Lee Hsien Loong is being recognised for helping to foster Singapore’s multicultural society – here are 3 things to know about the World Statesman Award

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre, in blue) about to break fast at Al-Muttaqin Mosque during the Ramadan on June 6, 2017.
The Straits Times

Singapore has long been a champion of building and maintaining a harmonious multicultural society, and it’s hard for the world not to take notice.

Now, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will even be given the title of 2019 World Statesman, in recognition of his efforts to foster “a society that embraces multiculturalism in which ethnic communities maintain their unique way of life while at the same time living harmoniously”.

The award will be handed out in New York by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an American interfaith group which promotes peace, tolerance and ethnic conflict resolution, at its 54th annual awards dinner on September 23.

Announcing the decision in a Facebook post on Tuesday (April 16), the foundation’s founder and president, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, also lauded PM Lee for “supporting a knowledge-based economy and an education system that provides its citizens with the necessary skills and knowledge to survive in a globally competitive environment and for implementing a renowned world-class health infrastructure”.

According to the foundation’s website, this year’s awards dinner will be held in tribute to billionaire real estate developer and philanthropist Stephen M Ross; Timotheus Hottges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG; and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube.

Here are some things to know about the longstanding award.

1. A long list of notable previous recipients

Among some of the award’s notable recipients are former French presidents François Hollande (2016) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2008), former British PM David Cameron (2015), former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak (2009), and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2007).

While the award has generally been non-controversial, in 2013, the foundation’s decision to award then-Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was met with criticism from human rights groups.

Citing Human Rights Watch, Associated Press (AP) reported that Indonesia had been observed to suffer “a steady increase in attacks…due to the government’s failure to confront harassment against Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect”.

AP also reported that the secretary-general of Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Ministry at the time responded to these complaints by saying: “We noted that a few violations happened, but please don’t generalise that intolerance has increased in Indonesia.”

2. Foundation led by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a holocaust survivor

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation was started in 1965 by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an Austrian-born American rabbi.

The 89-year-old Jewish leader has been a longtime human rights activist with multiple recognitions and awards from various governments and institutions across the world.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Schneier is a holocaust survivor. According to the foundation’s website, he lived under Nazi occupation in Budapest during World War II and arrived in the United States in 1947.

In 2018, the rabbi told Jewish website Jewish News from Austria that he remembers his experience living under Nazi occupation “very well”.

I had lots of Christian friends. Over night I became a pariah,” he was quoted as saying of his time in Austria.

Later, he and his mother became trapped in Budapest when the war broke out and his grandparents were sent to Auschwitz. He was later selected for a “death march” from Budapest to Hegyeshalom at the Austrian border, but was saved by his US affidavit when he told an official that he was American.

“I was no better than the one and a half million children who died. They were the first ones that camp doctor Mengele sorted out in Auschwitz. They did not have a chance. God must have saved me for a reason. I repay every day so that others do not have to suffer what I had to endure,” he said.

3. Praised by US presidents from Reagan to Trump

With its long history of promoting religious freedom and harmony across the world, the foundation has on numerous occasions been praised by US presidents.

“Since 1965, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation has advocated the moral cause of religious liberty and mutual understanding among the great faiths and in nations across our world. And to this day, the Foundation continues to build cultural respect and peaceful discourse,” Donald Trump reportedly said in 2017.

Former US president Barack Obama also said in 2015: “In too many corners of the globe, people are still persecuted for their beliefs, imprisoned for their ideals, and punished for their convictions. By striving to shape a future in which the rights and dignity of every person are protected, organizations like yours play a vital role in bringing us closer to a more just and equal world.”

Back in 1987, former US president Ronald Reagan also described the foundation as “a leader in the struggle for religious freedom and human rights around the world”.