Beneath the Surface: A Civic Conversation on Race and Religion 

National Youth Council (NYC) and SINDA (Singapore Indian Development Association) Youth Club co-organised Beneath the Surface: A Civic Conversation on Race and Religion, a conversation which took place on 19 November 2022, involving the following guest-of-honour and panellists:

  • Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and Ministry of Health (MOH)
  • Ms Nazhath Faheema, Founder of hash.peace, a non-government organisation that advocates for sustainable social harmony in Singapore
  • Dr Teo Kay Key, Research Fellow at Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Social Lab
  • Mr Imran Taib Mohamed, Founder of Centre of Interfaith Understanding (CIFU)
  • [Moderator] Mr Yuvan Mohan, NYC Council Member and Chairperson of SINDA Youth Club 
Beneath the Surface: A Civic Conversation on Race and Religion, on 19 November 2022


A diverse group of youths connected by sharing their values, aspirations and lived realities while gaining insights into their counterparts through an experiential activity using NYC’s “Beneath the Surface” Civic Conversations Toolkit.
After the activity, participants engaged with academics and youth community leaders as they unpacked learnings from the activity and discussed how constructive civil conversations can contribute to a stronger social fabric in Singapore.

Here were the key points raised by participants, panellists and guest-of-honour in the conversation:

Key insights from SMS’s Remarks:

Strengthening our unity for our renewed social compact cannot be relied on laws and policies alone

  • SMS Janil said that while racist behaviours can be criminalised by the government, it may not result in society’s desired outcomes. He continued, saying that traits such as empathy, mutual respect and trust cannot be legislated but can only be developed as one’s personal values. He added that having strong bonds of friendship with one another will act as the most important foundation in developing the type of social cohesion society wishes for.
  • SMS Janil shared that he believes that instilling a sense of belonging in all Singaporeans will result in a more united nation. He added that the Forward Singapore exercise is an opportunity for Singaporeans to reflect on the renewed social compact that citizens desire by discussing the roles and responsibilities of the different sectors of society.

Diversity should be acknowledged and appreciated in all forms 

  • SMS Janil said that diversity should not be tolerated but instead accepted and appreciated. He added that by appreciating relationships and friendships that are a result of diversity, it encourages and strengthens bonds with one another.
  • SMS Janil said that diversity should also be respected by netizens on online platforms and by workers in workplaces. He shared that anonymity and distance in the online space may result in harm for some and encourages Singaporeans to respect diverse views that are different from their own instead of inciting hate for those they disagree with.
  • SMS Janil shared that in workplaces, biases may get in the way of functioning at the place of work. He added that appreciating each other’s diversity and understanding social cohesion should be something that needs to be reconsidered in the workplace.

Key insights from activity debrief: 

From the Beneath the Surface activity, participants said that:

  • The toolkit was useful in helping them frame open and honest conversations around difficult topics such as race and religion
  • Having frank and constructive conversations around sensitive topics can help to increase mutual understanding, build trust and create stronger societal bonds.
  • Everyone can play a part in challenging racial and religious discrimination and prejudice by being more understanding and respectful of other cultures. 

Key insights from panel dialogue: 

Social media and offline dialogues are complementary platforms for discussions on race and religion

  • Ms Nazhath said that while social media provides an outlet where users can openly share their race and religion-related experiences and views, it often does not lead to deeper and more meaningful two-way dialogue about the issue. She added that users may self-censor their authentic views in fear of backlash and cancel culture.
  • Mr Imran said that social media have the positive effects of generating awareness of racism and validating one’s experiences through connecting them with individuals with similar stories. He added that social media gives voice to underrepresented groups who may not have the space to share their experiences elsewhere.
  • Mr Imran, however, also warns that social media may lead to echo chambers where users are only exposed to negative stories and develop a sense of victimisation and lose hope. Bad actors can also manipulate sentiments online to create divisiveness in society. He said offline dialogues are thus important as they bring people together to generate greater understanding and facilitate racial healing.

There is a need to go beyond “agreeing to disagree” to “agreeing to understand”

  • Ms Nazath said that when people enter a dialogue committed to the principle of “agreeing to disagree”, they are in the mindset that they can easily disagree with another’s opinion, which hinders understanding and prevents the conversation from moving forward. She added that people need to come into dialogues prepared to have brave and honest discussions and be willing to acknowledge and accept that there will be diverse views, even ones that they may not be happy with.
  • Dr Teo said that sharing views and stories is just a starting point, and dialogues must lead to reflection to be effective. For example, she shared that Singaporeans from the majority race can reflect upon our actions that may be unconsciously offensive or hurtful. 

We need to enhance the meaning of racial and religious harmony

  • Mr Imran said we need to question what makes up “racial and religious harmony” as some, especially those in privileged positions, may view avoiding difficult topics and keeping everything status quo as ‘harmony’. Imran added that this ethnic tension would explode one day and affect people differently. Those with privilege can choose not to participate in these tensions by migrating to another country, while those without would be left to deal with the consequences.
  • Dr Teo said that Singapore will still need to move from tolerance to acceptance and understanding. Racial and religious harmony is a constant work in progress, and it is good that we are having conversations to acknowledge race and religion-related issues.

We need to bring under-represented voices into discussions on race and religion

  • Mr Imran said that structural issues, such as the attachment to the CMIO model, prevent under-represented voices from being heard. He added that we sometimes fail to see the diverse nature of citizens and assume one person can represent their whole community. For example, Malay communities are not all homogenous, as members of majority Muslim groups (Sunni Islam) may have vastly different experiences than minority Muslim groups (Shīʿa Islam). 
  • Mr Imran said that we need to expand our social networks to access and be aware of these communities. He added that we should be curious to learn more about peripheral communities and hear their stories to include them in the discourse.
  • Dr Teo added that Singaporeans from the majority race would need to do their part to acknowledge, empathise with and voice support for minorities when racial incidents occur.





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