Wednesday 16 October 2019

Racial harmony: Five critical steps to keep the peace

To continue to live in harmony here, we must carefully manage race and religious issues, not leave them to chance
By K. Shanmugam, Published The Straits Times, 15 Oct 2019

At a recent forum on race issues organised by and CNA, and supported by Roses of Peace, I spoke about how we have been careful and deliberate in our policies and how we managed race relations.

Cultural xenophobia is increasing across the world. According to Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert in sociology and religious studies, this is brought on by globalisation, instant worldwide communication and the easy mobility of populations. People now fear losing their identity and sense of belonging.

These fears, coupled with the global economic slowdown and growing social inequality, are manipulated by hard-line nationalists and politicians.

In the United States, the FBI reported that the white supremacy movement was behind the majority of domestic terrorism cases involving a racial motive. The shootings in El Paso, which killed 22 people, is a recent example.

Increased immigration from Mexico and Asia to the US has led to some Americans feeling displaced. Some have capitalised on these concerns by attacking immigrants and religious minorities. These then feed the deeply disturbed minds, like those of the El Paso shooter.

And in May, BBC News highlighted the increasing support for right-wing nationalist parties across 17 European countries. In Hungary, Fidesz, a far-right nationalist party and key member of the ruling alliance government, won more than 49 per cent of the votes in the 2018 national elections. In Switzerland and Austria, nationalist parties won more than 25 per cent of the votes.

In Asia, we are seeing more instances of violence instigated by religious extremists. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, nationalist Buddhist monks have made fiery speeches, inciting violence against minority groups.


Singapore is not immune to identity politics, and ethnic and religious nationalism. The Institute of Policy Studies and conducted a comprehensive survey on race, religion and language in 2018. Most of the findings were positive. About 80 per cent were comfortable to have someone of another race as their neighbour, colleague, employee, boss, and as a close friend.

But the survey also pointed out pockets of concern. Racial stereotyping is quite alive. One stereotype that struck me was that more than half of the Chinese respondents felt that it was unlikely that members of the minority races would return their wallet if they found it in a shopping mall. Similarly, more than four in 10 Malays and Indians agreed that someone's race gave them a good idea of what the person's behaviour and views were like. We are far from a post-race Nirvana.


Since Independence, we have relied on five principles to guide us on a path towards communal harmony.

1. Keep race and religion out of politics

The first is keep race and religion out of politics. The tide of ethnic and religious nationalism is rising globally, and politicians are exploiting it. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are two examples, among many, of countries where religion and race have been politicised by ethnic majorities. And often, communal violence has resulted.

Our Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act forbids religious leaders from using the pulpit to put out views on political causes, and politicians from exploiting religion to advance their interests.

We take a firm approach on this.

2. Ensure multiracialism (against natural instincts)

Some have said that our Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) framework institutionalises racism.

I can understand why this view is expressed. It is based on a noble ideal, which I too would like to see achieved. Nevertheless, at this stage of development in Singapore, I think the CMIO classification continues to be relevant and helpful in maintaining racial harmony.

At the point of our independence, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared:

"We are going to have a multiracial 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."

We have a peaceful and harmonious society today precisely because we have acknowledged the instinctive divisions along racial lines that exist in all societies including Singapore. And we have proactively and deliberately managed them, to prevent further deepening of such schisms, and ensure fair outcomes for all races.

To do this, we use the CMIO framework for various policies and measures.

For example, the Government introduced the group representation constituencies in 1988. This requires all political parties to put up minority candidates, based on our CMIO framework. It ensures that our minority communities are always adequately represented in Parliament.

We can see examples in many countries, some of which started out avowedly secular, where religious, racial rhetoric dominates the political discourse, and minorities get marginalised in the legislature.

Our Ethnic Integration Policy, also based on the CMIO framework, prevents racial enclaves from forming in our public housing estates. It is quite natural for people to want to live in communities which are ethnically more homogenous, and where their neighbours are more like them, in looks, values and culture. We wanted to make sure that our housing estates are ethnically integrated.

Recent and past incidents have shown the continued existence of racial divisions in Singapore, and the need to continue to manage them carefully, sensitively.

Thus, as I said earlier, the CMIO framework is not perfect or ideal, but I think it continues to be useful in helping us to focus on the place of ethnic minorities in our society.

3. Unifying language, secular education

The third principle - bind all ethnic communities through daily use of a common, neutral language, and through secular, national education for all.

We have four official languages. But we have adopted English as our common, unifying language, the language of instruction in schools and of administration.

In this choice, none of the three major ethnic groups are favoured.

There are some exceptions to our policy on schools, like the SAP (Special Assistance Plan) schools, madrasahs, and government-aided Christian schools. And there has been legitimate debate about them. But our school system largely reflects the policy of secularism and encouraging ethnic integration.

4. Equal opportunities for all

Every Singaporean, regardless of race or religion, must be given equal opportunity. This is the fourth principle.

In some countries, for example, Malaysia, certain ethnic groups receive special privileges over other communities. We took and take a different approach.

5. Equal before the law

In Singapore, everyone is equal before the law. This is our fifth principle. This has helped build trust between the communities, and trust in the Government to apply the rules fairly.

Two Indian Singaporean siblings were given a warning in the recent Preetipls video incident. Not so long ago, we prosecuted a Muslim preacher who made insensitive comments about Christians and Jews. Earlier this year, a Chinese Singaporean was prosecuted for writing racist graffiti on walls and pillars in Geylang.

If a person crosses the line, he or she will be dealt with, regardless of his or her race or religion.


If we want to continue to live in harmony, we must carefully manage race and religious issues, not leave them to chance.

We must try and reduce exclusionary and segregationist instincts. The Straits Times reported in August how a Hindu client of a food delivery company in India demanded that he be served only by a Hindu delivery person. We must try not to let such views take root in Singapore.

The Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony promulgated by all the major religions in Singapore recently is a powerful statement; its importance and significance under-recognised.

In essence, more than 250 religious organisations and leaders, including all who represent the major faiths in Singapore, asserted and committed that they will encourage their followers to interact and form friendships in every aspect of their lives, across religions.

In any society that is multiracial, like Singapore, there will be racism.

What is important is that we have no state-driven or institutionalised racism, that we recognise the continued existence of racism at the individual level, and work hard to address it.

In the 2016 Gallup World Poll, Singapore ranked top out of more than 140 countries for tolerance of ethnic minorities.

For individual Singaporeans, that is reflected in their lived reality of daily lives, despite the occasional racism they come across.

If we stay faithful to the principles that have guided our path towards communal harmony, and work hard at expanding the common space, day by day, we will make for ourselves an even better, even more harmonious society.

K. Shanmugam is the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Law.

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