Monday, 14 July 2014

Pioneers honoured at harmony event

By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 13 Jul 2014

The pioneer generation of Singapore's seniors was honoured last night at an annual racial and religious harmony dinner.

At the 11th Inter-Racial Inter-Religious Harmony Nite dinner at Marina Bay Sands, Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society chairman Lee Kim Siang said that the country's founding fathers and the pioneer generation had worked hard, and that their experience and wisdom made Singapore what it is today.

Pointing to recent reports of war and bloodshed in some countries because of religion, race, language or culture, he said that it was sad to see people suffering from the break-up of families, mass killings, and countries and nations splitting, as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees from these wars or sectarian fighting.

"Fortunately for Singaporeans, we are lucky, blessed and happy to live in a prosperous and harmonious country which we all call home," he said.

"Every day, we see people of different races, cultures, religions and colours, mixing around, working together and living next to each other as good neighbours."

The dinner for some 2,000 grassroots and religious leaders, as well as members of the public, was organised by the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, together with the Inter-Religious Organisation, the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), Malay self-help group Mendaki, Chinese Development Assistance Council, Eurasian Association, Chee Hia Kog Moral Society and Chee Hoon Kog Moral Promotion Society.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his wife Mary were the guests of honour.

Before the vegetarian meal, a prayer was said for the iftar, or breaking of Muslims' fast, and each of the nine religious leaders from the Inter-Religious Organisation led an invocation.

The audience was treated to an array of performances by Orkestra Melayu Singapura, Sinda's Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, songsters from Yayasan Mendaki, and others.

Racial harmony is about 'building trust'
By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 13 Jul 2014

Growing up in Queenstown in the 1970s, Mr Mohamed Nasim Abdul Rahim was barely conscious of race.

The son of Indian Muslim immigrants from Kerala was "a minority in a minority", and raised among Chinese, Malay, Sikh and Eurasian neighbours. His childhood was more about watching Ultraman on television at friends' homes than asking about their cultural and religious practices.

That changed when he started national service. "I realised, oh, I have to go to the Muslim cookhouse," said Mr Nasim, a 48-year-old educator.

And the teenage teetotaller declined to give non-Muslim friends his ration of beer. "To my friends, I was too 'goody-goody', but they understood my religious beliefs and that I did not drink alcohol."

After the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the long-time mosque volunteer found himself explaining his faith to friends. "I realised just being a member of the passive, silent majority was not good enough," he said.

Around the same time, he became a councillor with the Central Singapore Community Development Council and started outreach programmes such as visits to places of worship, and getting people of different races and faiths to open their homes for visits and cultural demonstrations.

At Serangoon North, where he is chairman of the Jalan Kayu Zone 3 residents' committee, he has started a similar programme. He is also on the board of, a national body to boost racial ties.

Mr Nasim is disappointed with online racist and xenophobic sentiments. So he never tires of getting asked the same questions about his faith.

"To foster racial harmony, one must always be open to questions because questions are asked more often to clarify," he said.

"One misconception cleared can go a long way in developing healthy relationships."

He and his wife, housewife Noorunnisa Ibrahim Kutty, 45, have three children: two sons, aged 16 and nine, and a 13-year-old daughter.

He counts many from other races among his close friends.

"The message I always have for my children is, make more friends - make many friends from all races and religions.

"We don't use the word 'tolerance', which suggests there's a limit that can burst one day, but we use the word 'trust'," he added.

Recently, his elder son did a fine job of explaining to friends why Muslims pray five times a day, said the proud father.

"Harmony is not about preaching," he stressed. "It's all about building trust."

Building bridges through kindness and friendship
By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 13 Jul 2014

Madam Jayamani Overithi has a knack for defusing a touchy situation - with humour or kindness.

If someone cuts into the queue in front of her, she pipes up: "Excuse me, the queue is behind."

And if they glare? She tells them, with a smile like a sunbeam: "It's okay, you can take my place, I'll go behind."

And when the 66-year-old overhears racist or xenophobic comments being made at the local coffee shop, she might sit down at the table to ask: "Excuse me, are you a member of any community club or residents' committee? We have many events - sports for your children, talks for the parents."

"I feel they may not understand other races or religions," she said. So she invites them to activities of all sorts, not just events pushing racial or religious harmony. "And sometimes, they come," she said.

Madam Jayamani herself is involved in plenty of activities. After she was slowed down by an injury 15 years ago, the former in-flight cleaning supervisor took up light volunteering to keep busy.

A tutoring stint with the Singapore Indian Development Association turned into commitments with the Red Cross, Lions Befrienders, Salvation Army, two Hindu temples and the Inter-Racial and Inter-Religious Confidence Circle in Yew Tee - to name a few. Last night, she attended the Inter-Racial Inter-Religious Harmony Nite event.

Madam Jayamani has no children and lives with her younger sister in Bukit Panjang. The daughter of a forklift-driver father and vegetable-seller mother grew up in Kampong Bahru, and, despite being Hindu, attended the Catholic CHIJ St Theresa's Convent near her home.

She was a teenager when, in July 1964, she went with Malay-Muslim friends to Geylang to watch a procession marking the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and found herself in the middle of one of Singapore's infamous race riots.

"Suddenly we heard, 'tolong, tolong' (Malay for 'help'), and screaming," she recalled. Her father herded the children together, Indian and Malay alike, and drove them home in a lorry.

Asked if language is ever a barrier in her community work, Madam Jayamani admitted it can be.

"In some of my committees, the majority are Chinese and sometimes, they start talking in Mandarin. So I raise my hand and say, 'Please, I don't speak Mandarin.'"

Friendship, she said, is the foundation of racial and religious harmony. Among her longtime friends are a Chinese woman who worked with her in a factory in 1970, and a Malay former neighbour. "She still has a set of my house keys," Madam Jayamani said.

More to learn on other religions
By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 13 Jul 2014

Mr Pung Whei Meng was on a work trip in Shenzhen, China, last month with colleagues of different races.

In restaurants, the group opted not to order pork dishes out of respect for their Muslim colleague.

Mr Pung, a senior commissioning manager at a project-commissioning firm, said he is still learning.

The 37-year-old bachelor last year became the youngest leader appointed to an Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle, or IRCC, since the movement was started in 2002.

He has been involved in the Cher Lian Tong Buddhist Temple since he was a child, and is now its secretary. He also joined the Bukit Panjang IRCC as its representative in 2006.

The IRCC organises public visits to places of worship, such as Hindu or Sikh temples.

The groups that go on the trips are mostly Chinese, and not many of the participants have been to a Sikh temple, Mr Pung said.

"I was quite tolerant before, but from such activities I actually got to understand more about other religions," he added.

Though he felt such interactions could be deeper and more meaningful, "for the moment, we are trying to engage as many people as possible".

The dancing dynamo
By Grace Chua, The Sunday Times, 13 Jul 2014

Last year, Madam Tng Kwee Tin visited Sri Lanka for the first time.

The 77-year-old retiree was there with a group of friends to visit a Sri Lankan friend, a woman who had attended her void-deck exercise sessions regularly.

Madam Tng, who is more comfortable speaking in Mandarin, Teochew, Malay and other Chinese dialects than English, found her friend's accented English hard to understand. "I just nod," she said in Mandarin. "She laughs, I laugh."

Madam Tng has been holding exercise classes at Haig Road since 2006. In 2011, the retired People's Association dance and arts instructor added dance classes as well.

"We have lots of people coming - some Malays, a Sri Lankan lawyer whose daughter was studying here... a woman from Hong Kong whose daughter is married to a Singaporean," she said.

But when she was growing up in Rochor Road, she attended Chinese schools.

"In Primary 2, my mathematics teacher spoke Cantonese and I couldn't understand a word," said Madam Tng, who is Teochew. "So I scored zero marks!" Later, she picked up Hokkien, Cantonese and some Hainanese as well.

Last night, Madam Tng attended the Inter-Racial Inter-Religious Harmony Nite and appeared in the organisers' new video that honours the pioneer generation's contributions.

She has family members of different religions as well: Her son is Christian while her daughter is a Buddhist.

"I don't want to inconvenience anyone, so I told them, when I die, just scatter my ashes at sea.

"I love to travel, so at sea I can travel to my heart's content," she said with a laugh.

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