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Building cohesive societies for a brighter, shared future

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) /Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Conference at the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore

Chairman of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Dr Norbert Lammert,
Members of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference on “Upholding a Rules-Based System on Freedom of Religion or Belief”.

    A. Our early years

  2. Each country has its own unique history and societal context, and has to find its own path to achieving and preserving social harmony. This year, we commemorate the Singapore Bicentennial – the 200th anniversary of Stamford Raffles’ landing in Singapore. Following the arrival of the British in 1819, our island’s entrepôt trade blossomed. This attracted waves of immigrants seeking economic opportunities.
  3. Our forefathers arrived in Singapore in large numbers, and from many places – China, India, the Middle East, Europe – straining the limited social support for housing, business, education, sanitation on the island. They naturally formed enclaves, clustering with clansmen and people they were familiar with, and whom would help house and settle them. People had to stick together along communal lines to contest for limited resources and survive. These segregationist instincts were further entrenched by the colonial administration.
  4. The British divided the population physically and socially along ethnic lines. The Raffles Town Plan, formulated in 1822, divided the population into separate ethnic residential areas. The British thought that this would prevent clashes among the diverse groups, and ensure the orderly development of Singapore.
  5. Beyond physically segregating the different communities, the colonial administration also created and perpetuated various stereotypes. For instance, the Chinese were viewed as good traders and labourers, Indians were brought in for law enforcement, and the Europeans were undoubtedly the ruling class.
  6. Such deliberate stratification continued for almost 150 years. It did little to promote mutual understanding and tolerance between communities. Provocations, whether from within or without, sparked violent conflicts. Racial riots in 1964 left more than 30 dead and over 500 injured, with widespread damage to public and private properties. To this day, we have a Racial Harmony Day every July to remind our students the importance of racial and religious harmony. Around the world, countries that have gone through a similar journey towards independence continue to be plagued by communal tensions.
  7. The racial and religious harmony that Singapore enjoys today is thus not inherited, but an outcome of a deliberate choice to move away from racial politics and race-based policies. In fact, our belief in a multi-racial, multi-religious society, where everyone has an equal place, is the reason for our separation from Malaysia and existence as an independent country.
  8. As our founding leader, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”. This aspiration is also enshrined in our National Pledge that emphasises we are a people “regardless of race, language or religion”. We are all equal members of the same society.

    B. Our core beliefs

  9. We are guided by this belief to build a home for all races where everyone has the freedom to choose and practise his or her beliefs and cultures, provided that the same freedom is accorded to others. The rights and sensitivities of others are protected as we want ours to be protected. We believe in separation of politics and religion, with a secular government that keeps religion out of common spaces such as schools and hospitals.
  10. As a young nation, barely more than five decades old, our national identity is still nascent. We understand that we are working against primordial instincts to be biased towards one’s community – whether defined by blood, custom, or faiths. For that reason, our laws and institutions cannot just reflect society’s preferences and prejudices. They have to reshape people’s sense of who we are, and our obligations to one another, and create new national collective norms.

    C. Anchoring social cohesion

  11. Our Constitution forms the foundation for equal protection and non-discrimination. We enshrined meritocratic values in our Constitution, to ensure no one is discriminated or disadvantaged based on race, language or religion.
  12. We passed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) in 1990, which empowers the Government to act against religious leaders or groups who incite enmity between groups, or who abuse religion for political ends. These laws allow the State to uphold peace and mutual respect between people of different beliefs. They protect freedom of religion by not allowing hateful remarks, threats of violence, or manipulation for political ends. We amended the Act recently in response to new technology, such as social media, that has amplified and accelerated the impact of divisive forces. The amendments gave us better basis to respond swiftly and against influence from foreign powers.
  13. We also put in place structural safeguards to ensure that there is political representation for all races. In Parliamentary elections, political parties are required to present teams with minority races to contest multi-member constituencies. The plurality of the teams ensures that all races are represented, and the likelihood of raced-based politics is minimised. Last year, we amended our Constitution on the direct elections of the President, to similarly ensure that all races have a chance to be elected to the highest office in the State.
  14. Besides our laws and Constitution, our social policies expand common spaces for better integration. In contrast to the Raffles Town Plan mentioned earlier, we ensured that every public housing estate, which collectively houses over 80% of our population, is ethnically mixed. In these housing estates, we build schools that are open to all, are racially mixed, and students learn a secular national curriculum. This is so, even in clan-affiliated or religiously affiliated schools. In such schools, while they retain their names and values, teaching is secular and proselytisation not accepted. As education in national primary schools is compulsory, all Singaporeans go through common experiences. We also have National Service, a compulsory military service, which is a rite of passage for every Singaporean man. All recruits are treated the same, wear the same uniform, and complete the same training. Through this, our young men train and fight side-by-side with one another, form strong bonds and become lifelong friends. At the work place, employers are required to abide by guidelines on fair employment practices, which preclude them from employing along ethnic or religious lines. This ensures jobs are awarded based on merit.

    D. Achieving social harmony

  15. What I have mentioned thus far – our laws and policies – form the foundations for engagement. But we cannot command neighbours to engage and embrace others of different races or faiths. Our schools cannot dictate that classmates eat at the same table and play together. At a more fundamental level, we cannot legislate to remove irrational fears and stereotypes about other races, nor to accept that a set of different beliefs should coexist with ours.
  16. For society to be strong, all its members must appreciate and subscribe to treating others of different creeds and beliefs as one of ours. This requires unremitting effort of reaching out and acceptance by all segments of society. In Singapore, the Government is actively involved in these efforts, and we work closely with Singaporeans to provide resources and promote programmes that safeguard our common spaces.
  17. We set up the People’s Association (PA) in 1960, to connect people from all walks of life, through community facilities and interest-based programmes. Through the PA, volunteers help to resolve local community issues through dialogue and engagement at every constituency. When faced with the racial riots in 1964, community leaders from different races stepped forward, despite the danger, to form goodwill committees that calmed the situation. We formalised these committees into Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) in 2002 to strengthen community bonding at the local level. Today, there is an IRCC in every constituency in Singapore. IRCC members volunteer on projects that benefit their entire constituency, such as SG Secure that deals with responding to terrorist attacks, so at every constituency there is some local capability to deal with the aftermath of such an attack - where to go to, where to evacuate, where the resources for medical, food and water are, and so on. There is contingency preparedness built into every constituency.
  18. Ground-up efforts to promote racial and religious harmony have increased. Community groups are stepping forward to facilitate candid and open dialogues on race and religion. The WhiteHatters, for example, organises a series called Ask Me Anything (AMA) where participants of diverse faiths engage religious leaders to deepen their understanding of religions. In June, The WhiteHatters brought together the Christian, Jewish and Muslim representatives to discuss the Abrahamic faiths. In September, and Roses of Peace, which are both non-government organisations collaborated with local broadcaster CNA to conduct dialogue sessions on race relations. If you are interested, please go to YouTube or Google and look for “CNA Regardless of…” There is a documentary series titled “Regardless of Race”, “Regardless of Religion”, “Regardless of Generation” – documentaries on sensitive issues that could divide a society.
  19. Most recently, the leaders of all the major religions in Singapore launched the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony in June 2019. They unequivocally declared that it is consistent with their religious values to encourage regular interaction amongst followers of different religions. This is very significant for us, for all religious leaders to say so - that it is okay to socially interact with people with different faith. And they explained what some of these interactions are, such as helping one another, extending social service to one another, doing business together, and attending one another’s life events, such as weddings and funerals. As you all you know, these life events are events that have many religious rituals, and for the religious leaders to say that it is okay to attend someone’s funeral of a different faith, we believe this is an important step. These everyday behaviours may seem obvious, but incidents around the world have shown that segregationist practices breed distrust. So our religious leaders have made it clear, that we have to engage one another in our everyday lives to build trusting relationships. More than 400 religious organisations have since affirmed the Commitment. Dozens of secular community organisations, companies, social service agencies and educational institutions have also expressed support.
  20. We are also deeply engaged in ensuring that opportunities are accessible to all, individuals can develop their potential, and everyone progresses together. This is really to address social inequality and income inequality. Inequality has emerged as one of the major cleavages in societies across the world, from Hong Kong to Chile. We are mindful that all members of our society must have hope for the future. So this year, the Ministry of Education set up a dedicated office to coordinate efforts and resources to strengthen support for underperforming students from disadvantaged homes. The UPLIFT Programme Office will work with schools to identify disadvantaged students and match them to relevant programmes and assistance.

    E. Singapore – a harmonious and cohesive society

  21. Today, in Singapore, our diversity is not a source of division but of our strength. We are a society built on mutual trust and respect across communities, and pride and confidence in a shared Singaporean identity. A recent survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) showed that more than nine out of 10 Singaporeans view the level of racial and religious harmony here positively. The survey also indicated that more Singaporeans had close friends of other races, and fewer people now stereotype a person based on race. In the nearly 30 years since we enacted the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, I am happy to say that we have not needed to invoke it once.
  22. Our lives have also become better. Singaporeans enjoy relatively high inter-generational mobility. Nine in 10 students from the bottom 20% by socio-economic background progress to post-secondary education today, compared to 5 in 10 students 15 years ago. Our youth are proud to be Singaporean, and are optimistic about the future.
  23. However, we are by no means perfect. The IPS survey also revealed an uptick in minority groups perceiving workplace discrimination, such as when applying for jobs. This could be due to greater awareness of the presence of discriminatory behaviour in the workplace. We will face these issues as we have for the past 54 years: openly and transparently, with respect for all parties, and working together to make Singapore a better home for everyone.
  24. To conclude, all of us face a common challenge of overcoming the forces of division. Singapore has charted a path that has worked for us, which we will have to manage and adjust as times change. This is the same for all countries, with your own histories and cultures. We can learn more from one another’s practices and experiences, so that we can better our respective societies, and move together towards a brighter shared future for all. I encourage everyone to use this conference to share your experiences and thoughts, and to have a meaningful dialogue on achieving social harmony and cohesion.
  25. I wish you a fruitful conference ahead, and please enjoy Singapore while you are here. Thank you very much.


Last updated on 31 October 2019