Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Ethnic Integration Policy remains critical in Singapore, says National Development Minister Desmond Lee

Nearly 1 in 3 HDB blocks hit ethnic quota limits, shows relevance of Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) today

So much of peoples' lives revolves around neighbourhoods, so policy critical: Desmond Lee

Workers' Party wants to end ethnic housing policy, but only after Singapore is race-neutral
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Nearly one in three Housing Board (HDB) blocks and 14 per cent of neighbourhoods have reached ethnic quota limits, underscoring the importance of having the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in place to ensure social mixing, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

The maxing out of racial quotas for flat ownership happens across all ethnic groups and in both mature and non-mature estates, he told the House yesterday, adding that the limits have persistently been reached in areas such as Bukit Merah, Pasir Ris and Woodlands.

Introduced in 1989, the EIP sets racial quotas on flat ownership within each HDB block and neighbourhood.

The policy remains relevant and necessary today amid changing household profiles, Mr Lee said in response to Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) and Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC).

It serves an important function of ensuring that neighbourhoods remain inclusive and diverse, as people get to interact with neighbours of different races almost every day along corridors, void decks, playgrounds and markets, Mr Lee said.

He noted that some might argue that living next door to someone of a different race or religion does not mean people will learn to tolerate or understand differences, while others contend that social integration can be achieved in schools, at work or during national service.

But the EIP remains critical because so much of peoples' lives revolves around homes and neighbourhoods, he said.

"If we don't live with one another, it makes it much harder to empathise with other communities and understand the challenges they face and much easier to stereotype or assume the worst of those who are different from us."

Left entirely to social and market forces, ethnic concentrations will start forming in different areas again, Mr Lee said.

This could be due to instinctive preferences for living near others from the same ethnic community, or wanting to live near family members, or because of specific amenities in some neighbourhoods, Mr Lee said.

"Individually, these are completely understandable and reasonable preferences. But collectively, if we are not careful, these tendencies could inadvertently lead to segregation among the races," he said.

Children, for instance, could grow up in neighbourhoods where they hardly see children of other races in their classrooms, as most children go to pre-schools and primary schools near their homes.

Today, interracial households can choose which ethnic quota to be considered under when buying a flat, which is then fixed until they sell the flat, to be fair to other flat owners, said Mr Lee.

He also set out the historical context of the EIP. When Singapore was still under British rule, the Raffles Town Plan designated separate geographical zones for each ethnic group, which meant that different races had little interaction with one another.

In resolving to build a cohesive, multiracial society, the Republic's founding leaders did not blindly paper over differences between ethnic groups or take a "melting-pot" approach, he said.

Instead, the Government decided to enlarge common spaces through a range of policies, such as allocating new flats in a way that would reflect the ethnic mix of the general population.

But ethnic concentrations started to emerge in particular areas after resale transactions were allowed in 1971, Mr Lee said.

By the late 1980s, Chinese buyers were increasingly concentrated in Ang Mo Kio, and Malay buyers in Bedok and Tampines.

"We could see that without intervention there would, once again, be increasing concentrations along ethnic lines which would have separated us," Mr Lee said.

The EIP was thus introduced in 1989 for both new and resale flats to ensure estates would remain diverse.

Mr Lee pointed to how racial segregation is common and well advanced in some major European and American cities, with wealthier ethnicities congregating in expensive, gentrified precincts.

Less well-off ethnic groups receive fewer opportunities and these differences get entrenched across generations, he said.

Citing a data visualisation tool developed by the University of Virginia called the Racial Dot Map, which shows one dot for each person on a map of the United States, with different colours representing different ethnicities, Mr Lee said the distinct patches of colour reflect a multicultural but segregated country.

Drawing from these lessons, he said, Singapore cannot leave social mixing to chance. "It is better to intervene upstream to preempt the problem and to foster mutual understanding and encourage integration from the start," he said.

"If we wait until after racial tensions have developed and become entrenched, it will become so much harder to heal those fractures and rebuild trust among different communities."

Ethnic housing policy should be abolished, but not before Singapore reaches race-neutral state, says WP's Pritam Singh
Pritam Singh, Desmond Lee debate policy that sets quotas for flats owned by each race
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said yesterday that his Workers' Party (WP) aims to remove the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) one day, but not before Singapore reaches a state of being race-neutral, when such initiatives will no longer be needed.

He was speaking towards the end of a 30-minute debate with National Development Minister Desmond Lee on the policy, which sets quotas for flats owned by each racial group in a block or precinct.

Their exchange, which saw question time in Parliament extended by more than an hour, also drew comments from Leader of the House Indranee Rajah and, later, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean.

"In 2006, and all the way till last year, WP's position is that we have already reached a level of multiculturalism, and therefore unequivocally called… for the immediate abolition of EIP," Mr Lee said.

"The Workers' Party's position today, in 2021, is that we still need the EIP (as) we work towards a race-blind society, and we endeavour to reach there, and at some point, hopefully, we will not need the EIP. So, that is a clear change in political position."

Mr Lee was referring to the WP's election manifestos over the years. Earlier, he pointed out that the party's most recent manifesto, for the polls last year, had argued that doing away with the EIP would address the disadvantage faced by ethnic minority Housing Board (HDB) flat resellers without causing racial disharmony.

He noted similar messaging in the WP's manifestos for the 2006, 2011 and 2015 elections, with the 2011 manifesto making an additional point on the EIP contradicting the policy of encouraging young families to live closer to their parents.

Mr Lee called on Mr Singh, who is the WP chief, to clarify the party's stance today.

"Is it your position that there won't be racial concentrations if we abolish the EIP?" the minister asked. "If you have neighbourhoods predominantly of one ethnic group, that will of course cascade into pre-schools, into our national school system, the services in the heartlands, the shops, the markets, the hawker centre food choices.

"They will adjust to reflect the proportions of the clientele in the neighbourhood."


Mr Singh said the WP's position was undergirded by the frustration it sensed from ethnic minorities unable to sell their flats.

"The question is, is the EIP the only policy, among a whole gamut of policies that the Government has to encourage racial integration? Bearing in mind that it is a pre-emptive policy introduced in 1989," he said.

Mr Lee replied: "If you look back in history… It was a policy that was put in place because of the lessons learnt from the 1960s - paid for with blood, sweat and tears; real pain in families grieving for lost loved ones; and a country newly formed, racked by racial riots and disharmony, distrust."

The efforts of the HDB to ensure that Singapore learnt from these lessons led to allocating a racial mix in every block of flats.

Mr Singh said his call for the EIP to be revisited and reviewed was in the context of - but not limited to - five points.

First, a larger national conversation on race relations in Singapore and what it means to be Singaporean.

Second, the effect of immigration into Singapore, leading to families in HDB flats that fall outside of the traditional Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model of ethnic classification here.

Third, the experience and impact of mixed marriages.

Fourth, the economic loss to minorities who have to lower the market price of their flats due to the EIP.

And fifth, a reassessment of Singapore's lived experiences that acknowledges policies and guidelines which have successfully encouraged racial integration, such as national schools, anti-discrimination guidelines at the workplace and national service, among others, and how these compare with the EIP.

"The current policy as it stands has a larger impact on minorities, penalising them in the pocket when they have to sell their flat," said Mr Singh.

"By minorities, I mean not just racial minorities, (but) those who are affected by it, including Chinese, Malays... and this may perversely interact with the stated objective of the policy of racial harmony, thereby breeding resentment amongst those who are affected by the policy.

"The EIP quotas should either be further loosened to ameliorate the prospects of further economic loss for sellers, with HDB committed to buying back the affected flat at the evaluation price - or a larger geographical area representing the anchor for the EIP, rather than the precinct and block quotas."

Mr Lee accepted that the EIP could cause some degree of pain and unhappiness.

"We address that through appeals, we look at and scrutinise very carefully to help the affected seller," he said. "Bearing in mind that we have to be very judicious, otherwise the lessons that we have learnt will all unravel."

In response, Mr Singh said: "Beyond these cases where HDB looks at it on a case-by-case basis, we have a rental housing regime where HDB is prepared to administratively lift block limits. So, it is not as if... the arguments that were made by the Minister of National Development are cast in stone. There is flexibility beyond looking at individual cases and moving the boundaries.

"What sort of schemes, changes has HDB discussed internally?"

Mr Lee said that these were important details, but secondary to fundamental questions of the WP's position on multiracialism, bulwarks such as the EIP, and the CMIO model.

"You have talked about a race-blind society, a race-neutral... multicultural society, yet over the years we have been tracking, Workers' Party has been filing lots and lots of questions specific to individual minorities or races," said Mr Lee.

Referring to a parliamentary question previously asked by WP MP Faisal Manap, Mr Lee added: "Mr Faisal Manap had asked a PQ before, asking for assurances that we will ensure that the ethnic mix in Singapore will remain and wants to keep a very close eye on ethnic issues."


At this point, Ms Indranee stepped in to press Mr Singh to clarify whether he was calling for the EIP to be abolished.

"Is the answer to that yes or no, that is all I want to know. Or is he saying that it need not be abolished, we can just look to see how we improve it?" she said.

Mr Singh replied: "That is a very nice way to close off a discussion on a topic."

He said that the Government's reasons for retaining the EIP were not totally illegitimate, and added: "How do we move forward with the EIP as it is, knowing that there are minority communities, knowing that even the majority, the Chinese community, are affected by it? Is there a better way forward?"

Ms Indranee said Mr Singh's answer, while "erudite", had failed to address her question.

"Both the WP and we agree, we do want a race-neutral society. We want a society where everybody can live happily together. It is a question of how we get there. And one of the things that the PAP government has put in place is the EIP," she said.

"I just want to know today: Is the WP saying we should remove the EIP? If you are saying that we should do that, say so. On the other hand, if you are saying keep the EIP, but let us improve it and ameliorate the impact on minorities, say so," Ms Indranee repeated.

Mr Singh then confirmed that the party still endeavoured to abolish the policy.

"But until we get there, we have to, as the minister said, even out the rough edges as much as possible. And at some point, I hope in my generation… we reach that place where we are race-neutral," he said.

"It doesn't mean that... sometimes things don't bubble over. But there are more important things that remind us that we are Singaporean, and we ought to look beyond our skin colour."

Singapore more likely to achieve racial integration with EIP: Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

While the People's Action Party (PAP) and Workers' Party (WP) both want a racially integrated Singapore, the country is more likely to achieve this with the Government's housing policies, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday.

Joining the debate on the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), Mr Teo said Singaporeans are more likely to learn to live together by having integrated housing estates, rather than abolishing the policy and allowing enclaves to form.

Mr Teo rose to speak more than an hour into the debate after the House extended question time, to respond to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

He noted that although the WP chief agreed with the Government's aim to have Singaporeans live together in multiracial communities, they differed in the methods to get to this outcome.

"Methods can be adapted and changed, but we have this same philosophy - that we want a multiracial Singapore, integrated housing, well-integrated communities and schools," said Mr Teo, who quipped that he had not intended to join the debate but thought he would share his perspective since he had "slightly more white hair" than most in the House.

"And we're more likely to get there with the HDB policies that we have today, with EIP, rather than what the Workers' Party is proposing."

Mr Singh had earlier set out the WP's current position on the EIP - to abolish it when Singapore reaches a state of being race-neutral where such initiatives are no longer needed - in an exchange with National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

He also responded to Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong on the Government's CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model of ethnic classification.

Mr Tong had noted that while the WP had questioned the model and called for its removal, the party has also filed many questions which focus on individual, specific races, looking at programmes, outcomes, and assistance.

He said such questions are filed at almost every parliamentary sitting, and cited questions from WP MPs on specific race categories.

The minister then asked Mr Singh whether the WP thinks the CMIO model is still relevant today.

Responding, Mr Singh said the WP operates on terms dictated by the PAP Government, which has continued the CMIO model.

What the WP wants is to "level everybody up", so that no race feels that government policy does not reach its people in the journey towards becoming a race-neutral society.

He added that there is a need to look at how the Government is performing on its own indicators of race.

Eventually, with more opposition MPs elected to look at the relevant figures, asking more pointed questions and proposing alternative policies, Singapore could hopefully reach a race-blind state, he said.

Weighing in, Mr Teo asked if Mr Singh thought ethnic enclaves should be allowed to form and subsequently addressed, and if the WP chief would agree that matters of great sensitivity like race have to be handled sensitively, rather than be exploited for political purposes.

Mr Singh replied to say that the WP does not use such matters for political purposes.

He added that "moving from one extreme to another extreme" is probably not the best policy approach.

"By and large, we accept that we have to move forward in a way where Singapore as a country, as a society, is strengthened," Mr Singh said.

Mr Teo noted that the WP's manifesto calls for the EIP to be abolished immediately, "although the Leader of the Opposition seems to have shifted away from that because he realises that's untenable".

"I'm glad to hear the Leader of the Opposition say that we should all not exploit the issues of race and religion for political purposes. I applaud that," he added.

21% of households appealed successfully for ethnic quota waiver
By Michelle Ng, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

About 21 per cent of households successfully appealed for a waiver of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) on their Housing Board flats last year, up from 14 per cent in 2018.

Last year, the Housing Board received 500 such appeals, with more appeals coming from sellers from the minority races. The 500 appeals made up around 2 per cent of the 23,100 resale applications filed in the whole of last year.

National Development Minister Desmond Lee gave these figures in Parliament yesterday, in response to Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) who asked about help given to minority sellers who may face difficulties in selling their flats due to EIP.

Introduced in 1989, the EIP sets ethnic quotas on flat ownership within each HDB block and neighbourhood.

Mr Lee acknowledged that the EIP is an "intrusive social policy" with "rough edges" that may cause difficulties for some owners looking to sell their flats.

For instance, when the EIP limits are reached for an ethnic group, sellers from other ethnic groups are unable to sell to buyers of that group. With a reduced pool of eligible buyers, sellers may then have to lower their asking price or take a long time to sell their flats.

But Mr Lee noted that in these cases, the buyers would benefit from a lower resale price, and thus be less affected should they sell the flat in future. "But I understand that this brings little comfort to affected sellers - particularly those who bought the flat from the HDB, or on the resale market before the EIP limits were reached, and yet are now caught by the EIP limits," he said.

The HDB has been exercising flexibility for home owners constrained by the EIP, on a case-by-case basis, Mr Lee said. This includes giving sellers more time to sell their flats, or even waiving the EIP limits if there are exceptional circumstances.

"However, whenever the HDB waives EIP limits to address its impact on certain households, it is mindful this may lead to even higher imbalances in the concentrations of certain ethnic groups in some areas," he added. "The EIP is by no means the perfect tool, nor the only tool to promote racial harmony. We are very conscious of the trade-offs and will keep working to smoothen its sharper edges."

Parliament debate on race reveals rough edges, sidesteps, but could do with more light, less heat
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Are racial quotas in public housing estates doing more harm than good?

More broadly: Are Singapore's race-based policies standing in the way of a race-blind future?

These topics are not new to Parliament, but they are important. And so, question time was on Monday (July 5) extended by an hour beyond the usual 90-minute allotment, in order for more MPs to have their say.

It was a discussion that concluded with some degree of give and take on both sides.

The ruling People's Action Party maintained that the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) is necessary to promote integration, and that its abolishment would cause a setback for race relations here. But the Government will continue to look at how it can "smoothen the rough edges", said National Development Minister Desmond Lee.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh stood by his party's stance that the EIP should eventually be abolished, but acknowledged that doing so now would not be feasible. He called instead for a review of the scheme, given Singapore's changing demographics and the economic hit that many minority households take when selling their flats.

Although both sides clearly agreed on the end goal - to build a race-neutral society - there remained a yawning gulf between the methods that each deemed acceptable to achieve this outcome.

The EIP was introduced in 1989 to achieve a balanced racial mix in Housing Board flats. Under the policy, there are caps on the proportion of a block or neighbourhood that can be occupied by people of a certain ethnicity.

One common critique, raised by Mr Singh, is that the EIP makes it difficult for minorities to sell their flats or forces them to accept a lower price than if the caps were not in place.

This may "perversely interact with the stated objective of racial harmony" by breeding resentment among those affected, he said.

Mr Lee acknowledged that the EIP has its "rough edges", but pointed out that waivers are given on a case-by-case basis. The Government will continue to look at how it can smoothen these rough edges, he added.

The minister also underlined the "broader intent" of the EIP, stressing that it was born out of a desire to avoid the explosive racial tensions faced in the 1960s by a newly independent Singapore.

Mr Singh responded that there is flexibility beyond looking at individual cases. He then spoke of the Workers' Party's (WP) philosophy of working towards a race-neutral society, "keeping in mind that you don't want the policy to become a barrier to that vision".

The debate in the House went up a notch as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah interjected to ask for clarity on the WP's stance, given that its 2020 manifesto calls for the EIP to be abolished, rather than reviewed.

Mr Singh replied: "Well, that's a very nice way to close off the discussion on a topic."

He also agreed that the Government's reasons for retaining the EIP are "not totally illegitimate".

"But having said that, how do we move forward with the EIP as it is, knowing that there are minority communities... even the Chinese community, which are affected by it? Is there a better way forward?"

The WP chief also asked for more data on neighbourhoods where EIP limits have been breached, in order to see if they are unique in any way.

"I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his erudite answer, which didn't answer my question," Ms Indranee responded, reiterating her question about the WP's aims.

Mr Singh said his party still believes in abolishing the EIP. "But until we get there, we have to - as the minister said - even out the rough edges as much as possible."

Mr Lee had the last word of the exchange. The WP's present stance is, therefore, that the EIP is still needed, he said, adding that this marked a "clear change in political position".

During the debate, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) also rose to ask about the continued relevance of Singapore's CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model.

These classifications help the Government assess the efficacy of its programmes, responded Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong. He noted that the WP has previously questioned this framework despite having raised parliamentary questions focused on race, and asked for the party's position on it.

Responding, Mr Singh said that his party operates "on terms dictated by the Government", which has persisted in using this model. "The point... is to what end do we keep asking these questions? What is the end game?" he said, adding that it was his belief that there has been a fundamental shift in Singapore society. "It'll be useful to know if the CMIO model needs to evolve."

The discussion was capped by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, who asked Mr Singh if his view was that Singapore ought to allow the formation of ethnic enclaves by abolishing the EIP.

"Are we more likely to arrive at a situation where Singaporeans learn to live with each other on a daily basis by making sure that we live in an integrated way... or are we more likely to do so if we allow Singaporeans to live in segregated estates?" he asked.

"Are we more likely to level everyone up if we are able to identify the issues that each of the communities in Singapore may face and have more targeted programmes for them, or to ignore the differences... and just treat everybody as though they are exactly the same?"

To that, Mr Singh responded: "I think moving from one extreme to another extreme is probably not the best policy approach... But I hope it doesn't undermine or take away the point that, philosophically, where does the WP want Singapore to go?"

Mr Teo replied that in this, there is a lesson to be learnt about the difference between philosophy and methods. Methods can be changed and adapted, but the overarching goal - a multiracial Singapore - is the same.

"And we're more likely to get there with the HDB policies that we have today, with EIP, rather than what the Workers' Party is proposing," he added, putting an end to the debate.

Monday saw both sides of the House setting out their fundamental beliefs and aims for the constant work in progress that is Singapore's multiracial, multicultural society.

It was an important continuation of the conversation. The EIP - and more broadly, Singapore's CMIO model - has been discussed in Parliament before, and will be again. The hope is that as this proceeds, the divergence of views will narrow and that future debates will provide less heat and more light.

Singapore's approach in prohibiting offensive speech but not sharing of opinions on race, protects minorities: Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam
Strictly barring offensive speech makes it safe for minority races to discuss their experiences, he says
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Singapore's approach of strictly prohibiting offensive speech on race, but not the sharing of opinions on these matters, gives greater protection for minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He said that if racially offensive speech by all is tolerated or allowed, it can be expected that more of such speech will be directed towards minority communities, who will then bear the brunt of it.

Mr Shanmugam was replying to Ms Raeesah Khan (Sengkang GRC), who had asked if laws against racist hate speech here are consistent with recommendations by the United Nations that state how measures to combat racist speech should not be used as a pretext to curtail expressions of protest.

Singapore's laws against racist hate and offensive speech are consistent with these recommendations, said the minister.

He said that under the Penal Code, it is an offence to commit acts that deliberately wound the racial feelings of any person, promote enmity between different racial groups or conduct acts that are prejudicial to the maintenance of racial harmony.

"These laws apply equally to everyone, regardless of race," said Mr Shanmugam. He brought up two incidents when such laws were used.

In the first, in January 2019, a Chinese man was charged under the Penal Code for deliberately intending to wound the racial feelings of the Malay population.

The man had scrawled racist messages about Malays on walls in void decks and sheltered walkways in Geylang and Aljunied.

In the second, in June last year, a Malay man who used a Twitter account with a Chinese name, "@sharonliew86", to make racist remarks against people of different races, was similarly charged.

While noting that a significant amount of discussion, commentary and sharing of experiences on race takes place, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore takes a strict approach to offensive speech and hate speech.

This approach applies equally to all - majority and minority - which he said gives greater protection to minorities by making it safe for them to speak about their experiences and give their views.

Should racially offensive speech be tolerated or allowed, more of such speech is likely to be directed towards minority communities, said Mr Shanmugam.

"That will ironically reduce the safe space for discussion of such issues, and increase minority community concerns for safety and security. These are not hypotheticals. This is what has happened in several other countries," he said.

"We need to be careful about changing what has worked reasonably well in Singapore (though it is not perfect), and replacing it with policies which have not worked so well in other places."

Mr Shanmugam also noted that the UN recommendations have similarly taken the view that the protection of people from racist hate speech is not incompatible with or "simply one of opposition" against the freedom of expression.

The minister added that it is not clear from Ms Raeesah's question if she is suggesting that whenever anyone claims to be protesting against "injustice, expressing social discontent, or speaking in opposition", then they should be exempted from the Penal Code and be allowed to engage in hate or offensive speech.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has invited her to clarify this, said Mr Shanmugam.

Essential to flag race issues, but Singaporeans must be careful assuming mantle of spokesman for community: NMP
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

While it is essential that people in a multiracial society like Singapore highlight issues based on their views and experiences on race, they must be careful about assuming the mantle of a spokesman for the community too easily.

Such a position would be untenable, Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas said yesterday during an adjournment motion filed by him on building racial harmony in Singapore. The motion allows an MP to speak on a subject for 20 minutes at the end of the sitting.

Mr Thomas was speaking in relation to a controversy in May over the misuse of a woman's wedding photograph as a standee for Hari Raya decorations.

It led to a public apology from the People's Association (PA) and an offer to meet the woman, Ms Sarah Bagharib, and her husband - which it later walked back on, citing disagreements with the couple over the point of the meeting and how they had characterised the incident.

Yesterday, Mr Thomas said Ms Sarah had a genuine and legitimate complaint "primarily rooted in intellectual property rights".

"But I thought that things took a different turn when (Ms Sarah) made a call for feedback before her meeting with the PA, and when her statements started looking like they were intended to be on behalf of the whole Malay community and on matters unrelated to the originating incident," he added.

"It is invariably more complex to engage with a self-appointed standard-bearer because even within a community, people have diverse experiences and views."

Mr Thomas pointed to how other members of the Malay or minority communities had disagreed with Ms Sarah's reading of the incident.

If Ms Sarah's intention was to be the voice of her community when meeting and discussing with PA, then the statutory board probably made the correct decision to disengage at that point, said Mr Thomas.

The NMP's citing of the incident was part of a larger point on the importance of communication, which he described as entailing "having responsible, mature dialogue, a willingness to speak up without fear, to share lived experiences, to propose how we can do things better, and an openness to listen".

Mr Thomas urged Singaporeans to be wary of "bad actors" and "opportunists", and stressed that public figures have a distinct responsibility when posting about race.

Two other thrusts of his speech centred on engagement by government and community leaders, and the calibration of policies.

On the calibration of policies, Mr Thomas urged the Education Ministry to ensure that students in Special Assistance Plan schools - which emphasise Chinese language and culture - are exposed to and can build meaningful relationships with all minority groups in Singapore.

He also said the group representation constituency system has been successful in ensuring minority representation as well as diversity not only in Parliament, but within political parties.

There is also a need to differentiate between criticisms of a political nature from criticisms of the GRC system's function of ensuring minority representation, said Mr Thomas.

He then touched on the topic of Singapore having a minority prime minister one day, offering a different take on the oft-mentioned 2016 Institute of Policy Studies study which found that most Singaporeans were more accepting of a PM of their own race.

"The same survey also showed that Singaporeans were accepting, all above 50 per cent, of a PM of another race. So, I would say that the results actually show that a minority PM could have a chance of leading a party to win the elections. And I am encouraged by this," said Mr Thomas.

He also proposed, on top of legal penalties for race-based crime, the introduction of a rehabilitative regime similar to the Communal Remedial Initiative under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

This voluntary scheme gives those found hurting religious sentiments an opportunity to mend ties by taking part in interfaith activities.

"This will help to avoid hardening of views by offenders by building their understanding of other races and cultures," said Mr Thomas.

In response, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong agreed with the need to constantly work at Singapore's laws and policies, and said the Government would study Mr Thomas' suggestions carefully.

"Our policies are not set in stone, but must be refined to keep pace with societal changes," said Mr Tong, adding that any shifts would not come about "because of populist sentiments or from who shouts the loudest".

He noted that the goal was not for Singapore's ethnic communities to just "co-exist" or "tolerate" each other's existence.

"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 races," said Mr Tong.

"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 Covid-19. We want to continue this spirit of embracement, by facilitating and providing opportunities for individuals to join up their different talents for the common good."


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