BECOMING ONE PEOPLE
In Singapore, we start with the irrefutable proposition that the alternative to multi-racialism… is genocide in varying degrees.
– Mr S. Rajaratnam, then Minister for Culture (1959–1965)
After five decades of independence, Singapore has come a long way from the tense political climate and social tensions of the 1960s. Today, despite differences in ethnicity, religion and culture, we live together as one people, with a harmony that is remarkable among nations. But it would be a mistake to take this state of affairs for granted or to overlook the institutions, policies and efforts that have carefully nurtured the social harmony we now cherish.
FROM “DIVIDE AND RULE” TO ONE UNITED PEOPLE
Before 1965, Singapore was governed very differently. The major ethnic groups on the island were each assigned their own separate communal area in which to live and work. Interactions between ethnic communities were minimal. From the point of view of the colonial (and later Federal Malaysian) governments of the time, this policy of “divide and rule” prevented clashes among the different groups. However, it also meant that the communities tended to keep to themselves and had little opportunity to get to know one another, or to cultivate deeper understanding and acceptance.
Singapore would pay the price for this segregation, when poor living conditions and soaring unemployment in the 1960s led to simmering resentment and ethnic tensions that boiled over into racial violence in the riots of 1964 and 1969. On 21 July 1964, clashes between Chinese provocateurs and a group of Malay Muslims gathered to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday set off some of the bloodiest rioting in Singapore’s history. Disorder spread throughout the city, and fear ruled the streets as neighbour turned against neighbour. By the time police curfews were lifted on 2 August 1964, ethnic violence had claimed dozens of lives and left hundreds more injured. Tragically, a second ethnically motivated riot was to occur in September the same year, sparked by the killing of a trishaw rider.
Following Independence, the newly formed government was determined that Singapore would not have to relive these tragedies again. From a city-state of disparate but segregated communities, we would build a multicultural, secular, meritocratic nation in which all Singaporeans are equal before the law regardless of race, language or religion.
THREE PRINCIPLES THAT ENSURE
SOCIAL HARMONY IN SINGAPORE
Multiculturalism: Singapore’s different ethnic groups coming together as one united people, without giving up their cultural heritage or beliefs. At the same time, our common national identity takes precedence over our ethnic or religious identities.
Secularism: Backed by the rule of law, the State is secular, but not against religion. Everyone has the right to practise their religion freely. While religious organisations are consulted in policy matters that may have an impact on their community, the Government reserves the right to make the final decision.
Meritocracy: Opportunities are bestowed based on individual merit and performance, without bias to any race, creed or social-economic background. While this may not result in equal outcomes, it guarantees that all Singaporeans have a fair chance to succeed according to their own talent and effort.
A National Commitment to Equality
One of the first manifestations of these principles was our Constitution, which guarantees the right of every person to embrace and practise his religion freely. 1 The Constitution protects religious freedom: every individual has a constitutional right to profess, practise and propagate his religion as long as such activities do not affect public order, public health or morality. Our commitment to being “one united people regardless of race, language or religion” is also enshrined and resonantly expressed in our National Pledge, drafted in 1966 by Singapore’s first Foreign Minister Mr S. Rajaratnam. 2
A Common Language for All
To be able to live together, we must first be able to communicate and understand one another. The use of English as a common language of administration and instruction after Independence helped to unify all Singaporeans without privileging any one cultural group, even as the different communities were encouraged to preserve their own languages and cultural roots. This allowed a common civic space to develop in which Singaporeans could share experiences, memories, and values and form a truly national identity.
Protecting the Rights of Minorities
Fully aware that unjust or discriminatory treatment could lead to resentment and disharmony, Singapore’s government took pains to treat all ethnicities and faiths fairly, and to enact legislation soon after Independence to protect minority rights and privileges. The Presidential Council for Minority Rights was introduced in 1970 as a safeguard to ensure that the Government does not implement any law which discriminates or disadvantages any race, religion or community.
Maintaining Religious Harmony
While the freedom to practise religion is enshrined in the Constitution, there were concerns in the 1980s that rising religiosity could arouse suspicions or spark fresh tensions in Singapore’s diverse society. Following a government White Paper 4 and much public discussion among the various communities, a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was introduced in 1990, empowering the authorities to act against incidents, however small, that could potentially escalate to threaten our religious harmony. The Act rounded off the suite of legal measures 5 that the Government has kept at its disposal to address threats to our social cohesion – including condemnations of other races or religions.
FROM TOLERANCE TO ACCEPTANCE
The generally peaceful state of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Singapore is a matter of conscious and careful planning. Ever mindful of the sensitivities of being a multicultural society, particularly one with a short history as a nation, we have infused our public institutions – from schools to public housing and compulsory National Service for all Singaporean men – with opportunities for Singaporeans of different backgrounds to come together, understand one another and respect our society’s rich diversity.
Beginning in the 1970s, national programmes were designed to ensure a balanced representation of Singapore’s diverse ethnic makeup, and in particular the four major ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others, also known as CMIO). The more prominent policies among these include the Housing and Development Board (HDB)’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), 6 the ethnic Self-Help Groups (SHGs) 7 and the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system. 8
For example, HDB’s EIP, introduced in 1989, spells out the proportion of each major ethnic group who may own units in an apartment block or neighbourhood. These stipulations ensure that most families in Singapore (80% of whom reside in HDB’s public housing estates), will live alongside others of different religion and ethnicities, sharing common amenities such as playgrounds, shops and bus stops – the diametric opposite of the colonial era norm of ethnic segregation. This discourages the formation of ethnic enclaves, making the daily social experience of Singaporean life more inclusive and diverse.
Such policies seek to create common spaces where people of different backgrounds will, in the course of their daily lives, come to meet, mingle and build bonds naturally. A culture is formed not through piecemeal incidents, but through regular encounters and interactions. Over time, strong relationships and shared memories nurture tolerance, trust, understanding and acceptance.
THE PEOPLE’S ASSOCIATION
AND THE COMMUNITY CENTRES
The policy of the Government is to build many modest, small and medium-sized Community Centres costing about $15,000 each, and to have one at every thickly populated area to provide the escape value for the recreation of children in the day, and adults in the evening.
– Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister,
at the launch of Minto Road Community Centre,
9 January 1960
Soon after being appointed the first Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, Mr Lee Kuan Yew mooted the idea of a place where people could come together, get to know one another and be part of a larger community. If people could learn skills or share common experiences together, interaction would be more spontaneous and meaningful.
In 1960, the People’s Association (PA) was established with one main aim: to cultivate social cohesion and nurture a sense of community. It is a mission that endures to this day.
PA inherited 28 Community Centres (CCs), set up by the colonial government, where people would gather to play games, go on excursions or seek help. At first, people were drawn to the CCs for functional reasons. For example, farmers would bring their livestock to the CCs to be inoculated, or came to attend courses to improve their fishing and farming methods. Children would immerse themselves in the books from the mobile library or try their hands at basketball or carom. Since many were illiterate at the time, it was not uncommon for residents to bring letters to the CCs, seeking help from the staff to read them. Since households rarely had their own phone lines in those days, CC staff also doubled as phone operators during emergencies, taking calls on behalf of kampong residents. One of them recalled:
A caller would ask to speak to someone living in the kampong. The person would then hang up while I went to fetch that someone. Both of us would then wait at the CC for the call to come through again. 3
The CCs became one of the first places during
Singapore’s early nationhood where many races could
come together, no matter their background or social
status. During the racial riots of 1964, the CCs were
regarded as safe havens and places of refuge
True to its mission to bring people together, PA has spared no effort in making sure that all Singaporeans feel welcome in its CCs, which have become hubs for all community activities, recreation and neighbourly camaraderie.
Because the CCs were built within the communities, they became a convenient venue to hold communal events such as New Year get-togethers and National Day celebrations. Some were even used to send off young men due to enlist in National Service. In later years, residents would visit the CCs at the end of a day’s work to watch television in the communal halls. Activities and classes held at these centres were either free of charge or kept very affordable to encourage participation. They were also places where grassroots leaders could be groomed before being deployed to their communities to serve residents.
Today, PA manages over 100 CCs and more than 37,000 grassroots volunteers. Working with an extensive network of partners, including grassroots organisations and the Community Development Councils, PA organises a wide range of activities from block parties and the celebration of various festivals, to soccer friendlies, excursions and cooking classes – creating opportunities for Singaporeans of different ethnic and social backgrounds to mingle.
WORKING WITH THE COMMUNITY
No government policy or programme can maintain social harmony if our communities do not themselves embrace and observe its principles. Many public initiatives seek to build up trust and good relations between communal groups in Singapore, and to develop an instinct for the greater national good.
One of these initiatives was the formation of Inter Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) in every constituency in 2002. Comprising leaders from racial, religious, social, educational, business groups and organisations, IRCCs help to deepen residents’ understanding of various beliefs and practices through heritage trails, inter-faith talks and religious festivities. Being closer to the ground, they also help to calm raw nerves and assuage anxieties that might arise in the community.
The work of the IRCCs is complemented by the Community Engagement Programme (CEP). Initiated in 2006, the CEP strengthens ties and builds trust among people of different ethnicities and faiths in a particular community. The CEP readies a community to respond during times of crisis in order to quickly marshal help, aid recovery and support broader national efforts.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A
Reaffirming the Government’s commitment to secularism
in his 1987 National Day Rally, then Prime Minister
Lee Kuan Yew called on all religious leaders to “take off
their clerical robes” before they assumed any economic
or political roles in Singapore. On their part, Singapore’s
religious organisations have stayed responsibly clear of
political affairs, devoting their public efforts to social
and charitable works.
Amid a worldwide trend of rising religiosity, a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2014 found 66% of respondents agreeing that Singaporeans enjoyed healthy levels of religious harmony. 9 The same survey also saw respondents supporting government’s policies on religion and its role as an arbiter of disputes in times of conflict. 10 About 70% agreed that the Government is responsible for maintaining racial and religious harmony in Singapore while two-thirds of the respondents considered it important to report any infractions that might threaten religious or racial harmony to the authorities.
Efforts to nurture social harmony are often more impactful if they come from the community, and if they involve the young. To this end, non-profit organisations with programmes that improve racial and religious harmony can receive support from the Harmony Fund, administered by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. With a sum of $5 million set aside to last from 2013 to 2016, the Harmony Fund has sponsored more than 50 projects to date, with about two in five projects being youth oriented or youth-run.
TOWARDS A MORE INCLUSIVE SOCIETY
Singapore’s destiny depends on its people. Since our Independence, we have welcomed anyone who can contribute to our success, including skilled workers from around the world. For Singapore to thrive, we need to be comfortable living, working and playing alongside people who may be different from us, not just in terms of ethnicity and faith, but also in terms of family background, economic circumstances and, increasingly, nationalities as well.
In 1997, as part of Singapore’s efforts to transform our economy to build the best home for Singaporeans and to make Singapore a cosmopolitan city, then Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong explained the need to try to “attract the best talents from around the world” to Singapore. He urged Singaporeans to welcome the infusion of knowledge that skilled foreign manpower would bring to make Singapore a “Talent Capital”. 11 Underlining the point in 2002, he argued that Singapore has to “send a clear signal to all those who can raise our standards whether in sports, music, dance, the theatre, literature, the economy or politics, that they are welcome”.
Foreigners and Permanent Residents make up 40% of Singapore’s population today. Given our low resident fertility rates, they are needed to augment the workforce and help keep our economy vibrant and our society sustainable.
However, the significant inflow of foreigners in the past decade has led to the perception that their arrival has crowded out Singaporean citizens in terms of jobs, housing, transport, schools, and other resources. Despite reassurances that the interests of Singaporeans will always take priority, 12 this has led to resentment, often amplified through social media. Such negative attitudes toward foreigners threaten to divide society as much as the racial tensions of decades past.
The Government has moved to address many of the core issues. In the past five years, measures have been introduced to cool down the property market, build more public housing, and expand public transport capacity to cope with a growing city. Foreign manpower policies have also been tightened to manage the growth of foreigners in the workforce. Responding to feedback from the public as well as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the Ministry of Manpower introduced the Fair Consideration Framework in 2013, requiring all businesses operating in Singapore to adopt open, fair, merit based and non-discriminatory hiring practices.
The Citizenship Journey
We continue to welcome those who are committed to Singapore’s future and who want to stand with us through thick and thin.
We do not require foreigners, our naturalised citizens or Permanent Residents to give up their beliefs and culture. However, to help them settle in better among Singaporeans and maintain overall harmony in our society, they are encouraged to abide by our common values and norms, as well as forge shared experiences with Singaporeans. The National Integration Council (NIC) was set up in 2009 to coordinate and encourage ground-up integration efforts through partnership between the public and private sectors, and the people. Initiatives introduced by NIC include the Community Integration Fund (CIF) to co-fund and support initiatives that have helped immigrants better adapt to their new environment and provided platforms for locals and newcomers to interact, forge friendships and improve mutual understanding. The Singapore Citizenship Journey was also introduced in 2011 to enrich naturalised citizens’ understanding of Singaporean norms and values, and provide opportunities for meaningful interaction with their local community.
LIVING IN HARMONY
From schools to public housing and National Service, we have infused our public institutions with opportunities for Singaporeans of different backgrounds to come together, understand one another and respect our society’s rich diversity.
Effective integration often takes time and sustained effort to build trust and sincere relationships between Singaporeans, foreigners and new immigrants. While the Government will continue to facilitate and support integration efforts, we also urge newcomers to continue seeking out opportunities in the course of their daily lives to better adapt to their new home. It is also heartening to observe that many Singaporeans have stepped forward to encourage the process by helping newcomers settle into our Singaporean way of life and sink deep roots.
Singapore must be a place where the economy prospers and human spirit thrives. To become a truly inclusive society, we need to work hard to eliminate discrimination that can hold people back from giving their best to the nation. In recent years, 13 conscious efforts have also been made to nurture a society where the most vulnerable are given extra help to cope and lead meaningful lives.
Over time, employers and Singaporeans at large have begun to shed their prejudices against certain vulnerable groups in society. Consequently, public policies, employment practices and social mindsets have improved. For instance, the Special Employment Credit and Workfare Training Support Scheme, introduced in 2013, encourage employers to hire and train their older workers so that they can remain just as productive as younger colleagues. Ex-convicts may also have their conviction records deleted if they show that they have stayed clean over the years – a move to help them better reintegrate into society, and to make the best of their second chances.
A SENSE OF HOME
Born in Bandung, Indonesia, Mr Na Sin An came to Singapore on an NUS-ASEAN postgraduate scholarship in 1999. Upon completing his studies in 2001, he found a job and became a Permanent Resident. With his career on track, he married in 2002 and brought his wife, also from Bandung, to Singapore. In 2004, the couple had their first child, who was born in Singapore.
Originally, Mr Na had intended to work in Singapore, and return to his birthplace in Indonesia after his retirement. Returning regularly to visit his relatives, Mr Na soon realised that he was feeling less and less acquainted with the environment in Indonesia – his idea of “home” had changed.
In 2010, after much pondering and soul-searching, Mr Na and his wife took up Singapore citizenship. They have never looked back.
Expressing his attachment to his adopted country, 37-year-old Mr Na explains: “When I was a student here in Singapore, the best feeling for me was to be in a cab, on my way to Changi Airport. But today, the best feeling for me is when I have landed at Changi Airport. My home is in Clementi.”
But we all know that building an inclusive society is not just about Government redistributing resources to help the poor. It is about building a society where at its heart, people retain a deep sense of responsibility for their families and seek every opportunity to improve themselves and do better.
Where employers treat workers with respect, value their contributions and reward them fairly. Where the more successful step forward to help others in the community, because they feel for their fellow citizens.
And where Singaporeans actively participate in causes that will make this a better society. An inclusive society will only blossom if we grow this spirit of responsibility and community.
– Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, 17 February 2012 14
Five decades after that fateful day in 1964, 21 July is now observed annually in all our schools as Racial Harmony Day – a reminder both of the tragic consequences of ethnic conflict, and of the importance of nurturing trust and friendship among Singapore’s diverse communities.
Indicators of racial and religious harmony 15 show that Singapore enjoys a high degree of social harmony, with seven out of 10 respondents agreeing that they did not experience any religious or racial tensions in their daily lives, and nine out of 10 respondents indicating that they were comfortable having someone of another race as their neighbour. After 50 years togethe as a nation, our quest to become one people has proceeded well, but the journey is not over. In the uncertain, complex and often volatile global environment we live in, our diversity can be our greatest strength. To preserve the peace we enjoy now, we must continue to build strong bonds of trust, friendship, understanding, and work hard to remain an inclusive society that welcomes and appreciates all, regardless of race, language or religion. This is the promise Singapore stands for.