Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore



The Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore (IRO), originally known as the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and Johor Bahru, was founded on 18 March 1949 to promote friendship and cooperation among members of different religions.1 It originally represented six religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.2 Over the years, it expanded to include Zoroastrianism, Taoism, the Bahá'í Faith and Jainism.3 The IRO is involved in many local activities and events, and plays an important role in educating the Singapore public about different religions.

Founding in 1949
During his visit to Singapore in 1949, Muslim missionary Maulana Shah Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddiqui Al-Qadri called for greater cooperation between religions.4 An interfaith dinner was held in his honour on 16 January, and the guests included many religious leaders as well as then Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald.5 At the dinner, the religious leaders present decided to meet again on 4 February the following month to discuss concrete ways of implementing the Maulana’s suggestions for inter-religious cooperation.6

The idea for an interfaith organisation grew over the course of several meetings, and the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and Johor Bahru was officially inaugurated at the Victoria Memorial Hall on 18 March 1949.7 The event, which included the organisation’s first public lecture, was attended by more than 2,000 people.8 Representatives of the various religions in Singapore spoke on the role that religion plays in contributing to peace.9


Organisational aims
The IRO aims to promote the spirit of friendship and cooperation among leaders and followers of different religions for the good of mankind.10 It also seeks to accord followers of different religions mutual respect, and provide them with assistance and protection so as to foster close cooperation within its membership for the common good of the community.11 


Organisational structure and role
The six religions represented by the organisation’s founding members were Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.12 At the time of its establishment, the council comprised 18 representatives of various religious backgrounds: five Muslims, two Protestants, two Roman Catholics, two Buddhists, two Hindus, one Confucianist, one Sikh, one Jew and two people of other religions.13 Reverend H. B. Amstutz, then bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore, was the first president of the organisation.14

In 1961, the organisation changed its name from Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and Johor Bahru to Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore.15

The IRO was expanded to include Zoroastrianism in 1961, Taoism and the Bahá'í Faith in 1996, and Jainism in 2006.16 The organisation’s council currently comprises 31 members of 10 religions: three Hindus, two Jews, two Zoroastrians, five Buddhists, four Taoists, two Jains, four Christians, five Muslims, two Sikhs and two Bahá'ís.17 Council members are elected for a one-year term at the annual general meeting,18 and the organisation’s presidency is rotated among the different religions annually to ensure fair representation.19

The IRO is registered under the Societies Act, and is a non-governmental organisation with no legal powers or authority.20 Its members serve in their personal capacities rather than as official representatives of their religious institutions.21 The organisation depends on subscriptions, fees and donations for funding.22


Functions of the IRO
Since its establishment, the IRO has been involved in many local activities and events, and has played an important role in educating the Singapore public about different religions. It also organises public exhibitions and regularly performs prayers at national ceremonies. Its members have also been involved in various state consultations and hearings regarding state policy.


Involvement in local events
During the communal riots of 1964, the IRO council prepared a statement that was broadcast over radio and television on 2 August 1964. It called for the people of Singapore to work towards the good of the nation, and gave weekly speeches on different religions.23 During that period, IRO members visited people who were injured in the riots and consoled them.24

The IRO also offered prayers and blessings during the opening ceremony of the Merdeka Bridge in 1956,25 and at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Mass Rapid Transit system in 1983.26

In addition, the IRO performs prayers at national and public ceremonies. Key instances have been its prayers during National Loyalty Week in 1959 and at the inauguration of the Civilian War Memorial in 1967.27 It also performs prayers and conducts observance services during occasions such as National Day, World Religion Day and IRO Day.28

Memorial services

The IRO conducts memorial services in response to local tragedies. It prayed for the victims of the Spyros accident in 1978, and in 2011, held a prayer session in response to a spate of deaths at Bedok Reservoir.29

The IRO has also led multireligious memorial services for victims of international disasters and other traumatic events. A key example is the September 11 memorial service held at the National Stadium on 23 September 2001, during which the organisation led prayers for the victims of the terrorist attacks.30 Other examples include the public memorial services for the SilkAir crash in Palembang (1997), the SQ006 crash in Taipei (2000), the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004),31 the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011)32 and the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (2013).33

Involvement with schools

During the 1950s and 1960s, the IRO worked with the Ministry of Education to introduce a course on ethics as well as religious and cultural knowledge in schools.34 It published several books for use in primary schools, and contributed reading passages for school assemblies.35

In 1982, the IRO helped to prepare the curriculum on world religions for the Religious Knowledge subject taught in secondary schools.36 Its involvement with the education system diminished after Religious Knowledge was replaced with Civics and Moral Education in 1992.37

Public education

Over the years, the IRO has organised several exhibitions to educate the public about religion. In 1969, the organisation held an exhibition on places of worship in early Singapore to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore.38

In 1999, the IRO celebrated its 50th anniversary with an exhibition on the religions it represented.39 A decade later, in 2009, the IRO organised a multifaith exhibition of more than 1,300 items of religious significance. The exhibition, which was co-organised with China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs, aimed to educate the public about the beliefs and cultures of different religions.40

The IRO published Religions in Singapore in 1967, which is a definitive guide to religions practised locally. The book has been reprinted several times, with its third edition issued in 2001.41

Inter-religious events

The IRO regularly conducts inter-religious events. Key examples include the organisation of an inter-religious rally in 1975 and its participation in the 1979 “Parliament of Religions” in Singapore.42 Other examples include a conference titled “Enhancing Interfaith and Multiracial Harmony” in 2004 and the “Inter-faith Fellowship for Religious Leaders” in June 2014.43

Working with the state
Members of the IRO have worked with the government on many occasions, including state consultations and hearings. The IRO was involved in drafting the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (1990) and the Declaration of Religious Harmony (2003).44 

Recent developments
In March 2012, the IRO appointed former president S R Nathan as its patron.45 Later that year, on 10 July, the organisation moved to new premises at Palmer Road.46 The new IRO building marks a milestone in the organisation’s history, as it is the organisation’s first permanent headquarters.47

In 2014, the IRO reprinted a collection of speeches from its first public lecture held in 1949, as a means of reminding members of its founding purpose. The publication was launched on 4 June.48

Pioneers of the organisation
The pioneers of the IRO are Malcolm MacDonald, Maulana Shah Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, Syed Ibrahim Omar Alsagoff, D. D. Chelliah, Haji Mohamed Khan, George G. Thomson, Swami Siddhatmananda Maharaj, Rabbi Jacob Shababo and the Venerable Seck Hong Choon.49

Malcolm MacDonald, then Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, was a strong supporter of the IRO, and chaired some of its major public meetings in the 1940s and 1950s.50

Maulana Shah Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddiqui, a prominent Muslim missionary, inspired the creation of the then Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and Johor Bahru, and was instrumental in its foundation. He also spoke at the organisation’s first public lecture in 1949.51

Syed Ibrahim Omar Alsagoff, an Arab businessman, was a founding member of the organisation, and served as its president for several terms.52 He also offered his office premises and home for meetings.53

D. D. Chelliah was the archdeacon of St Andrew’s Cathedral and served as the organisation’s president in 1976. During his term as president, Chelliah chaired the first “Asian Conference on Religion and Peace”.54

Haji Mohamed Khan, a Muslim businessman, participated in many activities of the organisation and hosted some of the council meetings.55

George G. Thomson, a senior colonial servant, was one of the founding members of the organisation, and served on its council from 1949 until his death in 1979.56 He often convened the meetings of the organisation.57

Swami Siddhatmananda Maharaj was the head of the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore. He was a council member of the organisation, and served as president for four terms.58

Rabbi Jacob Shababo of the Singapore Jewish community was elected president of the then Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and Johor Bahru in September 1950.59 He also served as council member.60

The Venerable Seck Hong Choon was the chief abbot of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery.61 He was a founding member of the organisation and also served on its council.62 



Authors

Vina Jie-Min Prasad & Jaime Koh



References
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The information in this article is valid as at 9 December 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Community and Social Services
Organisations