Sunday, 5 September 2021

Can racial harmony in Singapore be fostered by law?

To live in Singapore is to be aware of race. It is on birth certificates, in the pledge, and informs a wide spectrum of government policies from housing to healthcare. It is also a subject Singaporeans would more often than not tread cautiously or tiptoe around, given the sensitivities surrounding the issue. Recently, the topic has come under scrutiny following a series of highly publicised incidents. Insight examines the issue.
By Linette Lai and Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021

On Wednesday, a 44-year-old man pleaded guilty to a harassment charge for hurling racist, xenophobic insults at a bus driver last year.

Another case involving race heard in court that day involved a 69-year-old taxi driver and two National Environment Agency officers. The driver was jailed two weeks and fined $2,000 for using criminal force on public servants and insulting them with a racial slur.

In another case heard the previous Thursday, a 48-year-old man was sentenced to two weeks and three days' jail for harassing a taxi driver with vulgarities and racially-charged insults.

A new law announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally last Sunday seeks to tackle such offences in a more targeted way, and send a signal on the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.

The proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will consolidate all existing laws dealing with racial issues, which are currently scattered under various pieces of legislation, such as the Penal Code.

Like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which preceded it by three decades, the new law will go beyond punishment to incorporate "softer and gentler touches" that focus on persuasion and rehabilitation.

It comes as race relations have come under stress during the pandemic and, as PM Lee acknowledged, there have been more racist incidents, several of which were widely publicised on social media.

What's new, and why now?

The upcoming law will allow the Government to clearly set out where Singapore stands on racial harmony and consolidate the legislative powers pertaining to race under one legislation, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) tells Insight.

It will also introduce additional measures, including non-punitive ones, that will help Singapore to further safeguard racial harmony.

The new law will be a matter of housekeeping, says National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, who notes that it will handle all forms of racist acts, and could also rationalise and calibrate the punishments associated with various types of offences.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan says that an "omnibus legislation" for race relations is neater and will streamline regulatory measures. He also points out that such a consolidation will give the Government the chance to enhance the legislative arsenal in two ways.

Firstly, it could provide additional power to the authorities to deal with changes such as social media, which has enabled offensive remarks to reach a wider audience. Secondly, it could expand the range of legal options to deal with offenders that go beyond punishment and deterrence towards persuasion and rehabilitation.

This upcoming Act also presents an opportunity to rewrite older legal provisions in a clearer style and add nuance, says Assistant Professor Benjamin Ong from SMU's law school.

In his rally speech, PM Lee said that Singapore's decades of peace have led people to "gradually take racial harmony for granted" - to the extent that some Chinese Singaporeans are unaware of the feelings and experiences of minorities.

He gave examples of how minorities sometimes face difficulties when looking for a job or a home to rent.

A 2019 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) think-tank found that over 51 per cent of Malay respondents felt discriminated against when applying for a job, compared to 47 per cent for Indians and 12 per cent for Chinese.

Researchers also found that 48 per cent of Chinese respondents felt a job applicant's race was important when it comes to hiring someone to work for them, versus 34 per cent for Malays and 26 per cent for Indians.

Earlier in the same year, a YouGov poll found that 49 per cent of Indian respondents faced ethnic discrimination when renting properties, in contrast to 34 per cent for Malays and 18 per cent for Chinese.

The global research firm found that 42 per cent of Chinese respondents saw race as mandatory background information to disclose to landlords, compared to 33 per cent for Malays and 22 per cent for Indians.

It is important that the law sends a clear message that discriminatory practices which hurt particular groups should not be allowed here, says Dr Mathew Mathews, a principal research fellow at IPS.

While it is not clear whether and how the proposed law will address such practices, Dr Mathews says that in practice, Singapore - like other countries - is likely to find such anti-discrimination laws difficult to implement.

"Nevertheless, it is probably time for there to be greater recourse for individuals who believe they have been discriminated, and a more robust framework to handle this."

Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, believes that Singapore's racial harmony can be best achieved by relooking Singapore's value systems, which might include revisiting the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other) racial classification model.

He adds that certain regulations can help stem instances of workplace and rental discrimination. "We should have those laws in place," he adds.

Race and religion

In Singapore, race and religion are often mentioned in the same breath, and for good reason. Racial and religious sensitivities can be deeply felt, and emotions are stirred up when these sensitivities are offended.

The 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony acknowledges this, stating that "racial distinctions accentuate religious ones", and that harmonious race relations are only possible if Singaporeans practise religious tolerance and moderation.

But several differences set both concepts apart and underscore the need for a new law specifically aimed at fostering racial harmony.

At the most basic level, racial groups are largely fixed, while religious communities can draw adherents from all races. And while people can change their religion, they cannot change their skin colour.

Singapore's policy of secularism also means most people accept that religion should not intrude into the public space and influence politics and policy. In contrast, the country has actively fostered race-based policies and programmes - such as the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy or the various ethnic self-help groups.

Race also plays a role in politics. For instance, the Group Representation Constituency scheme was set up in 1988 to guarantee minority representation in Parliament.

SUTD's Dr Nazry notes that Singapore's policy of secularism has acted as a "social leveller" of sorts, since all religious groups are treated on an equal footing.

But this policy cannot play a similar bridging role among different racial groups, he says.

Knowing these distinctions is important in finding solutions for the issues Singapore faces today, adds SMU's Prof Tan. "If we treat a race issue as primarily a religious one, then we would likely misdiagnose the 'problem' and come up with poor solutions," he says.

Dr Mathews observes that people today are asserting their identities more, with social media making it much easier for individuals to mobilise, especially when they feel they are at risk of losing their identities.

Singapore, as an immigrant society that is highly connected to the rest of the world, is easily influenced by racial tensions and concerns elsewhere, he adds. "It is important for Singapore to have a robust framework to deal with these concerns."

A different tack

The new Act will be modelled after the existing MRHA, which was mooted in the late 1980s by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and enacted in 1990 to safeguard the separation of religion and politics and ensure moderate religious influences in Singapore.

While the law has never been used since it came into effect in 1992, PM Lee said on Sunday that its very existence has helped to restrain intolerance and promote religious harmony. With the growing influence of social media and the Internet, changes to the Act were made in 2019, after the Government reviewed it and consulted religious leaders.

The MHA spokesman says that there may be "a number of similarities" between the two, such as having a restraining order that can be issued against persons who cause feelings of enmity or hostility between racial groups, or tools that focus on restoration and rehabilitation.

"MHA will be engaging the public and relevant stakeholders on the new Act. We will provide more information when ready," she says.

Like the existing MRHA, the new Act will include provisions for a softer approach to offences. This is aimed at rehabilitating the perpetrators through persuasion, rather than leaving resentment in the wake of punishment.

Doing so is important because putting a culprit in jail may do nothing to change a person's views about a particular race, Associate Professor Tan says.

He adds that the less punitive approach may not necessarily be the easier path for an individual to take. After all, the offender is still held accountable for his actions, and has to make a conscious effort to repair the damage caused to victims and communities.

At the same time, the softer approach may result in offended communities working to educate individuals who make racially insensitive remarks, rather than seeking for the law to come down hard on them from the start, Dr Mathews says.

Adds SMU's Prof Tan: "It is perhaps more challenging: Both the victim and the offender will have to engage each other. But the outcomes are likely to be better for both the victim and offender, as well as for society and good race relations."

As part of this gentler approach, offenders could be compelled to make amends by learning more about the communities they have offended and mending ties with them.

In other words, they will be given the chance to change their views without having to face criminal prosecution.

When asked about this softer approach, Prof Tan from NUS says that given how the objective of the new law is to protect and promote harmony, there should be room not just for punishment, but also for repentance and reconciliation.

"Punishments can serve as a deterrence, but they do not allow for healing and mutual understanding. It is behaviour modification, without necessarily bringing about true repentance. Punishments do not in themselves address the root of the problem and deliver harmony," he says.

Even so, taking a gentler tack should not detract from the fact that views which are premised on denigrating people of a different race are completely unacceptable, observers say.

Singapore may choose to take a calibrated approach to eradicating such views and the conduct that perpetuates them, says Prof Ong.

"But the ultimate message must be that such views are morally and intellectually inferior and are not acceptable in our society."

Dr Nazry, who specialises in Malay-Indonesian literature and culture, points out that racial disharmony has little to do with a lack of understanding of culture. Instead, the problem stems from existing systems and power relations between races.

This means that any lessons to teach offenders about other cultures that might be mandated under the new law should take in topics such as racism and prejudice in the Singapore context, and how these operate "through systems, policies and laws, technology and everyday life".

These should not replicate the CMIO model that is traditionally used in schools, he says. This is because such an approach could portray different races as monolithic communities, and runs the risk of exacerbating and normalising biases and prejudices, he explains.

The original MRHA provided for the establishment of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, while the Constitution provides for a separate Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

Observers suggest that similar provisions may be made under the new law, with Dr Nazry proposing that such a council could include members from civil society and minority groups who are well-versed in race relations.

"The issues require a different kind of expertise and above all, necessitates the participation of individuals who have received the brunt end of racial discrimination," he says.

Canvassing views

SMU's Prof Ong says that when it comes to racial harmony, there may be merits to public consultation in drawing up legislation. This is especially so given how there are no official spokespeople for racial groups, unlike how there are religious groups with leaders.

The road leading up to the passing of the new Act could therefore involve a Select Committee to hear representations from the public, he says.

This approach was in fact adopted when the MRHA was tabled in Parliament in 1990, and 79 written representations were received from the public.

Then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew discussed the concerns the Government had that growing religious fervour could lead to conflict between various groups in Singapore's multireligious society in his National Day Rally in 1987.

The Government later published a White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony, which set out how religion and politics should be kept separate and how religious followers had to exercise moderation and tolerance, in 1989, before introducing the Bill in Parliament and seeking public representations on the proposed law.

However, SMU's Prof Tan feels the new law would likely be handled similar to most other pieces of legislation, and does not expect a White Paper or Select Committee on the subject.

None of the observers and community leaders ST spoke to was against the idea of the upcoming law, but some did bring up concerns that they had.

Mr Badrun Nafis Saion, the chairman of non-profit organisation AMP Singapore, says a possible side effect could be that people become overly cautious when speaking on issues related to race.

This could hurt intellectual discourse, especially when what is needed in discussions about race are more open, honest and respectful conversations, he says. "As such, there must be clarity in how the law will be imposed."

While acknowledging that very little is known about the proposed law, SMU's Prof Tan also raises concerns of whether it will curb conversations and debates on race, and whether it would enable the Government to arrogate to itself significant powers, ostensibly for the purpose of maintaining racial harmony.

"Because of our history, race issues are sometimes seen as an out-of-bounds (OB) issue or taboo topic. This can potentially mask the reality and the urgency of building ties between different races - going beyond tolerance to understanding and appreciation," he says.

Prof Tan adds that the law could also be mistaken to be stifling the promotion and protection of minority racial identities here, in the context of a multiracial society with a dominant ethnic Chinese majority.

Zooming in on the new MRHA's intention to take a "softer approach" to tackling racism, Dr Nazry says that such a direction is "lacking" because it assumes that the lack of racial harmony is due to a lack of understanding about culture.

"The 'softer approach' does not seem to take into account the unlevel playing field between different ethnic groups in Singapore," he says. "This could result in further marginalisation of ethnic minorities who are seen to have hurt or cause offence to members of the ethnic majority."

Everyone's effort

While PM Lee spoke about how legislation can play a role to soothe the problem of racism in his Rally, he made it a point to also note that the real solution is to change attitudes, which takes time and effort.

Similarly, Prof Ong notes that the law is not the only force in society that shapes conduct.

His colleague Prof Tan says that while it is laudable that the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act is seen as integral to changing social attitudes as the antidote to racial disharmony, a societal effort will be needed.

The new law should thus not only be seen as a measure of last resort, but also as a nudge to people to internalise the values and norms that are conducive for racial harmony.

He says: "The bottom-line is this: Governments do not defeat race bigotry and chauvinism and racism; it is the people who will ultimately determine whether a society is resilient and cohesive enough to withstand the divisive effects of those who seek to divide."

Beyond 'Chinese privilege', Singapore's fight against racial discrimination continues
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021

Whenever an apologetic Madam Susan Wong asks for help filling up forms at job interviews, she gets this incredulous response: "You don't know English?"

The 59-year-old Singaporean, who studied up to primary six in a Chinese-language school, has worked odd jobs all her life while raising three daughters in a one-room flat.

She struggles to understand English not just at the workplace but also at restaurants when browsing menus and when navigating the MRT system.

So she found herself nodding in agreement last Sunday (Aug 29) when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the adoption of English as a working language had put those who spoke only Mandarin and dialects at a disadvantage.

"At one of my former workplaces, the meetings were all in English. I relied on a colleague to help repeat everything in Mandarin," Madam Wong recalls. "It was really hard."

It was a sentiment Madam Wong agreed with.

But elsewhere in Singapore, a 33-year-old public servant who wants to be known only as K. Vincent was shaking his head in disagreement.

To say that there is no Chinese privilege in Singapore "completely disregards the lived experience" of minorities here, he tells Insight.

He feels that as an Indian, he has had to work doubly hard to prove himself during national service and in his career.

He has also been in meetings where Chinese Singaporeans chose to speak in Mandarin, oblivious to the non-Chinese there. This, he says, is a clear instance of Chinese privilege "rearing its ugly head".

PM Lee's statement on Chinese privilege at the rally - his most important political speech of the year - came amid a year where racist incidents have made headlines.

The episodes have led to heated debate as well as reflective conversations among some Singaporeans about the state of the country's race relations, including the matter of "Chinese privilege".

But what exactly is Chinese privilege and is there a common understanding of the term? Why is the Government taking an emphatic stand on it? And how useful is such a concept in a country that aims to uphold racial equality while acknowledging it is a work in progress?

Contested meanings

The term Chinese privilege has its origins in "white privilege", defined by the American women's studies scholar Peggy McIntosh in 1988 as "an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious".

Today in the United States, it is widely understood in the context of police brutality against non-white people, leading to several reported deaths including, prominently, that of African-American George Floyd in May last year.

Another instance of white privilege exists in wealth inequities that can be traced to a history of racist zoning laws which segregated the races.

Its Chinese adaptation emerged in the Singapore context towards the end of the noughties, with social activist Sangeetha Thanapal credited as coining the term. Over the years, some commentators have cited, among others, these examples of Chinese privilege:

• Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools which emphasise Chinese language and culture

• The Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy that has resulted in minorities finding it more difficult than the Chinese to sell their flats

• An immigration policy that works to maintain Singapore's racial balance, with the Chinese making up around 76 per cent of the citizen population .

Singaporean sociologist Selvaraj Velayutham, who teaches at Sydney's Macquarie University, says the term resonates with many ethnic minority Singaporeans as it allows them to relate to the "day-to-day hurdles and discriminations they face growing up in Chinese-majority Singapore".

Indeed, younger ethnic minorities whom Insight spoke to say they understand "Chinese privilege" as how one is bestowed advantages by virtue of being born into the largest ethnic group in Singapore.

Mr Syafiq Rahman, 33, who is currently between jobs, says: "There are many things that Chinese people don't even need to think about because everything is built to cater to them, such as media consumption or food options.

"If you switch on cable TV here at any given time, a lot of the channels only offer Mandarin subtitles. So for those of us who are hard of hearing or prefer to watch shows with subtitles, we are not afforded this if we are non-Chinese."

Yoga teacher Alyaa Rauff, 27, adds: "Part of racial privilege is to not experience direct racism regularly in Singapore. Being a dark-skinned, South Asian person, I experience different forms of racism on a weekly basis."

This includes receiving advice to stay out of the sun so she doesn't "become darker", she says.

But Dr Terence Chong, deputy chief executive officer and research division director at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, sees Chinese privilege as an uncritical imitation of white privilege, and flawed in how it homogenises a diverse ethnic community.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing foreign concepts and ideas, as Singapore has done since forever," he says, pointing to the concept of meritocracy as an example. "But we have to remember that such concepts and ideas were originally designed to describe different experiences elsewhere, which means we need to conscientiously adapt and localise them for our own specific histories and experiences."

In debunking the phrase last Sunday, PM Lee pointed to Singapore's founding principle of racial equality and impartiality in not favouring any race.

His speech had sketched out Singapore's approach to racial equality from its early years, starting with the mother tongues being preserved and Malay retained as the national language.

He noted how the Chinese had made concessions for the greater good, by accepting English as the lingua franca to put ethnic minorities more at ease.

But he also asked the Chinese to be more accommodating of difficulties faced by other races, citing biases in the rental and job markets.

Speaking in English later, he announced that legislation on racial harmony would be introduced, and that anti-discrimination guidelines would be enshrined into law.

He also said: "I know it is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority."

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan believes the lack of consensus on the meaning of the term "Chinese privilege" is the reason it is so contested.

"To many Chinese, the term draws a blank. They don't see their community being privileged nor believe that it should be," he says.

Nee Soon GRC MP Carrie Tan says she understands the perspective of those who speak of Chinese privilege. "What I think they are referring to is the privilege that occurs when one belongs in the majority group," she says. "In which case it might be appropriate to think about it as 'majority privilege'."

Chinese ground

Some observers note that PM Lee's remarks come on the back of recent racist incidents which had led to accusations of the Chinese community being not only racist, but also privileged.

This might have left older, Chinese-educated Chinese feeling puzzled or even maligned by such accusations.

Was PM Lee trying to appease the Chinese ground perhaps?

SMU's Associate Professor Tan dismissed such a notion even as he acknowledged the Chinese community is an important vote bank for the ruling People's Action Party.

The way Prof Tan sees it, PM Lee was being unequivocal about how races are treated equally: there are no places reserved for the ethnic Chinese in government jobs, public scholarships, university places and such; and the status of Chinese here is nothing like Malaysia's bumiputeras. These refer to the neighbouring country's Malay-Muslim majority and indigenous tribes, whose privileges are constitutionally enshrined.

Assistant Professor Elvin Ong of the National University of Singapore's political science department also doubts there was an attempt to appease the Chinese ground.

"The next election will only be in four years' time and most voters have short memories," he says. "Voters care about a broad basket of issues, and race and religion is only one of them."

Way ahead

Ethnic minorities tell Insight their brushes with what they see as Chinese privilege have less to do with special rights and more with informal everyday scenarios.

For them, the concept remains relevant as a lived reality.

Others say the term used matters less than keeping the conversation going about how Singapore should be a racially equal society.

And some think the phrase should be laid to rest altogether.

"Rather than get bogged down over differences of opinion around terminologies or definitions that could potentially inflame passions and lead to social polarisation, the productive way forward would be to discuss the points of agreement," says University of Liverpool teaching fellow Saleena Saleem, who researches race and identity.

Prof Velayutham says that while privilege exists in all societies including Singapore and such sentiments can't be dismissed, the phrase Chinese privilege "lacks currency and potency in mainstream Singapore society" and is an unproductive concept at the moment. More urgent, he says, is the need to address racism and its attendant injustices.

Project manager Calvin Tan, 34, doesn't feel labels are useful. "Will telling the Chinese that they are enjoying "Chinese privilege" help them to reflect and listen more to the minority races? Or will it make them feel more defensive and lead to more division and mistrust? I am not certain."

Ms Saleena says that moving forward, it is important to study the social factors that have led to discrimination and what policy steps can be taken to help those affected.

Iseas' Dr Chong adds that social interchanges are complex, and other forms of discrimination based on issues like class and language are often overlooked when a discriminated person happens to be from an ethnic minority.

Prof Velayutham suggests that schools teach the consequences of racism. There should also be a national anti-racism framework and a "Say No to Racism" campaign.

He also sees a need for more reflexive discussions involving Chinese Singaporeans willing to list the "unearned advantages" they might have taken for granted while growing up as Chinese here.

Prof Tan says PM Lee had rightly pointed out that changing social attitudes is key when dealing with difficulties faced by all races.

"Accepting that there will be differences, and that there cannot be a balance-sheet approach to what each community has in terms of concessions and benefits, are crucial if we are to strengthen race relations," he says.

Ms Tan, the MP, feels it is important to help people from different generations understand one another's perspective, and why they think that way.

For Madam Wong, the Chinese-educated mother of three, simply being kind and respectful to everyone is a good starting point to better racial ties.

Although she speaks mostly Chinese, she befriended her Malay and Indian neighbours using broken English, some Malay she had picked up from her kampong days, an occasional hug and above all, a mindset to treat others how she wants to be treated.

Singapore's new race law to include non-punitive sanctions to shape social behaviour: Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021

An upcoming law on racial harmony will likely introduce new sanctions, including non-punitive ones, to try and shape social behaviour and social norms, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Saturday (Sept 4).

The Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally on Aug 29, on the back of an increase in reported racist incidents and inter-ethnic relations coming under stress amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at the launch of a community training programme called SG Core, or Cohesion and Resilience, Mr Shanmugam said his Home Affairs Ministry would introduce the legislation, which would first consolidate the different existing laws dealing with racial issues, such as the Penal Code.

Any additional measures would need to be carefully considered, he added.

"Because for day-to-day interaction in the market or in the hawker centre or in the lift, you don't want to bring all of them to court and then put them in jail, or impose a fine, or treat all of them as criminals," said Mr Shanmugam. "I think it will be an impossible situation. Instead of making things better, you'll make them worse."

Instead, the Government will work closely with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and agencies such as, the national body promoting racial harmony, to consider a significant framework of non-punitive sanctions.

"So that when someone contravenes the norms, perhaps the person can be asked to go and do community service in the community that he has disparaged or hasn't understood properly," said Mr Shanmugam.

"And that might help in the greater understanding - without being punitive, and without having criminal records, and without shaming people.

"The focus must really be to try and get people to understand each other better, and get on better."

It is a similar approach as the Community Remedial Initiative under the 31-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), on which the new racial harmony law will be modelled.

Under this remedial initiative, offenders are given the chance to mend ties through a public or private apology to the aggrieved parties, or by taking part in inter-religious events.

PM Lee had also announced at the Rally that guidelines prohibiting employment discrimination - including along racial lines - would now be given legal force.

While laws can help address racism in both work and social settings, they would be meaningless if they stood on their own without support from the community, said Mr Shanmugam.

"If people think, 'I don't do it simply because there is a law', it's not good enough… what you want is a social norm shaping, for people's social norms to change and for them to genuinely understand and believe in multiracialism and multiculturalism," he added. "That's the ultimate goal.

"The law is just a guide rail, a way to get there. We have to continue to push for greater understanding, and greater tolerance, and the coming together of our own people through their efforts and the shaping, guiding hand of the Government."

Mr Shanmugam said community leaders and organisations also need to play their part.

Ground-up initiatives such as SG Core are thus extremely important in helping preserve multicultural harmony in Singapore, he told the 50 participants at its first session on Saturday. It was held at the auditorium of the Ministry of National Development (MND) Complex in Maxwell Road.

The four-hour programme is organised by non-governmental group Humanity Matters and supported by Temasek Foundation, as well as the SGSecure national movement to train the community against terror attacks.

It will pilot 20 runs up till April next year, aiming to draw voluntary sign-ups from about 400 national servicemen, officers and volunteers from the police, civil defence and uniformed groups in schools.

In three years, the plan is to open up SG Core to the wider public, starting with teachers and civil servants.

Ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong, who is chairman of Humanity Matters, said: "Given the recent and increasing incidents and interest relating to ethnic and faith discrimination and polarisation, both locally and globally, it is important that Singaporeans play a proactive and constructive role to counter external menaces and means that threaten the mosaic of our multicultural society."

The non-profit's special adviser Hassan Ahmad added that these challenges were evolving and intensifying due to the Internet and social media.

"So I think we also need to up our game to not just counter but also provide alternative narratives and an alternative approach," he added.

The SG Core programme kicks off with a tour of the Harmony in Diversity Gallery, located at the MND Complex, where the importance of interreligious peace will be emphasised.

Participants will then watch three videos produced by Humanity Matters and engage in dialogues after each viewing, guided by experts in interfaith and inter-ethnic relations as well as terrorism, extremism and radicalisation.

After completing the course, participants are enlisted into an SG Core Network, where they will have opportunities to do local community service or contribute to regional humanitarian relief projects.

Mr Shafiq Arifin, 29, an honorary lieutenant with the National Civil Defence Cadet Corps, said he was keen to share his newfound knowledge of these topics with his secondary school cadets.

"From there, they can go home and share with their parents and hopefully it'll spread," he said.

Ms Nicole Lee, 21, a sergeant with the police's Volunteer Special Constabulary, said she had come away with a better understanding of Singapore's unique multicultural model.

"I really learnt how to appreciate all these different races and religions in our country, and how to apply these lessons to contribute to national security."

Policies will not be constrained by existing ways of doing things, says Lawrence Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2021

Amid a more challenging environment, the Government will update and review policies continually, and will not be limited by the old ways of doing things, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Friday (Sept 3).

"Nothing is cast in stone. We are not constrained by legacy thinking or existing ways of doing things; we will continue to review and see how we can do better," he added.

Mr Wong was speaking during The Big Story, The Straits Times' daily news programme, about the measures announced during the National Day Rally on Sunday by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to tackle the difficult economic and social issues of uplifting lower-wage workers and dealing with racial fault lines.

He said the issues facing Singapore have become more complex and may take a longer time to address, and acknowledged that some may wonder why things cannot move more quickly.

But he added that the Government would rather look at issues carefully and work hard to find a solution than to take the politically expedient route of applying a quick fix.

"It would be easy to come up with... cosmetic changes just for political gestures or for symbolic effect and pretend that the problem is solved, but that's not how we do things in Singapore," he said.

"Instead, we have always been upfront with the challenges. We have been upfront with Singaporeans about the issues we have to deal with, deliberated carefully each time we have to deal with a challenge, and then work very hard to try and find the best way forward."

He added: "It requires a lot more hard work, but there is no substitute for this sort of painstaking work. It may seem slow at first but in the end, I think we will achieve a lot more together."

The well-being of lower-wage workers was a key focus in PM Lee's Rally speech, and Mr Wong cited it as one of the issues that would require not just the Government's measures, but also society's efforts to address.

Among the measures announced during the Rally was an expansion of the Progressive Wage Model to cover more lower-wage workers, so as to help close the gap between the lowest-income earners and those in the median.

Mr Wong said achieving this will go beyond dollars and cents.

He noted that the value of a job cannot be defined solely by income, and this was evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when the contributions of front-line and essential workers, some of whom are relatively lowly paid, had been key in keeping Singaporeans safe.

"So I hope the moves that we are making will bring about not just a closing of the income gap, but a change in our mindsets too - that we truly value each individual for their contributions and their worth regardless of the job they do. We honour everyone, and we give them the dignity and respect that each person deserves," he added.

Ultimately, he said, the Government exists to serve Singaporeans.

"Everything the Government does, really, is about serving and governing with the interest of Singaporeans at heart because the Government is elected by the people and our mandate comes from the people."

We don't want to see permanent fault lines: Lawrence Wong

Q: The measures announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech are aimed at bridging fault lines of income, nationality and race, as well as religion. What is the Government's endgame in making these moves?

A: It's important that we do not see these announcements in isolation. We've been thinking about these issues for some time, and they form part of a broader agenda for the Government. We've said that we want to emerge stronger from Covid-19, and that applies not just to the economy, but also to our society.

Earlier this year, I spoke at an IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) forum, and I talked about how we want to strengthen our social support and safety nets. The pandemic has given us greater impetus to do this because we can see the stresses and strains on Singaporeans, and we do not want to see permanent fault lines being created. That's why we have been thinking about this and we are making these moves.

And our aim is to emerge from this as a fairer and more equal, and more just society, a society where every Singaporean will have a share in the nation's progress, where every Singaporean matters and will have a place in society, and where all of us are good stewards of the future, always thinking about how we can leave behind a better Singapore.

So all of the moves that we have been making over the past year, from the Singapore Green Plan to Budget support measures, and the latest announcements by the Prime Minister at the National Day Rally, are with this aspiration in mind. If you ask what's the endgame, the endgame is to see a fairer, greener and more inclusive Singapore in the future.


3 challenges for Singapore to tackle: Low Wages, Foreigners and Race & Religion

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