How Can We Transcend Our Beliefs and Faiths?

Opening Address, Asian Humanism Conference 2019, Singapore

Humanist Society of Singapore


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be here today with you.

In honour of this conference being about humans, could I invite you to take a mental pause with three deep breaths? (Breathe) Did you know that only humans can breathe by volition but we don’t do enough of that. Thank you for your trust and indulgence.

I must admit that it took me a while to say yes to Tatt Si’s invitation because I’m not entirely sure where and if I can add value! Belief is not an easy concept to define. As it is said, “everyone knows what belief is until you ask them to define it.” But the general agreement is this: that ‘belief’ is how we see the world and how we act on it. Beliefs can be as uneventful as “I believe it will rain today”, to “I believe the Earth is flat”, to even more life-altering like “I believe in God.” It forms the perception we have of reality, determining how we see the world. After all, we see the world not as it is, but as we are. “As we are” is determined by our history, our influences, our experiences.

Our beliefs are our assessments, not assertions or facts. Let me illustrate with a simple example. I live in a charming HDB flat in Marine Crescent with a seaview which I affectionately call The Bliss Loft. As long as you have a tape measure, you will arrive at the same conclusion that my flat has an area of 76sqm. So “my flat is 76sqm” is an assertion. Many guests to my place have commented that “your place is so spacious” whilst a few others may say “your place is so cosy” and sometimes followed by “are you planning to upgrade?”. Same 76 sqm of space but different assessments because of different beliefs and values.

For the sake of convenience, I will use the terms “values” and “belief” interchangeably. After all, while beliefs are assumptions that we make about the world, our values stem from these beliefs and so both terms are inherently connected.

The Asia Pacific Values Survey published in 2014, which also involved 1000 citizens Singapore, asked over 50 questions that make us pause and access that deep hidden part of the proverbial iceberg that shapes our attitudes, our behaviours, our lives.

One such question was “If you had to choose one, would you rather have more money or more free time? Take a moment to reflect. Your answer to this question could provide some reference to how you structure your life and you make choices based on what you believe in. You might not be surprised to know that 48% chose money and the rest chose free time.

Let’s try another. “If you could be born again, would you like to be a boy or a girl?”. Your answer could reflect the pressure, and the importance we give to the traditional Asian ‘obsession’ with having a boy. This hits deep home and hard for me. I was born into a family of this belief, in a different time a different Singapore perhaps. With that belief, I was also made to carry a birth name 婷 which means ‘stop’ to put a brake on the female streak for the next offspring. And I carried. not surprisingly, an inherited and imposed belief that took me a long time to shed: the belief that being a woman is less, and therefore I was less.

A shift and polarisation of beliefs

Values define the norms of a social system, while clashes between alternative values create basis for conflicts and divisions.

Do you wake up some days and feel like we are living through an acute period of clash between beliefs? A clash of civilisations, a clash between rich and poor, a clash between young and old, between one class and another, between one religion and another. I do. Increasing disruptions we see in political systems around the world, the emergence of populism, hate speech, extreme views. Compared to a generation or two ago (and I am qualified as a quinquagenarian to say this), societies are now displaying major changes in social norms: hierarchical relationships are giving way to self-expression, regard to authority giving way to decentralisation. New beliefs and values are emerging, affecting attitudes toward work, lifestyles and our roles as individuals in society.

This shift is not our imagination. The World Values Survey has been tracking such shifts of the world from 1981–2015. Political scientists working on this project assert that there are two major dimensions of cross cultural variation in the world: Traditional values (like religion, deference to authority) versus Secular-rational values (opposite preferences to traditional values), Survival values (economic and physical security) versus Self-expression values.

Decades ago, economic growth, security and defense were high on our priority list. But as quality of life improved, we give our attention and interest to new issues like protecting the environment, free speech and protecting minorities, whether it be in terms of gender, race or sexual orientation as well as rising demands for participation in decision making in political and economic life.

Value and Beliefs by Algorithm

Today, our voice is not only heard in physical spaces, but rings out also in virtual spaces. At the beginning of the Internet era, we marveled at the fact that information and people could be brought together so easily. We had expected a global society, citizens connected to one another across the globe. The paradox, however, is in the fact that in trying to create a more accepting society based on a plurality of views, we have become even more hostile towards each other, choosing to surround ourselves with people who have similar views.

In 2017, Facebook counted 2 billion members globally. In the same year, 48% of Americans stated that they relied primarily on Facebook for news. I won’t be surprised if this number is representative for the rest of the world.

Where traditional newspapers could only target broad demographic groups based on language, location, education level, Facebook further tailors content thanks to your likes, posts and comments. Your feed is curated by an algorithm to maximise engagement, and has become a place where civic discourse and political engagement happens, all the while in an increasingly narrow option of views.

Yet, isn’t it in the values of democracy that people should be exposed to a plurality of ideas? When we lose this plurality, society becomes made up of extremes, confined in echo chambers, interacting only with people who believe the same things. We become insulated from opposing points of view, forming virtual cliques and communities that serve only to reinforce biases.

It used to be that the only way to communicate was face-to-face. If you met someone who disagreed with you, you were still able to see the body-language, and micro-expressions. You would see the human side of the disagreement. The nuances of beliefs are lost in the screen and in the words we read. We tend to assume the worst of people, turning them into stereotypes and putting them all into a single box.

The dangers of tribalism

And while it’s easy to blame it on the algorithm, research suggests that we, in fact, play the lead role in driving our own polarisation. Confirmation bias states our tendency to believe evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs. And this bias could be so strong that people would refuse to even consider the possibility that they could have been mistaken. If you believe that the world is flat, then you would seek out evidence to support that, like the thousands of members of the Flat Earth Society do. For example, the solar eclipse of 21 August 2017 gave rise to numerous YouTube videos purporting to show how the details of the eclipse prove the Earth is flat.

Being tribal is very primal, we gravitate towards people who look like us and think like us. Being tribal satisfies our need to find comfort and a sense of belonging among our own. It is the way we have learned to survive from the times of the first hunter-gatherers. Tribalism helps us identify who is like us, and who is different, allowing us to notice potential threats.

But when taken to the extreme, tribalism becomes an “us versus them” battle. Tribes demand loyalty and in return give us the security of belonging. Tribal loyalty is what caused close to a million deaths in only a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; it is what is turning Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to be accused of being an enabler of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It is what populist leaders latch onto when rallying the majority to overturn the status quo.

But what we find at the root of tribalism is in fact a fear of the “other”. Cultural neuroscience has even shown that at an unconscious level, our brains respond differently to the view of faces from different races or cultures. If we were only exposed to people who look like us, if we only listen to one media outlet and remained with like-minded people, the inherent fear and hatred toward unseen people would be an understandable but deeply flawed consequence of this.

Beyond fear, it is perhaps something else, more approachable: that of not understanding. What we do not understand, we fear. What we fear, we think is a threat to our survival. And what is a threat to our survival, we attempt to control. What we cannot control, we attack.

Take the crisis with the Rohingyas, for example — that’s right in our own backyard. With a 4% Muslim population in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are not recognised by the government of Myanmar and are therefore stateless even if they have lived in the Rakhine state for centuries. These ethnic and religious tensions fuel violence against this community, seen by the Buddhist majority as a foreign group with a separatist agenda and fueled by the religion of Islam. What we humanitarian groups and other nations see, on the other hand, is a persecuted minority. Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been expelled from Myanmar, in a murderous campaign that some United Nations officials say may constitute genocide. They fled to Bangladesh and neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

The non-interference policy of ASEAN, however impedes regional countries from getting involved in the internal affairs of Myanmar, prioritising instead moral suasion, quiet diplomacy and discussion. But is this sufficient? Nelson Mandela once said “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. I’ve been raising this issue with our Minister for Foreign Affairs in Parliament, perhaps a tad too many times and will be asking for an update on the recent ASEAN Summit at the Parliament sitting on Monday .

The Rohingya crisis is close to my heart. I visited the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar last year which shelters one million Rohingyas. 65% of them are children, many traumatised while being denied formal education. One of my community projects, Playground of Joy, is currently exploring opportunities with an NGO in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to bring psychosocial support programmes to Rohingya refugee children and women. We are starting our values-based and wellbeing programme to another NGO-run learning centre for Rohingya children in Johor Bahru this September, which I visited in April. The net proceeds from my book are also going towards supporting psychosocial support programmes for the children.

What are we if we turn our backs to those suffering? How can we justify multiculturalism and plurality if it does not include the minorities? Majoritarian thinking for social cohesion is unrealistic as one can never truly be in the majority across all spheres of life. More importantly, being in the majority represents an unequivocal privilege, which calls us to reach out and protect the minorities. It would not do either to focus merely on what happens within our national boundaries.

What binds us: humanity, love.

How can we transcend our beliefs and faiths? What binds us?

In 2017, religious world leaders came together to make an impassioned and united call to the G7 leaders to take action to protect our beautiful blue planet. They found within their beliefs a common denominator:

  • Taoism emphasises that “Humanity follows the Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao and the Tao follows what is natural.”
  • Catholic teachings emphasise that the environment and all its creations are a gift given for generations to come. We do not possess the Earth. It is merely a partner on our journey.
  • Muslims view the creation of Earth as signs of the Creator, and defines a good life as caring for both people and nature, and the possibility of attaining harmony between them.

The Climate Crisis is perhaps the biggest crisis in the history of humanity because let’s get real, it’s not the planet we are saving because she will regenerate and come back stronger as she’s been in the last 4.5 billion years. It’s us humans that we are saving if we can reverse our climate change trends. Could this crisis be what we need to finally get us to acknowledge and affirm that which binds us all? That we are first and foremost humans.

Desmond Tutu famously said “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” And how easy it is to forget that. Let’s give ourselves an opportunity to be reminded of our humanness, to be brave and vulnerable with this social experiment. Please raise your hand if you identify with some of the questions that I’m going to ask. (Some of them might be personal):

  • Who here believes in life after death?
  • Who is an overachiever?
  • Who has felt discriminated against because of something we could not control?
  • Who supports a friend/family members with a mental illness
  • Who identifies as LGBTQ+ (or If we have friends, family who are lgbtq+)
  • Who celebrates differences, stand up for others to create safer spaces?

Were you surprised to see some people raise their hands with you for the same question? What did you learn from this exercise? What thoughts and emotions are you holding now?

I remember a quote somewhere that says: “Only the small of heart think: “These are my people, and those strangers.” For the magnanimous sage, All the world is family.” When we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, we stand in our common humanity. We remember what makes us human.

Which, to me, is Compassion and Love because “In every age and dispensation, all Divine Ordinances are changed and transformed according to the requirements of time, except the law of Love.” Indeed, Love is timeless, universal and life-giving.

And Love was what I lost and found when I was left with all but $16 in the bank, along with a broken heart and a broken business, 12 years ago. Love failed me through different seasons of my life — from being born with an eye defect, being ‘unwanted’ as a girl to being cheated on and later sued by my own husband. Yet it is also the love that came in many shades and shapes including the unyielding support of my family and friends, and the generosity of strangers that lifted me every time I fell. All I understand and everything I know, I know because I love. So I decided to write 50 Shades of Love last year as a celebration of my 50 colourful years of walking on this earth as a human. I’m grateful to Tatt Si for allowing me to bring 20 signed copies of my book today. Thank you, you will be giving love to the Rohingya children with your support.

And thank you for listening and participating. With the ease with which fake news and hate speech travels online and social media becoming echo chambers where only like-minded views are filtered out for us, it is increasingly important for us to actively seek out the other points of view. Trust has to be forged face to face, one encounter at a time. So I encourage you to listen with curiosity and compassion. Because being human is a given, but keeping our humanity is a choice.

It’s why I choose to be a full time human being, and part-time everything else. And why I would still choose to be a girl if I could be born again. For my religion, my belief, my faith is Love. Love for the human that I am, for the humanity in others that I’m here to serve and for this planet that I’m here to honour and protect.

In conclusion, please indulge me one last time with this poignant poem called Only Breath by the Sufi poet, Rumi that I would like to share.

Only Breath

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

Thank you. May you be well, and peaceful.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.