Mr Lim Phang Hong, President of Buddhist Fellowship,

Mr Jerry Ong, Deputy President of Buddhist Fellowship,

Ajahn Brahmali, senior monk from Bodhinyana Monastery in Perth,

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

    I want to start by wishing you a very Happy Vesak Day and thank you very much for inviting me to this very auspicious event. I am very glad to join you for this Vesak Day. The theme of your celebration today - Discovering the Buddha, Walking His Path – reminds us of the Buddha’s own wise observation that: Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.” That is the essence of the human existence. So it is an opportune moment for us to reflect on the values that Buddha sought hard to promote:  Tolerance, harmony, and compassion, values that are relevant to all of us, regardless of race or religion.

We cannot take our social and religious harmony for granted

2     These values are now, more than ever before, important amidst the rising intolerance we see in the world today. Many take for granted the multi-racial and multi-religious character of our nation. But many of you here know well enough that we have had to work very hard over a long time, over many decades, as a people to build trust and understanding across racial and religious boundaries. This is work that has been done painstakingly, week in week out, on the ground by community leaders, by religious organisations – like all of you working with your Reverend in order to promote that mutual understanding.

3     Today, the internet and social media, and all the latest info-comm technology have made it possible for news of religious conflict and hate speech in one part of the world to be instantaneously accessed anywhere in the world, stoking anger and hatred in the process. This was seen in both the attacks in Christchurch and Sri Lanka, which were instigated by the spread of religious violence and hate speech online. Christchurch and Sri Lanka are a sombre reminder to us all of the consequences we face if and when we let our guard down and allow irresponsible speech to spread hate and violence in Singapore and in the rest of the world.

4     At the same time, we also face the challenge posed by the spread of fake news and irresponsible speech that seeks to divide communities. Falsehoods, including hate speech, have been weaponised to instigate violence and anger between religious groups. Just last year, Sri Lanka saw widespread ethnic and religious violence due to online rumours that the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka were trying to sterilise the Sinhalese majority. In the case of the recent bombings in April, the Sri Lankan government had to resort to extreme measures by shutting down access altogether to all major social media networks. This is a measure of the challenge that we face in this digitalised world.

5     To prevent such incidents from occurring in Singapore, we recently passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in Parliament a few weeks ago. This Act is one of the measures we are taking to help curb the spread of online falsehoods by holding online news sources and platforms accountable. What we mean by this is when there is something that is being fabricated and that poses a threat to public interest, because it can disrupt our social harmony and create distrust in communities; then there is a reason for us to act. What we want to do is shine a torch on them, let the light from them come through, by having the truth next to it so that people can see, assess and understand for themselves what is the truth, and the conclusions they can draw about the site that is perpetuating the falsehoods. This is the crux of the intent, it is not targeting individuals and communities – it is really aimed at the kind of messages that pose a threat to our public interest. We want to ensure that our society is protected from these falsehoods and we want to ensure that Singaporeans, our citizens who are active on the internet, are well-equipped to deal with it.

6     But I want to emphasise that legislation alone is not enough. We have emphasised this time and again. Yes, we need laws so that we can take action when it is required. But in fact, we need a larger whole-of-government, all of nation effort. We need public education, we need fact checking and we need efforts like what you are undertaking to build understanding between the communities and to remain strong and steadfast in our commitment to multiracial harmony. And it also means that each and every one of us, as users of the internet have a responsibility – a responsibility to be vigilant, a responsibility to ensure that when something comes to us, we make the effort to ascertain whether it is true or false, and also resist the temptation to propagate something without first ascertaining its authenticity.

Social harmony is our shared responsibility

7     So I am very grateful that religious organisations in Singapore, such as the Buddhist Fellowship, place importance on developing and strengthening bonds between different groups. Over the past 30 years, the Buddhist Fellowship has done excellent work in building up religious harmony in Singapore. Besides being an active member of the Telok Blangah and Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC), Buddhist Fellowship has shown its commitment to strengthening our social fabric by organising various interfaith forums and developing relationships with different religious leaders. The IRCCs provide a local platform for religious organisations in each constituency to network and engage one another.

8     In 2018, the Buddhist Fellowship supported the launch of the Buddhist Youth Network’s SAY-IM (Singapore Action for Youth Interfaith Movement). The event encourages youths of different faith groups to come together to better understand one another. Interfaith forums and organisations like IRCCs provide opportunities for each of us as citizens to get to know each other and understand our differences. The bonds and trust that develops out of these interactions go a long way in preventing misunderstanding and divisions between groups, especially in light of the spread of online falsehoods and disinformation.

9     I want to congratulate the Buddhist Fellowship on the excellent work that you have been doing – at the national level, as well as the local level. I think we now face a challenge not just in the real world but in the virtual world and your efforts in helping us deal with the challenge in the virtual world – whether it is online falsehoods or hate speech or other falsehoods that use digital technologies to tear societies apart – these are other aspects that you need to deal with. The work you are doing in the real world can be extended to the virtual world and how we can be better prepared to resist such forces. So I want to take this opportunity as we celebrate Vesak Day also to congratulate you  on your 30th anniversary just a few months back in December 2018 Three decades is a long time, well done.

10     So if I may just add that this point I made about online falsehoods is something I want to leave with you as a parting thought, because all of us may take it for granted when we are using technology. I think all of us here have smartphones, and use it to access information to do our work, to have entertainment, to communicate with family and friends. All of this is positive, all of this is the kind of benefits that we derive from technologies. At the same time, we must recognise that it does pose challenges. Whether we are students, young adults, parents or senior citizens – all of us have the responsibility to acquire the skills and awareness to discern these threats, and to be able to deal with them, even as we go about using the internet and social media responsibly.

11     So I hope all of you will join us in this effort, and organisations like the Buddhist Fellowship have a good foothold in that regard. Let us work together to ensure that Singapore will continue to be able to navigate the challenges and build the right future for our people. Thank you very much.

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