The IRO was founded in Singapore shortly after the Second World War in 1949. His Eminence Maulana Mohamed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui visited post-war colonial Singapore early in the year and some 40 personages gathered and heard his message of peace at the invitation of the Muslim Missionary Society. The guests included His Excellency the Rt. Hon. Malcolm MacDonald, the Commissioner General for Singapore as well as representatives of the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Jews. They were catalyzed by the success of the occasion and planned to meet again in order to bind a fellowship of peace together.

In a series of 2 further meetings in February 1949, the Maulana proposed the formation of a body to represent all religions and a Consultative Committee formed to draft and adopt the constitution of the Inter-Religious Organisations of Singapore and Johore Bahru. The IRO was to be open to leaders and laymen of all the various religions of Malaya with peace and goodwill as its objective.

On 18th March 1949, the IRO’s first public meeting was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore, before a huge audience of about 2,000. Speeches for religious harmony were given by Rt. Hon. Malcolm MacDonald, the Commissioner General of Singapore, who became its first Patron; Rev. Dr H.B. Amstutz, who was in turn IRO’s first President; H.E. Maulana Mohamed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui; Sri Mehervan Singh for Sri Kartar Singh; Swami Vamadevananda of the Ramakrishna Mission; and Sim Boon Hwee for Rev. Sek Hong Choon. Their words were soon published as “The Contribution of Religion to Peace” MPH 1949. This book has since been reprinted in 2014.

The newly formed IRO had an active first year in 1949. During the year more religious bodies joined the IRO as representative membership opened.1 The IRO had held four public meetings by the end of the year. In these meetings religious unity and harmony were discussed with speeches by leaders representing the different faiths.2

In early 1950, the IRO requested the colonial government to add public holidays in Singapore to recognise and celebrate the birthdays of the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammad, instead of one of Whitsun and one of the bank holidays.3 Within the year, the IRO inter-religious cohesion building and fellowship had been timely, for peace was needed to calm the communities when Singapore was tested by the violence of the December 1950 riots that followed the case of Maria Hertogh. The IRO also condemned the riots in a signed statement by Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Theosophist, and Quaker leaders. They pledged to promote understanding and reconciliation with all their power in the future.

An Interfaith Tradition

From 1952, the IRO began its tradition of inter-religious prayers. The first such interfaith prayer service replaced the Anglican service to commemorate the annual Remembrance Day memorial and by 1966 the interfaith service at the Kranji War memorial had started to be provided annually. Since then whenever prayer is suitable, the government of Singapore has had public national ceremonies conducted with IRO’s interfaith unity. The religious harmony of Singapore is protected by legislation that separates religion from politics – in 1990 the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed – thus freedom of worship is protected as a way of life in Singapore.

As Singapore came of age with self-government and independence, the IRO’s name also changed to become the Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore. During the journey to independence, the IRO and Singapore faced tough challenges to national harmony. The deadly violence of the 1964 communal race riots was the worst seen in modern Singapore’s national history. The IRO worked tirelessly with issued statements broadcast on radio, newspaper and television calling the people of Singapore to work for the national good. The IRO also gave weekly speeches on the different religions during that time. IRO members also personally visited to console families and people injured in the riot violence.5 Mehervan Singh, IRO Secretary General 1964-1983, said, “to that extent, I believe that we were able to contribute to the pacifying”.6

The IRO Invocation and Publications

Since 1949 to the present, the IRO has put out publications with “The Contribution of Religion to Peace” (1949) to the “Harmony Among Religions” (1987), numerous articles, periodicals and more. These books and materials serve to foster understanding and build Singapore’s unique culture of inter-religious harmony. A non-denominational Invocation for everyone was presented by the IRO in 1975. This interfaith Invocation is read out at the beginning of all IRO meetings and it has also appeared in the IRO publications since.

Representation of Faiths

As part of the international inter-religious movement for harmony, the IRO was invited to the World Conference of Religions and Peace (WCRP) first assembly, Kyoto, 1970. As a need was seen for an Asian body, the WCRP was led to set up the Asian Conference of Religions and Peace (ACRP, a.k.a. Religions for Peace Asia) and the IRO hosted its founding meeting in Singapore, 1976.7 The conference opened at the Regional English Language Centre on 25 Nov 1976 for a week, with some 300 delegates and observers representing the major religions of 19 countries.8 The IRO continues to receive visits from different religious leaders and government officials from around the world and also participates in study visits to other countries.

When the IRO was founded in 1949, its constitution provided that the council would be composed of: Muslims, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, Sikhs, Jews, and miscellaneous. That foresight of the IRO founders made provisions for the growth of the IRO membership to include the followers of minority faiths. More religious faiths became part of the IRO as diversity in religious harmony has spread in Singapore; Zoroastrianism officially in the IRO from 1961, the Taoism and the Baha’i Faith in 1996 and Jainism in 2006.

An Everlasting Message

IRO public exhibitions and meetings through the decades have built understanding of the different faiths as well as continue to bring out the unified message of the religions. The timeless message of the IRO founders remains relevant to the present day, “…positive peace would come only when men could find ways to unite themselves, when men learn to stress not points of difficulty but points of agreement, and to recognise the possible levels of relationship on which men live together.” Rev. Dr H.B. Amstutz, IRO President, 1949.

  1. The Straits Times, 12 May 1949.
  2. The Straits Times, 8 Dec 1949.
  3. The Straits Times, 10 Jan 1950.
  4. The Straits Times, 12 Jan 1951.
  5. The Straits Times, 12 Aug 1964.
  6. Mehervan Singh, Oral History, National Archives of Singapore.
  7. The Straits Times, 17 Sept 1987.
  8. The Straits Times, 3 Oct 1976.