G20 Religion and Policy: “We need more interactions and pooling of resources to tackle the challenges”

22 Sep 2020

As a member of the G20 Interfaith Asia Region Consultations, Ambassador ONG Keng Yong shares his perspective on the role of religious leaders and policymakers in addressing current challenges in Asia such as climate change, equal access to education and the need for more coordinated regional strategies.

What are the key challenges currently facing Asia and how do you think the G20 Interfaith Forum is working to address these?

Asia is very diverse in its culture, economy, history, and political organization.  Contestation and conflict over beliefs, faiths and traditions have troubled Asia for a long time. The basic challenge from this diversity is inter-state rivalry and contestation over many issues. We need more interactions, sharing of problem-solving, and pooling of resources to tackle the challenges.  Therefore, we need to talk and listen more, for example, on the differences in beliefs, faiths, and traditions, and to find practical solutions or to manage them with relevant policy measures. The G20 Interfaith Forum can facilitate this approach and purpose.

How are climate disasters fuelling conflict within Asia?

Some conflicts in relation to climate disasters arise from the failure of groups to contribute equitably to climate change mitigation, or to compensating the groups that suffer from it. In this technological age we are in, it is not possible to hide information or to do things in an unaccountable way. Everyone has a role to play in tackling climate change. 

How can religious communities and policymakers work together to encourage sustainability and care for people and planet?

Religious institutions can promote the culture, virtue and trait of vigilance and safety, so that all parts of society can contribute toward increasing disaster preparedness. Public awareness and education are essential. Practical ideas and good practices can be introduced at places of worship – recycling of waste, reducing use of plastic, conserving water resources, and preserving the notion of humanity matters. This, in turn, helps policymakers to draw societal acceptance in implementing the needed carrots and sticks, for climate change mitigation as well as adaptation.

Based on the experience of COVID-19, how can religious/interreligious actors be involved in managing the public health crisis and contributing to global health in coordination with policymakers?

Experts tell me that religious and interreligious organizations can play two roles. The first, is to develop the moral conscience and the ethical behaviour of individuals, so that they will not disobey lockdown orders. At the same time, these same organizations can help raise to the state level, the concerns of the people who are not reached by the state’s assistance programmes during the pandemic. This helps to prevent a breakdown in social order. 

How can policymakers and religious leaders work together to help the economically disadvantaged?

My colleagues researching in these areas told me that while religions and state policy work differently, they both share the goal of helping to meet the basic needs of the individuals, facilitating their upward mobility, and sustaining what they have achieved for advancement of themselves, their families and the community they belong to. Collectively, this contributes to realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the priorities and needs in education policy that will encourage inclusion and religious and cultural diversity?

Scholars have reiterated to me that a key priority today is to raise the importance of harmony and cohesion as a cultural and social value. As President Halimah Yacob of Singapore shared once, “everyone has a role” in “finding out who is not in the room or part of the conversation”. A researcher has reminded me, even before people enter into any formal education, their families are their first schools. All beliefs, faiths and traditions have emphasised the role and virtue of family and relationships therein.

What opportunities are lacking for youth and women in terms of equality, access to jobs and education? What can be done to solve this?

First, we need a mindset change.  This requires an understanding that men and women have complementary traits to one another, which rather than offering a reason for discrimination, can actually be a basis of developing greater partnerships with one another. Policy development must be geared towards future-readiness of today’s youth.  This means helping the youth to develop the appropriate skillsets in becoming more employable today. Beyond skillsets, I also think that those in the older generation need to find ways of shaping the youth of today into leaders of tomorrow, building on wisdom drawn from the past while recognising the requirement for being future-ready.

Why are these G20 regional consultations important? What do you hope will emerge from this collaboration?

Each region or continent has its own set of multi-faceted issues, some of which are rooted deeply in history. This context-dependence implies that policies adopted at the global level may require further customisation. We will need to put extra care in our attempts to generalise existing solutions from the global level to the regional level, or from one community to another.  We ought to accept why past policies have not worked and look at how to tweak them to be more responsive to region-specific needs of the present and the foreseeable future.  It is important that all participants in such consultations and collaborations come to the table with a spirit of openness, generosity, and empathy; otherwise, no further resolutions can be provided to the challenges we are facing today.


Ambassador ONG Keng Yong is currently the Executive Deputy Chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and served as Secretary-General of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) from January 2003 to January 2008.


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