng Temple, Nagore Dargah, Al-Abrar Mosque, Chulia Jamek Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple complemented by the 2007 Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.
She is now the programme executive of Penang Harmony Centre under the Penang Harmony Corporation that was just launched in March last year under the state government’s Social Development and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs portfolio, and is tasked with bridging the authorities and religious groups together, and promoting interfaith discourse.
“We have to admit in Malaysia we have a multi-cultural, multiracial society but when it comes to living together we’re at the level of [just] tolerating one another. We’re not communicating, not engaging with each other.
“If we want to continue living together we have to jump over that hurdle,” she said, suggesting that most disputes between houses of worship tend to be on infrastructure and utilities, rather than of a theological nature.
Wan Atikah said she attended ICCS as she was looking forward to learn how Singapore managed its diversity through policies, but also how its society is reacting to such approaches.
“We don’t want to just focus on religion, but also any other identities that people relate to,” she said.
Wan Atikah also said she had observed community spaces during a visit to Our Tampines Hub, the island’s largest integrated community and lifestyle hub led by its People’s Association.
“We want to focus on how religious houses not just a place to do religious rituals, but also for the community to gather, for activities regardless of your faith,” she said.
Hisham Muhaimi, 27, from Initiative to Promote Tolerance and Prevent Violence (INITIATE.MY)
Hisham is a project officer with INITIATE.MY, a research arm of Komuniti Muslim Universal — itself a youth-led, faith-based human rights organisation founded by former radicalised Muslim youths.
INITIATE.MY focuses on two areas of policy research: prevention and counter-violent extremism, and freedom of religion and belief.
“We were established in response to the increased intergroup conflicts post-2018 general election,” said Hisham.
Hisham said the most striking feature of ICCS was that it platformed delegates who are working on improving race relations and faith engagements all around the world.
“I come here with the aim to engage in honest discussions on interfaith dialogue with as many delegates and learn from them.
“I believe it is a really good facilitated space since we all come with the same purpose, to learn from one another and to offer our own perspectives on how to foster harmony in diverse societies,” he said.
He related that over the week he had met many amazing individuals who have done a great deal in their respective lines of work whether as faith leaders, community leaders, researchers, civil servants, or lawyers.
“The past couple of days have been great! I appreciate the fact that the speakers explored topics that are rarely discussed like the need to link religion and environmental justice and the effects of colonisation on social cohesion,” said Hisham.
He pointed out that his main takeaway was how important it is for faith leaders and actors to participate in political dialogues and ensure that their communities are represented.
“In the interest of social cohesion, the government should provide a space for faith actors, especially the minorities to be represented and involve them actively in decision-making processes.
“I felt that we should mirror the conference in Malaysia and provide a platform for our diverse faith and racial communities to have honest discussions about improving harmony in Malaysia,” he said, pointing to the Amman Message to elevate the Islamic message of tolerance, equality and mutual respect.
The ICCS was organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.