Opening Statement for Presentation of Singapore’s Initial Report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Speech by Minister (PMO) and 2Minister (E&FA) Maliki Osman on 18 November 2021, 3pm, to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva, Switzerland
19 November 2021
Distinguished Chairperson, Ms Li Yanduan
Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,
I am Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Second Minister for Education and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs in Singapore.
I am honoured to present Singapore’s very first report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to the Committee today. We were looking forward to meeting the committee last year. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, we had to defer our meeting till today. I am glad that I am able to lead my delegation to meet the committee in person.
Singapore places great importance on this process. ICERD is one of the oldest UN Conventions and the committee’s work has contributed much to advance the elimination of racial discrimination in many State Parties. We value this opportunity of our first review to engage and learn from the Committee’s wealth of experience. My delegation comprises high-level officials from many Government Ministries and agencies in Singapore. Please allow us to express our appreciation to the Committee, including Ms Li, the Chairperson of this honourable Committee, and our country rapporteur Mr Bossuyt, for the list of themes circulated prior to the review, and to the Secretariat for facilitating the process, particularly in devising the new methodology for review. We look forward to a fruitful discussion.
Singapore’s vision for racial harmony
Singapore is a small, densely populated city-state with a diverse society comprising Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and individuals from many other ethnicities. We do not have any natural resources. Our only resource is our people – thus forging a common national identity while maintaining racial harmony and facilitating peaceful co-existence is key to our survival. We celebrate our diversity and work towards unity with racial equality being a cornerstone of our laws and policies since our independence.
Singapore is committed to achieving better outcomes for our people, in a manner that reflects our unique context, culture and history. This is why Singapore is firmly committed to the twin principles of multi-racialism and meritocracy.
First, multi-racialism. It recognises the uniqueness and diversity of our society. Singapore’s basic approach to achieve racial harmony is not to create a monolithic society. Instead, we are sensitive to the needs of every ethnic community and make the deliberate effort to preserve their heritage and identity. At the same time, we also seek to expand common spaces among our communities and strengthen the shared sense of belonging among Singaporeans. It is a delicate balance.
Secondly, meritocracy ensures opportunities for all our citizens, regardless of colour, creed or culture. All Singaporeans can progress and be rewarded based on individual merit, with no one discriminated against or disadvantaged because of race, language, religion or socio-economic background.
Racial harmony in Singapore is a continual work in progress. Since the submission of Singapore’s report in 2018, we have taken further steps to strengthen race relations, which we will share in our subsequent dialogue. We also look forward to hearing the Committee’s recommendations on how Singapore can take our work forward.
Singapore’s history and diversity and our vision for racial harmony
Singapore enjoys racial and religious harmony today. According to the 2019 Gallup World Poll , 95% of respondents in Singapore said that Singapore was “a good place to live in” for racial and ethnic minorities. The global average was about 70% and we were ranked first worldwide among 124 countries polled.
However, these strong bonds of trust and respect that bind our different communities today are not a given, especially given the immense diversity within our small nation.
a.Our forefathers came from many different countries – from Southeast Asia, China, India and beyond. The Colonial government accentuated differences and separation through policies such as marking out distinct housing zones for Chinese, Malay, Indian and European communities.
Therefore, when Singapore became independent in 1965, we faced the challenge of uniting disparate racial and religious communities into one nation. We experienced racial tensions in our early years.
Instead of making the politically expedient choice of appealing to their respective communities, our founding fathers championed a Singaporean Singapore, where everyone stands as equals in a just and fair society for all races.
This vision has informed our policy-making today. Our approach is anchored on three pillars:
a.First, legislative safeguards for racial and religious harmony;
b.Second, non-legislative levers through policies that foster social integration and protect the interests of minorities; and
c.Third, programmes that inculcate mutual understanding and respect within the community.
Let me elaborate on each of the pillars.
First, legislative safeguards. Our Constitution provides that all persons are equal before the law, and entitled to equal protection of the law.
The responsibility of the Government to care for the interests of racial minorities is enshrined in our Constitution. The Constitution also recognises the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore.
The rights of the minorities are protected by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which serves as an independent safeguard against the enactment of racially discriminatory laws. The Presidential Council scrutinises Bills passed in Parliament and subsidiary legislation to consider whether there would be any unequal disadvantage to persons of any racial or religious community.
We also have a strong legal framework to deter any individual or group attempting to cause racial conflict. Singapore has laws against the incitement of racial and religious hatred, as well as racially-aggravated acts of violence.
We have institutional safeguards to ensure that our Parliament will always be multi-racial.
The Presidential Elections Act was amended in 2016 to safeguard representation of minority racial groups in the office of the President of Singapore. When a member of a racial community (that is, the Chinese, Malay, or Indian or other minority communities) has not occupied the office of the President after 5 continuous terms, then the next Presidential election will be reserved for a candidate from that racial community. Our current President, Mdm Halimah Yaacob, who was elected in 2017, is Singapore’s first female Malay President.
Our policies also protect the interest of ethnic minorities, and foster harmonious relations by maximising the common space for all Singaporeans.
From the early years of nationhood, the Government made significant investments in the key social pillars of housing, healthcare and education to meet the basic needs of all Singaporeans with more resources being allocated to those from the lower income brackets.
In public housing, where about 80% of our resident population lives and most of whom own their own homes, the Ethnic Integration Policy ensures a balanced mix of residents from the different ethnic groups, and helps to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves. Under this policy, a limit is set at the apartment block (or building) and neighbourhood levels for each ethnic group.
a.This provides opportunities for interaction among Singaporeans of different races to interact and build bonds in social and community facilities, and in common spaces within the housing estates.
In education, national schools, where almost all Singaporean students are enrolled, promote social mixing and engender a shared Singapore identity from an early age. All Singapore residents have access to our national schools.
a.Everyone sings the National Anthem, which is in Malay, the national language of Singapore, and everyone says the same national pledge, studies a common curriculum, and wears the same uniform in school.
b.Everyone learns English which is the official working language, so that all can interact with and learn from each other.
c.We allocate more resources to children from lower income households to help them to do better in their studies and improve their social mobility.
While we emphasise our commonalities in school, students also learn to appreciate each other’s differences. Our bilingual policy allows students to study their Mother Tongue or Ethnic Languages, thereby retaining their ethnic group’s cultural heritage, values and distinctiveness.
a.Students also learn about and celebrate cultural diversity, deepening understanding, and appreciating the multi-racial and multi-cultural Singapore.
In employment, the Government is part of a Tripartite Alliance with employer representatives and union leaders to foster the adoption of fair and progressive workplace practices. All reports of discrimination in contravention of the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices are thoroughly looked into. If evidence is established, cases are referred to the Ministry of Manpower for further investigation and actions to be taken against the employers.
Singapore partners the community to achieve racial harmony
Mdm Chairperson and members of the committee,
Alongside Government, the community also has to play a role in achieving racial harmony and eliminating discrimination.
Singapore is highly-connected globally so we are not immune to international developments that could affect our social cohesion and we have to work closely with the community to strengthen our resilience.
a.Religious extremism and radicalisation continue to be of concern.
b.We take a strong unyielding stand against anyone supporting, promoting or undertaking violence.
c.We make clear that our fight is against extremism and violence, and not against any particular race, ethnicity or religion.
d.We recognise that it is very easy to create distrust among communities.
e.This is why we have consistently worked to foster and strengthen relationships among the different communities, so that when challenges occur, the bonds of trust are strong enough to hold us together.
Therefore, we have established platforms and mechanisms to seek and obtain feedback from the public on laws and policies. The Government also partners the community to design and run programmes that encourage communities to engage each other to build mutual respect and understanding, work side-by-side and promote social harmony.
a.At the national level, the Government works with religious and community leaders through the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony on issues of social cohesion.
b.There is an Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle in every electoral constituency that brings leaders from different ethnic and religious communities together to organise common activities for Singaporeans of all backgrounds, building mutual trust and respect.
c.The Government also works with different ethnic communities through community organisations known as Self Help Groups. These Groups, which are funded by voluntary contributions from the respective communities and with financial grants from the Government, help to provide culturally appropriate community-based assistance that complements national support schemes. These groups also promote social mixing, through initiatives such as the Collaborative Tuition Programme, which caters to students across different ethnic groups.
In 2016, the Government launched the SGSecure movement (SG referring to Singapore), which aims to prepare the public in the event of a terrorist attack. One area of focus is to ensure that a terrorist attack, or even the threat of terrorism, does not inflame inter-racial or religious tensions.
a.We work with the community and religious leaders to prevent misinformation, doubt and hostility from festering, and to ensure that our society remains united and resilient in times of crisis.
Racial Harmony in Singapore
Mdm Chairperson and members of the committee,
We enjoy racial harmony in Singapore as a result of continuous and deliberate effort, by the Government and citizens alike. This is reflected in the surveys and studies over the years, by academics, think-tanks and civil society organisations.
a.For example, a recent Pew Research Centre Report found that “Singapore is one of the least divided societies surveyed, although it is ethnically and racially diverse. Fewer Singaporeans report conflicts between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds than nearly any other public surveyed.
Such results affirm that the policies put in place to strengthen social cohesion and deepen inter-racial trust and understanding have worked.
However, the Singapore Government is not complacent. Racial harmony is not a destination but a work-in-progress.
a.As circumstances shift, we recognise that approaches need to be refreshed.
b.It is why we continually review our policies to ensure that the evolving needs of our multi-racial and multi-religious society are best served.
To this end, we intend to enact a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act to consolidate all existing laws dealing with racial issues, and provide an additional measure to encourage reconciliation when differences arise.
Additionally, in August this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Government, in consultation with tripartite partners, will enshrine the Tripartite Guidelines for Fair Employment Practices in law. This will expand the range of actions we can take, so that we can better tackle workplace discrimination and uphold workplace fairness.
We also continue to support community-driven dialogues which strengthen our racial harmony and create safe spaces for issues of race to be discussed in a robust yet respectful manner.
Mdm Chairperson, let me turn to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a serious global challenge in the past two years. It has impacted everyone in many different facets of life, from healthcare, to employment, education and more.
Singapore is not exempt. But we adapted, rallying together to help those in need – from businesses to delivery workers, from the self-employed to those who lost their jobs – regardless of race or religion. Our efforts to build resilience in our population included not just Singaporeans but all long-term residents in Singapore. In fact, in view of the high risk of transmission in communal settings such as dormitories, migrant workers staying in dormitories were one of the earlier groups prioritised for vaccination. Today, 98% of our dormitory residents have been vaccinated. The Government is committed to caring for our migrant workers just as we care for Singaporeans.
a.Apart from their healthcare needs, we also provided WiFi access across dormitories, and SIM cards for them to keep in touch with their families and friends. Additionally, we ensured that they continued to be paid their salaries, and helped them send money home, if required.
Like many countries around the world, race issues have received attention recently. There have been several racially motivated incidents reported in Singapore with verbal and physical altercations taking place. These have occurred not just between Singaporeans, but also non-Singaporeans as well. It could be a result of the tense environment of restricted movements due to COVID-19. But there is no excuse for racial discrimination.
Such incidents have been condemned at the highest levels, with our Prime Minister making it clear that they go against everything that our multi-racial society stands for. Each incident is investigated, and the appropriate action taken within existing laws. It signals our overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.
Our work of building a cohesive society is never finished. Every generation needs to reaffirm its commitment to a more just and equal society, regardless of race, language or religion.
This is why the Government supports civil society organisations, especially youth organisations that advocate for racial harmony.
COVID-19 has not stalled our efforts. Our race-related dialogues and conferences have shifted to online platforms, and continue to enjoy strong public participation.
Social harmony, and the kind that Singapore currently enjoys, can only be sustained by conscientious effort and conscious choice. The Government remains committed to working with the community to safeguard and strengthen our racial and religious harmony and eliminate racial discrimination.
We recognise that we are not perfect, but we will continue to do better.
This discussion with the committee, among the many other conversations we are having, will enable us to take our efforts further forward.