Opening Address by Guest of Honour, Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the Racial Harmony Forum, on Wednesday, 8 July, At 3pm, at ITE College Central

Published Date: 08 July 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Hawazi Daipi
Senior Parliamentary Secretary

Mr Janadas Devan
Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

Colleagues from MOE,
Principals and Educators from schools and Institutes of Higher Learning

Ladies and Gentlemen


1.A very good afternoon to all of you. This year has been an eventful one for us as we celebrate our 50th year of independence. Even as we celebrate, we take the time to appreciate how far our pioneers have brought us, reflect on the values that make us Singaporean, and look towards creating a better future in the next 50 years.

2.It is also a good time for us to also remember the tenets that have made us successful as a nation. One of these bedrocks on which Singapore is founded on, is the equality of races.

Racial Harmony: The Last Fifty Years

3.From the time of our independence, our pioneer leaders, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S Rajaratnam, Mr E. W. Barker, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Othman Wok, sought to integrate people of different races through education, housing, sports and culture. “…One united people, regardless of race, language or religion” was written into our pledge by Mr S Rajaratnam, then Foreign Minister, in 1966. This is something which our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, believed with all his heart. At the announcement of separation in 1965, he assured the people of Singapore that all was well and things would go on as usual. But he also added with emphasis, “We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore….This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.” And this is something that our forefathers have come to achieve in these 50 years.

4.But while we have enjoyed harmony in the last fifty years, fault-lines may emerge again if we are not careful. This could happen especially when we don’t have strong friendships between people of different races, or allow misinformation about other races and religions to spread. We need to guard against the emergence of these fault-lines, and build on the strong foundations our pioneers have built. This applies not just to racial harmony, but religious harmony as well.

Reflecting: Where We Are Today

5.Which is the most religiously diverse country in the world? I asked this question to a group of students yesterday when I gave a talk to the school. Well, according to this survey, we scored the highest among all the countries surveyed on Religious Diversity Index. This is a survey done by an American think tank1. So we are not just one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, we are the most religiously diverse country in the world. Respect for people of different religious beliefs is something we hold dear to our hearts as Singaporeans.

6.But while we cherish this key value, we must double our efforts to maintain harmony. Because our challenges are greater in the coming years. First, we can be rocked by events outside Singapore happening around the world. In January this year, three gunmen, raised and radicalised in Paris, opened fire in the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. 17 died and three days of terror resulted. We remember too the killing rampage in Norway four years ago by right-wing Christian fundamentalist Anders Behring Breivik, who shot at least 85 young people as a war against multiculturalism.

7.ISIS is a major concern as well. Besides the atrocities committed in the Middle East, there is growing concern worldwide that youths are being targeted to join their ranks. Two Australian teenagers, 16 and 17, were detained in a Sydney airport while planning to travel to fight with ISIS. Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned about their citizens returning to their home countries after fighting with ISIS. Recently we even arrested two of our own youth, 19 and 17, self-radicalised on the internet. One of them had planned to carry out attacks on our own buildings and assassination of our own leaders.

8.This is no longer a threat confined to other parts of the world, but one that is real for us. We first need to be aware of these issues, consider what they might mean for our students, and prepare to engage them meaningfully. It also means that we need to keep a watchful eye on our charges, helping our young find meaning and purpose in their school and community, so that they will not fall prey to radical and extremist religious beliefs.

Looking Ahead: Trends

9.The second reason why we have to work harder is because religion will play a more important role in Asia-Pacific societies in the next fifty years. According to one study, the proportion of freethinkers in this region is projected to decline from 21% in 2010 to 17% in 20502. While people generally benefit from good moral teachings and stable communities, increased religiosity does mean that we need to facilitate understanding between people of different beliefs even more.

10.Third, this rise of religiosity is accompanied with the prevalent use of the internet and social media. Singaporeans are highly connected and avid users of social media, far more than the average person across the world3. As a result of this, Singaporeans are highly connected and avid users of social media. Therefore, it has become more convenient for Singaporeans to express their views, and to a much wider audience. It has also become easier to post careless remarks about other races and religions, with wide-reaching repercussions.

11.With high internet connectivity, it has become easier to connect with others of similar beliefs from across the world, and for people to congregate around causes and movements. And indeed if you look at some of the videos produced by the ISIS, they are highly sophisticated. There is great need today for our young to be discerning, responsible users of information, as well as to navigate this terrain wisely. Now we have to work a lot harder to keep the ideals of our nation. The job has also become more challenging for the three reasons I have mentioned and other reasons. What will this mean for our educators, our schools and our IHLs?

12.We need to remind our young continuously that racial and religious harmony is a delicate asset, and we cannot take it for granted. It has been fundamental to the success of Singapore in the last fifty years, and must continue to be. We must enhance our efforts for our students and educators to appreciate the roles they play in ensuring harmony in Singapore for the next fifty years. In practical terms, what can we do?

The Role of Schools Going Forward

13.First and foremost, our educators pass on and model values such as empathy, care, and the ability to embrace differences, to appreciate differences and in fact to make differences our strengths. The more our educators embrace such values, the more our students learn about the significance and the greater impact you make on them. Second, schools need to multiply your efforts by working with parents and the community. You cannot do this alone. As school leaders, you also provide many suitable platforms for students to understand and value people of different beliefs and cultures.

14.Values in Action (VIA) projects are one such opportunity. And VIA projects are a key part of our Character and Citizenship Education. For example, Bartley Secondary organised a residents’ block party featuring activities such as the making of lanterns, bunga telur (flower souvenir) and rangoli (festive Indian decoration). Jiemin Primary School students also designed a multi-cultural dance event for residents to learn various ethnic dances. Through such projects, students gain a good glimpse into the lives of other races and religions, and help to facilitate this in their own communities.

15.In some schools, students also participate in dialogues with community leaders to increase their awareness of current affairs and the importance of social cohesion. Third, we can come together as an education fraternity to explore how we can be even more effective in our outreach. Activities such as your Racial Harmony celebrations in schools, and forums for educators to discuss social cohesion, faiths and cultures, also help build and deepen our approach. . One such example is today’s Forum, where we have the privilege to hear from Ministry of Home Affairs and Institutde of Policy Studies on racial harmony. Tap on their knowledge to deepen our understanding of the complexities of the issues and to discuss these issues as a fraternity.

16.The efforts of our educators are showing results. The recent tragedy involving our students from Tanjong Katong Primary school at Mt Kinabalu was filled with sadness. But over that period, expressions of strength and hope also surfaced. Many of the students were good friends across different races. In fact, if you look at the composition of students and teachers who went on the trip, it is remarkably multi-racial. Parents were also good friends and interacted often. There was so much outpouring of mutual respect. The students, parents and teachers attended the wakes that were conducted with different religious rites and their friendship and care enabled all to feel welcome. It was not Singaporeans of a particular race who mourned, it was all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language and religion, who came together as one.

17.As school leaders, you model harmony for both your teachers and students. You empower your teachers to facilitate opportunities for respect, love, and appreciation across race and religion. We don’t just want to integrate across our differences, but instead we must strive to build a whole, truly Singaporean identity - one that values diversity, celebrates people, and works hard to protect this nation we call our home. And the school is a perfect place for this. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” says Nelson Mandela. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” We have a duty to teach our young how to love, and how to love well.

What Future Do You Want?

18.Harmony is in our hands, as the theme of this seminar puts it. In the next fifty years, how will we create a society that truly embraces diversity and protects our fellow man, regardless of our differences? How do we enable people to focus on the common good, and to strive for that end? As PM Lee said in his parliamentary tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, “how we honour Mr Lee must be faithful to the ideals he lived by and fought for. Mr Lee made it very clear throughout his life that he did not need and did not want any monument… ideals… were his chief concern, the ideals upon which he built Singapore: multi-racialism, equality, meritocracy, integrity, and the rule of law… We can pay no greater tribute to him than to uphold the principles upon which he built this country.” (PM Lee in Parliament, 13 Apr)

19.As school leaders, how will you carry this forward? How will you create a school experience where students cultivate mutual respect, understanding, and celebration of one another? In short, how will you contribute to the building of racial and religious harmony in the next fifty years? It is a challenge that requires commitment and thought, but one that I know is in good hands.

20.With that, I wish all of you an engaging afternoon of discussions, and a meaningful Racial Harmony month ahead.

21.Thank you.

  1. Out of 232 countries in a Pew Research Centre report (2012), we scored the highest on the Religious Diversity Index.
  2. “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050”, Pew Research Centre (2 Apr 2015).
  3. In 2013, Singapore was reported to have the world’s second highest social penetration rate at 59% - more than double the global average of 26%. Our internet penetration rate is also 73%, above the global average of 35%. Study published by social media consultancy We Are Social in 2013.
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