Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at 'Regardless of Race' Dialogue VI

Published Date: 17 April 2021 05:00 PM

News Speeches


1. Good afternoon everyone. I am very happy to join all of you this afternoon at the final and 6th edition of the Regardless of Race Dialogues. I will start by thanking OnePeople.sg, Roses of Peace and Mothership, for organising this important series of dialogues.

2. The theme of today's dialogue is about "Reflections and Aspirations". Indeed, since these dialogues started in 2019, we have heard many of your valuable views and ideas on social cohesion and race issues in Singapore. This afternoon I would like to discuss what our ideals are, how far we have come, what it means to have an evolving consensus on these issues, as well as our aspirations for the future.

Our Ideals

3. Since our independence, race has always been a fundamental and central issue in Singapore. Before 1965, we already had many diverse communities that migrated here from different lands and spoke different languages. Harmony in Singapore did not arise naturally between our different ethnic groups. For example, in 1964, bitter misunderstandings between the communities boiled over into racial violence. At the time, when we were about to become independent, many newly independent countries were also grappling with racial and religious wars. Given this backdrop, and the circumstances that led to our independence, our founding leaders were determined to confront the dangers of communal strife, and to forge a common culture as part of nation building.

4. That is why they set out, from the very beginning, to build a multi-racial, multi-religious secular nation. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said on 9 Aug 1965, and I am sure all of us are familiar with this quote: "This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion".

5. Here in Singapore, we want to treat everyone equally without prejudice or discrimination. We want to build a multi-racial nation where every community, majority and minority, can integrate fully, yet have maximum space to maintain their identities and practise their faiths, customs, and way of life.

6. We have worked very hard towards this fundamental national ideal. We have taken deliberate measures to achieve this by expanding our shared common space. That is why we have four official languages, with English as the working language and Malay as our National Language, not Chinese. We have public housing where people of all races live together, and our children play together. We have national schools where our children learn and grow up together, identifying themselves first as Singaporeans. We have a bilingual policy, where all students learn English, but also study their mother tongue to retain their cultural roots. And we have many other common spaces where all races interact – like our public parks, libraries and sports facilities. All this enables us to build closer relationships with one another, and to forge mutual trust and understanding between our different communities.

7. At the same time, we provide space for different ethnic groups to celebrate their own cultures and traditions. From time to time, frictions and issues do arise and when they do, we have worked out these issues through mutual accommodations and compromises, and we have maintained a delicate balance that is acceptable to all groups. For example, we have put in place measures related to Chinese incense burning during the 7th month, and made adjustments to the azan and drum-beating during Thaipusam, just to name a few.

8. That is how today, with these constant mutual adjustments and accommodations, 55 years after Independence, we live in relative peace and harmony in Singapore. Are there still instances of casual racism or racial prejudice in our society today? Yes, unfortunately so. But objectively speaking, if you look at where we are today compared to say 50 years ago, we have made great progress. If you look around the world, I think we can also say, hand on heart, that we are one of the few places where people of different races and faiths have been able to live peacefully and closely together for more than half a century. It is something very precious that we must always cherish and strive to protect.

An Evolving Balance and the Common Space

9. Our harmonious balance today is achieved through many decades of hard work and relationship-building. There is nothing organic or natural about this. Right from the beginning, our pioneers worked hard to make multi-racialism a reality. This took compromise and give-and-take from all sides. Not every group is able to get everything they want. But overall, we have gotten a balance where all our communities in Singapore are generally comfortable.

10. This is a dynamic balance. It is not static or set in stone. The balance will continue to evolve, because society's attitudes towards the issue of race will change with time. In particular, we recognise that our younger and older generations tend to have different views on race. All of us, young and old, subscribe to the ideal of a multi-racial Singapore. Older folks will tread more sensitively on race issues, having witnessed the conflicts and riots of the past, and knowing how difficult a journey we have taken over the years to get to where we are today. Younger people I speak to have different perspectives because they grow up in a time of peace and harmony. They believe our racial differences are in the past, and not so relevant today as we are more integrated. Their reference points on racial issues also influenced by events happening in other parts of the world. So they feel we are more ready to have more open conversations about race, to be more relaxed about some of our prevailing rules, and to take bolder steps to be a race-blind society.

11. I am neither young nor old, I think I fall somewhere in between, so I understand the sentiments of both groups. My parents experienced various episodes of racial riots in their lifetime. My dad came from China after the war, grew up in Malaysia, and he experienced episodes of racial tensions in Malaysia before he came to Singapore. My mother and her family grew up in Singapore; they used to live in Kampong Amber – a Malay Kampong. They were among the handful of Chinese families living there. They enjoyed excellent relations with their Malay neighbours. But when the 1964 race riots happened, the situation changed and became very tense, and they eventually decided to move out. Hearing these stories first-hand, when I was growing up, I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for everyone during that period of racial strife.

12. I grew up in a different environment. My formative years were in the 70s and 80s when I grew up in the HDB estate of Marine Parade. I played football with kids of all races at the field outside my HDB block. In school, in Haig Boys' School and Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School, I had friends from all races – we studied and played together, and we were hardly conscious of our racial differences. So in that sense, I can also appreciate the perspectives of many young people when they express their desire to talk more openly about race, and to take a more progressive approach towards race relations.

13. We have in Singapore a range of policies to entrench and uphold multi-racialism. We continually review and update these policies and rules, as we are doing now, for example, with regard to the position on the wearing of tudung in healthcare settings. In considering any changes, we always ask ourselves: Will the changes help to expand or reduce our common space? Will the changes bring us closer together as one, or will they pull us apart?

14. What do we mean by the common space? Consider all the opportunities we have today to interact with one another from different races and religions; to get to know one another and socialise together. We eat, work and play together; we live next to one another; we celebrate each other's festivities; we use English as a neutral and common language; our children study together in schools; we have a system of meritocracy where everyone can progress regardless of their backgrounds; we elect a multi-racial, multi-religious Parliament; we defend our nation as one people. These are just a few examples I have cited, but they are important examples of the common spaces that bring us together, regardless of race, language and religion, as one united people.

15. Why are these things important? Because we recognise that mixed interactions between races do not always come about naturally or spontaneously. As humans, our natural instincts are to stick to our own tribes. We are all prone to unconscious and implicit biases. Take our founding leader S. Rajaratnam as an example. He wrote our pledge. He was an idealist who believed deeply in multi-racialism and he fought for it, but he was also realistic about what he called the "primitive emotions" of race. Once, he compared this to a "wild and hungry beast pacing impatiently behind the bars of a cage", and that we must ensure that this "wild beast remains locked in its cage so that eventually it will waste away and die".

16. On another occasion, he used the analogy of an infectious disease, very appropriate during this COVID period, but it was another kind of infectious disease that was prevalent during his time. He said, and I quote, "Dangers like communalism and racialism… lie dormant until brought to life by a conducive environment. It is like tuberculosis. We all inhale tuberculosis germs. If you are healthy, your system is strong, they do no harm. But the moment the system runs down, then these germs assert themselves." He was referring, whether in the analogy of a wild beast or the tuberculosis germs, to these primitive emotions that we have in all of us; the emotive feelings we have about race.

17. These are reminders that we cannot take things for granted. Race, like it or not, will always be an emotive issue. The situation in Singapore today is tranquil and calm. But it is very easy for racial tensions to flare up, for people to get worked up, and for our ethnic relations to come under severe strain. We have seen this in many places around the world where arguments and debates over racial issues eventually lead to exclusion and division. One side pushes for their demands, emboldens another side to push harder for their rights, and it ends up eventually with greater polarisation in society. So must avoid that and continually find ways to widen the common ground we share, and strengthen our racial and religious harmony.

Our Aspirations: Culture of Understanding and Trust

18. I think it is a good sign that today, we are able to talk more frankly and openly about issues of race. These are important conversations, but equally important is the responsibility that we must take for what we say, be it online or offline. We must learn to appreciate and respect other cultures. We must learn to listen to those who hold perspectives that are different from us.

19. As past dialogues have discussed, the online space in particular has a strong influence in shaping racial discourse, especially amongst our young. On one hand, social media has opened up space for civic course and highlighted real and salient issues. It has given us platforms to share the richness of other cultures and identities, and move beyond certain ethnic stereotypes. But there are also dangers and risks which I'm sure everyone recognises. Incidents can be easily framed and sensationalised – quickly turning inflammatory – and it can easily create echo chambers. Then, it will deepen our divisions. Positions harden and it becomes harder to listen to the other side.

20. We must work hard to counter these negative effects, and to have constructive conversations on racial and religious harmony. MOE is stepping up its effort in schools. We have just updated our Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum. We are doing more with regard to cyber-wellness to help students navigate the online space. We are putting greater focus on multi-cultural appreciation, where students develop values like respect and harmony and learn to appreciate our socio-cultural diversity. Students, importantly, get to discuss contemporary issues including on race and religion. We are also equipping and training our teachers to facilitate these conversations.

21. Having said that, opportunities to interact with people from other backgrounds should not be limited to within the school, but also through other communities. Ground-up organisations like OnePeople.sg, the Inter-Religious Organisation and Roses of Peace play an important role, by bringing people together to explore our religious and cultural diversity and hence build greater understanding. Our Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, comprising faith and community representatives, also work together to strengthen community bonds in their constituencies. On our part, as individuals, we can all seek out other opportunities, by volunteering or by engaging in community and sport activities to strengthen mutual trust.

22. While government policies and community initiatives can set the tone and framework, race relations eventually boil down to how we interact with each other on a daily basis. It is about how well we know the cultures of our classmates, our neighbours and our friends, how we take personal responsibility in calling out racial prejudice or episodes of casual racism each time we encounter them, and how we exercise personal responsibility in our discourse on difficult issues.

23. We need to consciously create a culture of understanding, respect and trust where we are not defined by the colour of our skin but where we value our fellow citizens of different cultures, religions, and where everyone must play a part in upholding this culture.

24. Having gone through this past year, dealing with COVID-19, we have in fact seen many examples where Singaporeans have risen to the occasion, and we have seen many people stepping forward, going out of their comfort zones and doing more to help our fellow citizens regardless of race, language or religion. In a time of crisis like COVID-19, we have indeed rallied together, and that spirit of solidarity is stronger today than before. I hope we can continue in that same spirit to work hard at strengthening our common space, and strengthening our religious and racial harmony in Singapore.

25. I look forward to hearing your views and having a conversation with all of you later during the dialogue. Thank you very much.

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