This story is one of the six in The Peak Singapore’s Power List. The list is an annual recognition that celebrates and acknowledges individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, influence, and impact within their respective fields and the broader community.
Our theme for this year is Quiet Power, a force that brings about transformative shifts in the lives of ordinary people through strategic collaboration and concerted efforts with like-minded individuals. Quiet leaders are dedicated to creating positive and lasting change within the community, leading to fundamental and permanent shifts in how the community functions on a day-to-day basis.
The first time Mohamed Irshad recalled experiencing racial discrimination, he was seven years old. When students were asked to pair up during school assembly, some classmates did not want him as their partner. Then there was the time when an elderly lady refused to enter the lift upon seeing him.
When President Tharman Shanmugaratnam recalled recently how, growing up, it was normal for some people not to want to sit next to him on the bus, Irshad shares, “That happened to me too.”
Roses for peace
As president and founder of the inter-faith nonprofit group Roses of Peace, he regards such incidents as a stark reminder that even as race and religious cohesion have improved, it is still a work in progress in Singapore. That has taken on a new sense of urgency now that he’s a father to a 21-month-old boy. “To think that my son could possibly face (such discrimination) … (it makes me think) I have to work out something!”
Irshad has been doing just that for over a decade now through Roses of Peace. He formed the group in 2012 through a series of fortuitous events at the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus. As an undergraduate, Irshad was already heading both SMU’s Islamic Business and Finance Society and the Muslim Society when some students approached him to endorse a silent, sit-in protest on campus following the release of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Unlike them, Irshad felt protesting was counter-productive “because Islam is a religion of peace, so I felt the response needed to show that.” His solution: Hand a rose — a universal symbol of love — along with greeting cards bearing sayings of peace and kindness from different religious faiths to members of the public.
It was a simple gesture, but as it turned out, a powerful one that resonated with many young volunteers, who later remarked that “they felt good engaging and talking to strangers and sharing with them why they were (handing out roses)”, says Irshad. To date, the group has engaged over 3,000 youth volunteers from diverse faiths and distributed over 50,000 roses with messages of peace.
Nurturing the next generation and beyond
Over time, Roses of Peace has become known for providing a safe space for young people to interact with one another and ask difficult questions about race and religion to community and religious leaders and policymakers.
“We create the platform for them to direct their questions to the right people, and they appreciate it,” Irshad shares. “This is what youths want, not a top-down approach.”
With former President Halimah Yacob as their founding patron, Irshad and his team, on her advice, began grooming the next generation of inter-faith youth ambassadors by kickstarting the Roses of Peace Ambassador programme in 2018. Some 90 youths under the age of 35 have so far undergone a series of workshops training them to carry out their own ground-up projects to foster inter-faith harmony. Collectively, Irshad estimates their work could have gone on to touch the hearts and minds of at least 1,000 other youths.
This year, that initiative morphed into the Harmony Champions Programme, targeting students from institutes of higher learning. Collaborating with Temasek Foundation, Roses of Peace appointed 80 youth leaders in the first iteration of this new programme, to be advocates of inter-racial and inter-religious harmony. The students attend dialogue sessions, go on learning journeys, and work on projects, developing, for instance, a card game to engage their peers in race relations. Such projects, Irshad says, could have likely impacted some 7,000 other youths.
Even as Roses of Peace, in Mdm Halimah’s words, “continues to push boundaries”, it is always a challenge, Irshad admits, to find new ways to engage the youth. For one, the group is entirely volunteer-run. “Our office is in the cloud,” he jokes.
He is also mindful that Roses of Peace does not become “too bureaucratic” and lose its youth-centric appeal. But it is a balancing act, given how, as Irshad observes, a growing number of young people are now more outspoken in airing their grievances and opinions on social media. “We just tell them, ultimately, to make sure in your words and in your actions, you are the uniting force, rather than the polarising force,” he says. “And they get the message — loud and clear.”
For someone who admits that his life’s journey “has never been quite planned”, at 34 years young, Irshad’s list of achievements seems to suggest otherwise.
Not only is he achieving continued success as an interfaith harmony advocate and youth leader, but he was one of the youngest Nominated Members of Parliament and currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at SMU and the head of corporate affairs for ASEAN at global information technology firm Tata Consultancy Services.
Yet he downplays his accomplishments, preferring to see himself as a “simple, idealistic person” whose only superpower, it seems, is to affect change through youths. Quietly.
For more stories on The Peak Power List, visit here.