A strong, cohesive society built on goodwill, trust and confidence
Parliamentary speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth in response to Ministerial Statement on Restricting Hate Speech to Maintain Racial and Religious Harmony in Singapore
01 April 2019
A. Our history, our nation
Singapore’s approach to achieving and preserving social harmony is informed by both history and societal context.
In the early 1820s, when our immigrant forefathers first arrived in Singapore, they naturally formed enclaves based on where they came from or the language they spoke. The enclaves were further entrenched by our colonial rulers who divided Singapore into ethnic residential areas.
The years leading up to our independence in 1965 were fraught with many challenges that threatened to tear our society apart. The social bonds formed amongst the people at that time were fragile; the slightest provocation or tension could incite violent conflict. Our students today are still taught about the painful lessons of the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 and the 1964 Race Riots.
We managed to overcome those challenges. We nurtured a sense of community and belief in a common destiny, by choosing to build a nation based on justice and equality for all. A nation where you and I are co-equals as citizens. As the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”.
The strong community relations we enjoy today arose neither by accident nor by the laws of nature. We strove to enable every community to have its own space to practice its culture and customs. At the same time, we sought to maximise our common space so that Singaporeans can live, work and play side by side in mutual respect, sharing common experiences, and growing a sense of shared identity.
B. Freedom of religion
We have a nuanced approach towards racial and religious relations.
Every Singaporean has the right and freedom to practice beliefs of choice, to enjoy past-times of choice, and to appreciate arts and culture of choice.
But such a right cannot be an unfettered one. For a small country like Singapore, how we exercise this right should also consider the impact on our fellow Singaporeans. We live side by side with others of different races and religions, and in close proximity.
Thus, every Singaporean has to be accommodating and practise give and take. This means giving up a bit of one’s own space and comfort for others, but in return, we can expect others to do the same for us.
C. Whither Singapore?
In Singapore, our Constitution, laws and policies have been the traditional backstop against hate speech and incitement to violence. The Minister for Home Affairs has touched extensively on the rationale of our policies.
But can we assume the absence of offensive speech or communal violence in our society means that there is social harmony and cohesion? Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said, “No amount of troops would be able to stop the trouble if there was real hatred between the different communities. The decisive factor would be dependent upon the goodwill between neighbours”.
And indeed, forging a united people needs more than just the absence of denigration and discrimination, and more than law enforcement. For while law enforcement can arguably remove hatred, it cannot fill the void with respect and empathy. A strong cohesive society starts from tolerance, and over time, moves to accommodation. From accommodation, we progress to an appreciation of commonalities and differences. Finally, friendships built on goodwill, trust and confidence in one another will form and must form. It is a process that requires continued effort. Deeper understanding of each other
To this end, we have been expanding opportunities for Singaporeans to grow a deeper understanding of one another through honest dialogues, across a range of topics.
For instance, Ask Me Anything is a community-led series of conversations where different religious leaders take turns to clarify common misconceptions about their beliefs and practices, as well as engage on sensitive issues. AMA is one of the initiatives under MCCY’s BRIDGE, or Broadening Religious and Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education, which provides safe spaces for such honest and open dialogues to take place. Over 200 people turned up at one recent session on Catholicism in December 2018 to learn more from members of the Catholic Archdiocese. I participated in one of the facilitated breakout groups, and witnessed how questions that seemed sensitive could be asked and discussed extensively but calmly in a supportive environment; allowing participants to clarify their doubts; get a better understanding about each other without imposing’s belief on one another; and developing trust through deeper understanding.
Beyond religious issues, MCCY’s Youth Conversations have allowed more than 8,000 youths to come together and share perspectives on issues of national importance such as social divides, vulnerable communities and environmental sustainability. In 2019, a panel will be formed to further engage youths, and the aim is to articulate a youth vision for Singapore in 2025 and an SG Youth Action Plan, which will cover areas ranging from jobs and employment to mental health.
We will continue to support and expand these platforms and spaces where our citizens can engage one another candidly, discuss their perspectives, and if necessary, agree to disagree respectfully. We will also continue to learn from experiences and best practices internationally about promoting and preserving social harmony. We will be holding the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in June this year, where we will bring together policy-makers, community and religious leaders, and academics from Singapore, from the region and the wider world to share experiences, discuss ideas and promote collaboration.
Our religious and community leaders continue to spend much time and attention reaching out regularly to one another to build mutual trust and understanding. This is not only through regular conversations, but also through informal activities such as the annual Harmony Games organised by members of the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony. Our religious and community leaders have also showed solidarity in trying times. For instance, after the Lou Engle incident last year, the Christian and Muslim community came together and showed how our strong inter-religious bonds would not be weakened by insensitive remarks. Appreciation of commonalities and differences
Second, we must continue to appreciate how our different cultures and religions make Singapore richer and more vibrant.
Our museums and heritage institutions foster deeper understanding of our diverse cultural heritage anchored on our shared history. We express our national pride in the rich diversity of our hawker culture in our ongoing UNESCO bid. Indeed, life would be worse off if our hawker centres all sold food of one single race, or if we could not sit together with friends of other races to eat our meals. Fortunately, we can have food from all races all at one hawker centre catering to different dietary requirements, and together with our friends and neighbours of different races and religions.
Our vibrant and diverse arts scene also helps promote understanding across communities, through works that reflect our multi-cultural identity, as well as works that introduce us to foreign cultures. Many arts productions, through their exploration of humanity and societal issues, also remind us of universal commonalities while recognising our differences. Whether you enjoy performances at the Esplanade’s Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts, or appreciating art works at the National Gallery Singapore, the arts are a powerful platform to unify people of different backgrounds.
We should continue to celebrate one another’s festivals. Those organised by the People’s Association (PA) and the Inter-Racial and -Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) provide opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to come together and appreciate our different music, dances and much more. Building strong bonds
Third, we need to continuously build and nurture strong bonds with one another. I am glad to note there are survey results showing that more people are having friends of different races.1 We need to keep at it.
Sports is an activity that brings people from all walks of life together. We will strive to provide children and youth with more opportunities to play with one another from a young age, through the ActiveSG Clubs and Academies.
We have also expanded participation in Outward Bound Singapore (OBS). Students from different schools and different backgrounds will have common experiences and bond by facing challenges together. We hope that through these experiences, people will form meaningful friendships with one another, regardless of race, language or religion.
At the same time, we will continue to encourage a more caring and giving community. We will provide more platforms for collaboration, volunteerism and giving. For instance, we are expanding the SG Cares Community Networks to better connect volunteers and other resources to areas of need.
D. Singapore – A harmonious and cohesive society
To conclude, Singapore’s social cohesion and harmony is fundamental to our survival, prosperity and identity. But more than that, it is a testament to how we have succeeded in making our diversity a strength. Our diversity is not a challenge or a weakness. Because of our different cultures, beliefs and practices, each of us is able to bring something special and make a unique contribution to the Singapore story. We have woven a beautiful tapestry from many different coloured strands, and it is what defines us as Singaporeans - a key to our identity.
We have no illusions that our social harmony is fragile and precious, and we must strive constantly to protect and strengthen it. Ultimately, defeating hateful ignorance and building a cohesive society depends on all Singaporeans; not just the Government, but every one of us. Each and every one of us can and must contribute to building a more united Singapore, by reaching out, listening to each other, and building trust one encounter at a time. Our nation will then always be a home for all Singaporeans, bound by friendship and a common destiny.
Mr Speaker, allow me to finish my speech in Mandarin.
Singapore’s racial and religious harmony is fundamental to our survival, and key to our economic prosperity. Mutual respect and tolerance between the various races and religions are already embedded in our national consciousness. Although there has been no racial conflicts in the past 50 years, the global rise of populism and religious extremism has allowed race and religion to be exploited to divide societies. Our community organisations must continue their efforts to maintain our social harmony. In Singapore, while each community has its space, we must also expand the common space so that Singaporeans can live, work and play together with a spirit of inclusiveness and mutual respect. Through participation in shared activities and the building of shared experiences, people will understand and trust one another better. This contributes to strengthening our national identity.
Our Constitution and laws protect the interests of different communities, including the prohibition of hate speech and behaviour that incites violence. However, building social cohesion and a shared national identity cannot be achieved through legislation alone. Our goal is to move from simply preventing discrimination, towards a people united in hearts and minds. This is the process of moving from tolerance, accommodation, celebrating our diversity, to mutual trust. It requires constant effort from both the government and the people.
Singapore’s long-term peace and stability require Singaporeans to reach out and listen to each other, communicate, and build mutual trust, one encounter at a time. Singapore is a home for all of us, bound by friendship and a common destiny. Let us uphold the principle of safeguarding cultural and religious diversity, march towards the goal of a united nation regardless of race, language and religion, and write a unique, exciting chapter of our Singapore Story.
1 IPS Survey of Race, Religion and Language 2018/2019”, Institute of Policy Studies