SINGAPORE – Cohesive societies do not exist spontaneously. They are borne of choice and conviction, and the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced this, said President Halimah Yacob on Tuesday.

Speaking at the opening of a three-day conference to discuss issues surrounding faith, identity and cohesion, she noted that public health measures that were needed to curb the coronavirus heightened social anxiety.

Tensions rose and, in some cases, triggered bigotry and xenophobia, she said.

Some places saw hate crimes against Asians, who were blamed for the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, measures like vaccinations became points of contention.

“The pandemic deepened fault lines in societies across the world, when what was urgently needed to recover from the pandemic were collective action and cooperation,” she said.

“Social cohesion is a necessary condition for our collective security. Societies cannot survive, let alone thrive, without the social glue that bonds people together.”

Over 800 participants from more than 40 countries are attending the International Conference on Cohesive Societies at the Raffles City Convention Centre. The event is organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Nanyang Technological University, and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

The conference, which was mooted by Madam Halimah and held for the first time in 2019, is an international platform for participants to engage in dialogue and action on how they can foster harmony in diverse societies.

Themed “Confident Identities, Connected Communities”, this year’s event brings together religious leaders, policymakers, academics and civil society activists. More than 40 per cent of the participants are under the age of 40.

While the 2019 event discussed how groups can find common ground with one another, this year’s event aims to explore the role of identities, beliefs and faiths in shaping social connections and cohesion.

Madam Halimah hoped that the conference provides a platform for people to learn from one another and be comfortable with differences.

She posed the audience two questions: Moving forward, how do we safeguard and promote social cohesion amid these challenging times? How do we bridge divides and harness our diversity for the common good?

She also shared a quote she came across two months ago when Singapore celebrated its annual Racial Harmony Day: “Racial harmony means we can all be friends because we are all human beings.”

It came from Gaia Amedi, a four-year-old pre-schooler.

“It is a moving reminder that despite all our differences and disagreements, we are human beings at the end of the day, equally fragile, yet equally resilient,” said Madam Halimah.

“We may come from different backgrounds, countries, cultures and religions, but we share the same core values of kindness, compassion and love.”