“Silence does the job of keeping a fragile collective peace on religious differences. We should strive for better by being less quick to take offence and by being open to a genuinely respectful dialogue” (Going Beyond Religious Tolerance, William Wan).
Unfortunately, absent from the call “to educate our people to be a little more thick-skinned, to not be so easily offended by mere words or opinions” (ST, May 4) is an evaluation and specification of how religious and interfaith dialogues should be designed or strengthened, and in this vein seems to ignore: First, that there are differing opinions within the same religions and faiths, and that it should not be assumed that unelected religious leaders or their congregations necessarily speak for their Singaporean counterparts (and moreover that decentralisation from these leaders could be explored); second, that such dialogues – with potentially more effective approaches and with more diverse representation – also exist independently beyond the government and non-profits such as the Singapore Kindness Movement; and third, that those who do not identify with a religion or faith are often excluded from the process.
Few would disagree with the importance of more honest dialogue – in particular, to examine the role of religion in public policy and within common spaces – yet the discourse appears to be oftentimes disproportionately dominated by religious leaders who may or may not adequately represent the diversity of opinions held by the “lay people” who share the same faith. Furthermore, dialogue themes veer too far either into the mundane (such as school-based exchanges or community engagement) or into the extremes (such as homosexuality and marriage or radicalisation and extremism), and as a consequence can feel too far detached from the lived experiences of individuals. Finally, the non-religious who are not affiliated with institutions or organisations can be hard to reach, leading to their likely exclusion.
Focusing on the representation of participants – including those who do not identify with a religion or faith – and the dialogue themes should offer a springboard to evaluate existing governmental and non-governmental efforts and strategies to bring individuals together in conversation. What is the most appropriate setting for participants to acquaint with one another, and to what extent does exposure to various religious sites or places of worship facilitate the exchanges? How do other demographic and socio-economic factors such as race, sex, gender, sexuality, and class feature in the diversity of the participants and of the topics covered, and how can dialogue formats be further diversified to go beyond those which are more conducive for the more-educated and the religious leaders? And ultimately, what do participants across sessions (and by extension too, Singaporeans) collectively regard as our ongoing goals?
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.