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Fostering racial and religious harmony in Singapore across the generations

Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, at the Regardless of Race Dialogue V – “Boomers and Zoomers: A Conversation Between Generations”

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. I sit at the crossroads of two Ministries; between what we do in society at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and how we look at racial harmony in that perspective, and also in my capacity at the Ministry of Law, looking at it from a legal perspective, what laws we might need and how we need to put them in place. I would say that in our society, we do need a fair balance of both, and I’ll be happy to share some further thoughts with you.
  2. This being the fifth of the series the “Regardless of Race” dialogues.

    a. I understand that the previous editions of this dialogue spoke about the complementary roles between the Government, the community and individuals. I think that's really a partnership where we need to be constantly working at issues of race and religion, and ensuring that racial harmony has its place in today's society.

    b. There were also discussions on recent trends and developments; inescapably with the advent of technology, the way in which Western societies discuss race and religion – they inevitably have an impact on us in Singapore, and I will be discussing some of my views on that as well.

    c. And, of course, the advent of social media. That has become a game-changer in so many different ways. And I would say, particularly for race and religion issues, and how faultlines are exploited or accentuated by bad actors. I think they come to the fore a lot more in the context of social media.
  3. As we begin to turn the page on 2020, what a year this has been. Such a difficult year in so many different ways.

    a. We look at what lies ahead of us in the 2021 horizon – with the vaccine coming on-board, what we do with opening of more safe spaces, and with Phase 3 upon us in a little over a week.

    b. I think it is timely for us to consider in the context of these discussions “Where do we go from here?”

    c. What does “regardless of race, language or religion” mean? And do they refer to different ideals to different people, and should it be different in this context?
  4. At the outset, let me say that we in Government don't have all the good ideas on this and we welcome suggestions, ideas, viewpoints, criticisms; and really charting a path forward together is where I think we should be taking this.
  5. It's not possible for one side in that partnership – community, Government, individuals, civil society and organisations like the Eurasian Association – or any one organisation to decide what path that should take. It's really to be developed by consensus.

    A common goal

  6. Since I talked about consensus, let me start with what I believe is our common goal and our fundamental aspirations, which have not changed for many decades: 

    a. To build a united nation, “regardless of race, language or religion”.

    b. Where all Singaporeans, regardless of their socioeconomic background, race, language, religion or gender, they all ought to have full and equal opportunities to achieve their aspirations in Singapore and reach their fullest potential. That is fundamental in our constitution, and fundamental in our ideals.

    c. Where we celebrate our differences and turn it into our strength makes our society even more resilient because of that diversity, and we need to work at it.

    d. We all want to weave a societal tapestry. I spoke about a ‘Singapore Tapestry’ when I first made a speech in Parliament, after I took on this role at MCCY; and I likened our Singaporean society to the ‘Singapore Tapestry’ where we all have different weaves of thread – we come from different backgrounds, cultures, heritage, different races – all woven together, and that diversity makes the Tapestry a lot more beautiful.
  7. The question is how did we get here? How do we move from here? I think we need to understand a little bit of background and context. Of course, today's session sees people from different generations – the boomers, Gen Z's, Gen Y’s and millennials and so on. But I thought it's useful to go back a little bit to understand where Singapore came from and what our perspectives were.

    a. We became independent in the 1960s, and we have come a long way since then. Probably in some of the 1970s too where in those decades, racial differences and tensions were a lot more palpable and they seeped into everyday life about how people organised themselves; where you worked, how you lived, who your neighbours were. The racial undertone was very much stronger.

    b. If we study the socio-political events at that time, and look at the prevailing local circumstances and the tensions which were prevalent between races in Singapore, and also between nations – the people around Singapore, the odds of Singapore emerging as an independent nation comprised of a people of multi-ethnic and multi-racial origins would have been very low.

    c. Today instead, we are enjoying a harmonious multi-racial and multi-religious society. I think this is the fruit of our forefathers’ work.

    d. Even as we cherish this harmony today, we must always remember that this did not come by chance. We got here because of a strong will. And there will remain tensions, both natural and those fuelled by bad actors, which will pull against the grain of racial harmony – and we can speak about that.

    e. This will and determination over the many years, implemented through constitutional, political and social structures

    i) Brought Singaporeans together,

    ii) Strengthened mutual respect and gain understanding between different groups, 

    iii) And encouraged behaviours that expand our common space.

    f. All of that has been something that we worked very hard at. Unlike many other countries today, we do not have housing precincts which are defined by the racial majority of the people living there. Yes, we have Chinatown, Little India, Geylang Serai and this is all known to be areas where we share rich Chinese, Indian and Malay cultural heritage, but we do not define our housing precincts by the racial majority of the people living there.

    g. Our forefathers forged this consensus on what it means to live in a harmonious, multiracial and multireligious society. It becomes not just an ethos or an aspiration, but it has become our lived experience. I think that's what we need to be.

    h. We need to talk about it, not only in the context of what aspirations we want “Regardless of Race” to be like, but what it means for the lived experience

    i. I also recognise that each generation is going to be different from the one before – we have come through several generations of Singaporeans since independence.

    i) But there will be different priorities and aspirations, and as we progress up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as we move from being a developing nation in the 1960s – 1970s to one that is a lot more developed, the challenges are also different.

    ii) We must expect that we will face evolving expectations for racial and religious harmony. What it might mean, or have meant, as a lived experience for people in the 1960s and 1970s would be different from today, and I think we must acknowledge that. 

    iii) On top of that, trends such as globalisation – the world being a smaller place in terms of connectivity and social media influencing our views on racial matters – some for better but often times also for the worse. These all create challenges for us which we have got to take on board.

    iv) Social media has provided platforms for many open, constructive discussions such as this series for example; yet at the same time has emboldened hate-speech and bigotry.
  8. I think those are increasingly new challenges to our ideals and aspirations to achieve racial harmony. So while the mission, aspiration and end-point are the same, the ways in which we navigate them and how we get there, could be quite different.
  9. In some ways, this means – for us across different generations – finding a new compact to strengthen our own consensus, in order to sustain and maintain this peace – not only for today – but to build upon it so that our children and their children will continue to prosper and cherish this vision.
  10. For today’s session, I wanted to ask what this means for different people and I used something I learnt from youths – conducting a poll on my Instagram story.

    a. I found it quite an efficient method to obtain spontaneous feedback and get a very good dipstick as to what the issues were.

    b. And we will use the feedback to have a more engaging conversation.

    c. I did an open call on the types of issues or aspects of race and religion that people would like to talk about.  Let me share with you some of the issues raised, ranked by popularity and because they also resonated with me.

    d. So while we face differing views as to what this aspiration might mean or how we get there; you will find there were broad points of consensus. These are the views as I had received it on my feed.

    i) First, many respondents felt that it was important to learn about and accept each other’s differences and backgrounds so that we can develop understanding and respect each other’s views. I think the key word here is ‘learn’. It is easy to say we tolerate, accept and embrace, but I think we must also take that positive step to learn about and understand these differences, or why there are differences, and then we can begin to better respect and accept them. I think that knowledge is important.

    ii) Second, respondents thought that it was important to emphasise unity and forge a common identity as one people, regardless of background. I think it’s a quite a simple phrase but one that has found a lot of substance and support among the people I polled.

    iii) Third, respondents were indeed very concerned about being inclusive in the way we discuss race issues in today’s context. Of course, ‘inclusive’ could also mean different things to different people but if you look on the screen here, it means ‘building tolerance and acceptance, managing social media issues around race’.
  11. I think that is a very important point that kept coming through; that social media has become the marketplace of sorts. I am strongly of the view that what you cannot or should not be saying to someone in his face, or in a group of people in a common space in the physical world, you should not be doing in the digital world. You should not assume that hiding behind the keyboard and being able to put up your views makes it any less hurting or denigrating of another person’s race or religion. ‘Mutual respect on practices to maintain social cohesion, passing of remarks’; sometimes people say that there is casual racism, and I think that is what this person is referring to. Passing of casual remarks, sometimes almost without thinking – and it is in fact a lot worse if it is almost without thinking, that it becomes part of your hardwired DNA and you assume this is what you say casually.
  12. These were the three points which resonated with me and I think could anchor our discussion on growing common spaces. I felt that it is useful in a dialogue like this, because we are all Singaporeans and made up of different people from different backgrounds and cultures to start with a common platform and find ways to enhance and grow that common space, rather than starting from points of differences.
  13. But what struck me was that this shows that our people remain fundamentally committed to the vision of building a multi-racial society, where everyone is treated equally and fairly.
  14. The other comments also tell me that although we have done well, and we do have much to be proud of – and I think no one will argue against that – we can also do better and there is a lot more we can do.
  15. I believe that our society can only become stronger if each of us have a say and play a part in making Singapore a better place. It is easy to speak of this in the abstract, but it is somewhat harder to understand what it means in practice. Later on, I will offer three perspectives on what I mean by society coming together and playing a role in making Singapore a more racially tolerant and diverse place.
  16. Building racial harmony is really not the prerogative of any one particular generation.

    a. This must be a common goal that we share across all ages. One of the things that we look at regularly in Government are sentiments and social faultlines, and understanding what people see as important.

    b. Singaporeans rank racial and religious equality as the third most important social issue for Government. I think this is an important dipstick – a good indicator for us, that while we do worry about bread and butter issues (such as jobs especially during these times), that racial and religious harmony still ranks highly in many Singaporeans’ minds.

    c. I think this is an important takeaway because it means that these issues are at the forefront, and we need to ensure we chart a correct path and build that new social compact.
  17. There are real and practical areas that we can learn from one another across different generations.

    a. Our older generation will have a different understanding of racial and religious strife and harmony and what it means. I mentioned the difficulties of the 1960s – 1970s and for many of them it is a lived experience. They went through it, which they cannot ignore, and they can see very viscerally the practical implications and impact of not having racial and religious harmony.

    b. Many of them have stepped forward to contribute their wisdom to benefit wider society.

    i) For instance, there are seasoned leaders in the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), 

    ii) Who have quietly helped to foster harmony and trust among different communities, 

    iii) There have been many events that could have otherwise pulled our society apart, 

    iv) Ranging from local community disputes to international terrorist attacks, 

    v) And the uneven impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

    vi) But, our IRCC leaders have played a vital role in rallying our communities to stand together, often quietly. 

    c. Our young people, at the same time, have a part to play, in partnership with the older generation. 

    d. Many of them aspire to build a better Singapore. But what then does it take to do so? I think it takes fresh and innovative ideas; the ability to hoist in the influences today of social media and technological platforms, the ‘new’ way of thinking that young people have, and how they have taken the lead proactively to carry out their own initiatives and break down these divides. They continue to be an important source of partnership for the Government. 

    e. So the young and the old – they have a role to play.

    The next bound

  18. I mentioned three areas and use this as a peg for discussion later on. The three areas I feel we can look at more closely to enhance our racial harmony would be as follows.
  19. First, how do we translate our multiracialism into a strength for Singapore?

    a. At the end of the day, Singaporeans are also very practical people. What does it mean, what are the strengths of our Singapore Tapestry?

    b. How do we strengthen the diverse threads which make up the Tapestry so that each thread – each race, each religion, each culture is strong on its own, but the overall Tapestry that we weave together, with all of these different parts, is not only stronger than the sum of its parts, but also beautifully enhanced by its diversity? I like that analogy and the imagery of that because I think it tells us so much about what Singapore actually means for each of us, different people, coming together, but one big whole that is a lot more beautiful simply because of its diversity.

    c. Over the years, our multiculturalism has indeed set a strong foundation for our own progress and prosperity.

    i) It is quite inescapable that what we have built, or our forefathers built and we continued to nurture over the years, has helped to establish a stable environment that continues to attract many businesses, investors and corporates that come into Singapore. People come here, they enjoy working. We do not have the tensions on the streets.

    ii) Our women and children are able to go out, live, work and play with others of different cultures and backgrounds.

    a) We share many common experiences in our living spaces, in schools, in National Service for our men.

    b) And of course, this being the week of the celebration of hawker culture, let me draw an analogy from that as well. I think our hawker culture is a true microcosm of Singapore – diverse range of stalls; walk into any hawker centre, you see a diverse range of stalls with many offerings, serving people from all walks of life, race, religion and social status notwithstanding, seated side by side, some even sharing tables. It is, quite simply, the most the physical, tangible, and daily representation of “regardless of race, language or religion.”

    d. Let me look at how that unity has made us a more resilient nation.

    i) We all know that in the last few months or so, COVID-19 is the obvious elephant in the room, putting a stress on our social fault lines. But we have remained cohesive and united despite these difficult times.

    ii) When you look around at other countries, it is not a given. Once you have economic turmoil – you have fear, you have tension, you worry about where you might be safe, whether or not the Government is providing for you. I think extreme levels of xenophobia, racism, as you might see in other countries, great levels of religious or ethnic distinctions – they will come to the fore.

    iii) But we are lucky that the injustices that we see in other societies, whether it is in the form of police brutality or spikes in violence against specific groups in society, they thankfully do not apply in our context.

    iv) And I think that it is that resilience that has seen us through, that social capital built up over many years.
  20. Second, as we talk about racial harmony, and what we can do to aspire to achieve that – we must also be prepared when an occasion occurs when a spiky or thorny issue arises between races. And we must expect that, it will happen.
  21. The test of the maturity and resilience of our own racial harmony is not by whether an adverse occasion like this happens, but is measured by how we respond to adversity. The more we are able to nurture discussions like this – constructive public discourse on race related issues – the better it will be.

    a. When our tapestry frays, as it will, how do we mend it?

    b. What are the boundaries of discussing race-related issues? They are constantly shifting. This may cause discomfort among us, they may be sensitive, including some from the older generations.

    c. There is the phenomenon of “call out” and “cancel” culture, which is gaining traction around the world, and we do see such behaviour emerging in Singapore. The intentions whilst not always be clear, sometimes give rise to emotive and sensitive responses. That is something we must be very mindful of.

    d. The nature and tone of public discourse on race is also evolving. Earlier on, Dr Janil said this must be a safe but not hidden space, and I completely agree. We must feel, first of all, safe to discuss this without being called out or cancelled. We may have different views – we may have a view about life in school, what happens in the playground, what do we do with perceived racial inequalities which may exist in the workplace, or as we grow up, what are instances of casual racism that might have occurred. How safe do we feel about bringing these up? And they also should not be hidden. If you have the ability to bring it up, it may resonate with someone else who may have a different or similar view, and it is that discourse that helps us chart a path forward.
  22. There is a growing use of different forms of expression – written fiction, theatre, film, music and drawings. These range from: 

    a. Trying to raise awareness of issues with sensitivity, 

    b. To being satirical,

    c. But of course, there are also some that are outright antagonistic, and denigrate other societies, races or religions.   

    d. We need to chart a path forward which has a common understanding on society to what is acceptable and what is not.

    e. This leads us to the third area. 

    i) How do we work together on race-related issues, in a practical manner, considering Singapore’s own history and context?

    ii) That is important because I daresay Singapore is unique – sui generis, at least in this context – that we have nurtured a country born out of that adversity, but today with a fair balance of races and the way in which we treat different races, and the way in which we in harmoniously exist. And I believe that the more we play, work and live across racial lines – the more we will be able to see beyond the race. Instead of seeing the race, we see a colleague, neighbour, or a friend or classmate.

    iii) It almost becomes intuitive. When I grew up in school, I didn't come home to tell my mom, “Today I met a new Malay or Indian friend.” It just wasn't the case. I think it was possible because, you know, we saw a classroom full of playful boys and who you would click with, who you were able to play football or marbles with depending on the game of the day, and you would gravitate to the group that offered you that relief or entertainment. So perhaps there is something to be said about not being overly sensitive about whether you label someone or not, and look beyond that to see a friend, classmate or a neighbour.

    f. So in that respect, what I think would be useful is for individuals and groups to reach out across racial lines, to collaborate on projects. Here is something I think that all of you can contribute ideas to.

    g. Each of us has different strengths, and we can complement one another.

    h. The Regardless of Race dialogues is one exemplar, 

    i) Of how students, media and non-government organisations have come together, 

    ii) To achieve the common objective of fostering a deeper and constructive dialogue on racial harmony.

    iii) Let me give a shout out to OPSG and thank the many volunteers who have worked on this series of dialogues. This helps Singaporeans precisely discuss the issues safely, freely, openly – and feel that there is enough of a common space here to share candid views. I think more of this should be encouraged.

    i. We can also do more across racial lines.

    j. The Eurasian Association and other Self-Help Groups (SHGs) are exploring new ways to better support our various communities.

    k. At Vibrance@Yishun, SHGs come together to jointly provide,

    i) Educational programmes for students and workshops for parents.

    ii) I must say that, whilst the SFG’s are formed on racial lines, they don't give help on racial lines, and I think that's a very important distinction for us. We might have different groups like Mendaki and Sinda, but the service is to the community, and are not drawn on racial lines.

    l. Finally, Government remains committed to nurturing strong partnerships to enhance racial and religious harmony.

    i) MCCY recently held a hackathon,

    ii) Inviting youths to take action by pitching ideas on strengthening social cohesion.

    iii) The winning ideas include a mobile game that aims to develop empathy for diverse communities, 

    iv) By bringing users through the life milestones of different individuals in our communities.

    v) We believe strongly in co-creation, and working with the community the develop these things because I think it is the lived experience, the ideas on the ground that is most useful.

    vi) But also provide advice and partner networks to guide teams in implementing these initiatives.

    Together, for a better future

  23. So let me end off by saying that we all share that common goal. We all understand that we do need to continue to nurture a Singapore that is multicultural and multiracial, and everyone must have our place in the sun; and to enhance racial harmony no matter on issues big or small, there is no one segment of society – whether it's the Government or one generation of people, civil society, or individuals – that has a monopoly on good ideas.
  24. I must also emphasis that racial harmony is a constant work in progress. I think we must make it a constant work in progress, we must never think we have arrived because whilst we have done well overall, as I said at the outset, there is much we can do still.
  25. I believe “regardless of race, language or religion” is a societal aspiration, a constant reminder for each of us Singaporeans that this is something that is unique to us. It must be something that we regard as at the forefront of what we do, where we enact our policies. It does not mean that we pretend that it doesn't exist – that to be race blind doesn't mean we end up being blind to the diversity because that would not be natural. We are all made up of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. So we must not pretend it doesn't exist, but the question is, how do we nurture and foster that harmony.
  26. We will continue to work with the community to update our policies, so that they remain relevant, and remain germane to the issues of the day, and bring the most benefit to Singaporeans. That is the key.


  27. To do this in the best possible way, we will also need your ideas and your actions. This dialogue is a good place to start, to work as a community to harness our diversity as a strength, to listen to different ideas so we can chart a path forward to develop a way for this generation to continue to nurture and steward the concept and philosophy of ‘Regardless of Race, Language or Religion’ so that in many other generations to come, they will look upon us as their forefathers who continued to build on this ideal that they will be able to take advantage of and cherish and that they can call their own.
  28. So thank you very much. I'll be happy to discuss this further with you. I would also love to hear how you feel about how to take this forward.
  29. Thank you.

Last updated on 21 December 2020