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Commitment to building racial harmony in Singapore

Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, in response to Adjournment Motion on “Unending Project of Building Racial Harmony In Singapore” by Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Raj Joshua Thomas

Mr Speaker,

  1. I thank Mr Raj Joshua Thomas for emphasising the importance of racial harmony, and for reminding us that this is a continuous work in progress, even as we aspire to be a post-race society.
  2. Earlier today, my colleagues and I outlined the Government’s multi-pronged approach to tackle racism, racial discrimination, and help realise our aspiration of building a society which values people equally, where Chinese, Malay, Indian and other races are bound by their commonalities, and enlarged by their differences.
  3. Those points are equally relevant to addressing the issues raised by Mr Thomas.
  4. At a recent seminar, Minister Lawrence Wong outlined the Government’s position on how our present harmony is hard won – a result of careful thought to laws and policies over the decades:

    a. Our electoral system guarantees minority representation in Parliament; and in each political party who wishes to represent the interests of Singaporean – and no political party can prevail by narrowly appealing to any specific race and religion;

    b. Our housing policies, as you heard, ensure we have racially integrated neighborhoods and not segregated ethnic enclaves;

    c. Our Presidential Council on Minority Rights has the power to reject laws passed by Parliament that infringes on the rights of any minority population.
  5. Sir, these, and other steps, have enabled Singapore to progress from the darker days of racial riots in its early years of independence.

    a. Unlike, for example, the French model of assimilation, we did not set out to achieve harmony by ignoring or eliminating cultural diversity and getting ethnic minority groups to adopt the language, norms and the attributes of the majority group.

    b. On the contrary, we have worked hard to entrench the interests of our multi-racial groups. The Constitution sets out basic obligations on the part of the Government to care for the interests of racial and religious minorities.

    c. We have long recognised the need to both protect each ethnic community, and also bridge them through a set of common values and a common language.

    d. Therefore, we have embarked on a unique path as a multi-racial and multi-cultural country - one that celebrates its ethnic diversity as strength, while having a shared sense of belonging and identity.

    e. I dare say, Mr Speaker - very few societies around the world have succeeded in ensuring its citizens live harmoniously together, let alone one which has as much diversity as we do in Singapore.

    f. What we have achieved is something we can all be very proud of.
  6. At the same time, we are not complacent, nor do we presume that what we have achieved is perfect, or completed, or that we have reached a steady post-race state.   

    a. Recent incidents, as Mr Thomas has outlined, of racist behaviour that have gone viral remind us there is nothing natural or pre-ordained about our state of racial harmony.

    b. Without due care and attention, the good progress we have made can be very quickly lost.

    Calibrating our policies

  7. As Mr Thomas has suggested – and I agree – this means we need to work constantly at ensuring racial harmony. We also have to calibrate our laws and policies to ensure that they remain relevant and fair.
  8. Changing social attitudes mean that every generation will have to decide its own balance on issues of race and other sensitive issues.
  9. So our policies are not set in stone, but must be refined to keep pace with societal changes, keeping the over-arching raison d’etre as the focus. 
    a. I thank Mr Thomas for the suggestions that he has made to calibrate some of our policies. My ministry, together with other ministries, will study them carefully.

    b. However, as he has pointed out, the core, the essence, of our policies continues to remain relevant today.
  10. As we review our policies, we will engage multiple stakeholders, some of whom may have conflicting views.

    a. We will endeavor to seek consensus on the changes that we choose to undertake, so that policy change and policy shifts can unite and not divide us.

    b. At the same time, we must also be conscious that what might work in other countries, other societies and other jurisdiction, might not work in the same way as our own context may be different and we must always remain sensitive to local realities and our own lived experiences.

    c. Shifts in our policy positions will also not come about because of populist sentiments or from who shouts the loudest.
  11. But you can be assured that at the heart of it, the Government will always seek to preserve our hard-earned multiracial harmony.
  12. Let me elaborate.

    Strengthen our community networks and institutions

  13. Mr Thomas has emphasised the need to continually reach out and engage the diverse groups in our society.
  14. We will continue to do so, with the support of community partners, to actively promote opportunities to build bonds of trust between races. 

    a. At the national level, I chair the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony (or NSC) to build close relationships between Government and our ethnic community leaders and also apex religious leaders.

    b. We also have the National Integration Council (NIC) to integrate new citizens who may be ethnically similar to us but may come from different context and cultural backgrounds.

    c. At the local level, the Inter Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) foster friendships and build mutual respect in every constituency networks.
  15. There were also several other initiatives I outlined earlier today in Parliament.

    Enlarging our common spaces

  16. This is something Mr Thomas spoke at some length about, highlighting the need to ensure that students from SAP schools do not turn into an insular group.

    a. Sir, we agree.

    b. SAP schools, and indeed all schools, should promote social mixing, and meaningful interactions and discourse with students from other communities.

    c. Schools will always remain an important common ground to develop cross-cultural understanding and friendships from a young and early age. And this will be relationships, mindset and philosophies that we hope will last a lifetime.
  17. In fact, Singapore’s approach to harmony has always been about creating as much common space as possible, working also, through our domains of arts, culture and sports - domains that my ministry is particularly interested in.
  18. At the same time, I think we can do more than just simply bringing people together.

    a. We do not want our ethnic communities to just “co-exist” or “tolerate” each other’s existence.

    b. We certainly hope that people can embrace each other’s differences, appreciate that we all have something unique, precisely because we are different, and to stand in solidarity despite our race.
  19. We have witnessed many acts of embracement in the past year as we stood together as one united people, especially during the adversities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  20. We want to continue this spirit of embracement, by facilitating and providing opportunities for individuals to join their different talents for the common good.

    To outline some examples:

    a. At the neighbourhood-level, we have appointed SG Cares Volunteer Centres to coordinate volunteers and resources to bring more local stakeholders working side by side, on a daily basis, to create a larger positive social impact, regardless of race or religion.

    b. At the national level, we are expanding opportunities for individuals to partner with the Government to co-create solutions. In the spirit of Singapore Together, we have embarked on 25 Alliances for Action (AfAs), which are action-oriented cross-sector collaborations to tackle complex issues. These collaborations do not quite respect strictly the boundaries of race and religion, but looks at the issue as they affect or impact society.

    Nurture constructive discourse to build empathy and mutual understanding

  21. Next, inasmuch as it is important to expand common spaces, there will also be occasions of differences, discord and disagreement.  We will need to be constructive about how this is managed.
  22. Embracing each other’s differences also means being willing to hear from and engage with someone who shares a different view, especially on sensitive matters such as race.

    a. Society falters not when we disagree about things;

    b. But when we lose interest in trying to make sense of the other person’s point of view, or to understand or to learn and re-learn on occasion and trying to engage that person on the merits of our own.
  23. Mr Thomas has highlighted the important role of responsible and mature discourse, but at the same time, being acutely aware of the need to guard against those who take advantage of, and exploit fault lines for their own malicious intent.
  24. Community and religious groups and leaders, also play a key role in encouraging constructive discussions, clarifying doubts and misconceptions – some of which are innocent, but lie at the heart of some of these insensitivities. They also play a part in rallying Singaporeans to stand against divisive rhetoric, a lot of which also appears online.

    a. This is why MCCY is collaborating with technology companies, as I outlined earlier this afternoon, to support religious, interfaith and community organisations’ efforts to produce meaningful and positive social media content on racial and religious harmony.


  25. While MCCY and the whole-of-government will continue to do its utmost to preserve the hard won harmony we enjoy, success will also require a whole-of-society effort.  

    a. Government cannot, should not, compel Singaporeans to have more friends of different races and religions. Neither would this be sustainable.

    b. But we can create the conditions, and the environment to foster stronger, deeper, more long-lasting harmony.

    c. We will do so, and we will also convene, encourage, and partner with the community, but I wish to stress that ultimately, connections only happen when individuals want to do so, and reach out to each other.

    d. For racial harmony to be enduring, the heavy lifting and the motivation must come from all Singaporeans, collectively, in an open fashion.
  26. Finally, let me close by thanking Mr Thomas for reminding us not to “forget the good stuff as well” as he puts it. I think he is absolutely right.
  27. Yes, we have to continuously work at forging racial harmony; and it is not an easy task. It is a constant work in progress, and we must take nothing for granted.
  28. But we are also different from so many others in the world with what we already have:

    a. We have a guarantee of equality for all races, and

    b. A racial diversity and harmony which has benefitted from a system earlier generation have set up, with wisdom and foresight;

    c. Precisely to ensure we do not fall into the difficulties that other racially diverse communities might have, with social mixing, integration, harmony: it is so difficult for many societies to do this well, let alone a racially diverse society like ours.

    d. But we made a conscious choice that that is what our country will stand for, on the day of our independence, and have worked hard at it ever since.

    e. So let’s not throw out what has worked well for us, over the decades – a system which structurally delivers integration outcomes, to foster better multiracial and multi-religious relations.

    f. I urge all Singaporeans from all ethnic communities to engage each other in our commons spaces to forge stronger relations, embrace diversity, and also to practice it each day.

    g. If we can do that, I am sure that our lived experiences will come closer and closer to our aspirations of a truly post-racial society.
  29. Thank you, Mr Speaker.


Last updated on 05 July 2021