Ambassador Zainul Abidin Rasheed (Kuwait)
Mr Ong Keen Choon, Executive Director, OnePeople.sg
Mr Ramesh Ganeson, Director, OnePeople.sg
Mdm Rahayu Mahzam, Member of Parliament (Jurong GRC) and Management Committee Member, OnePeople.sg
Ladies and Gentlemen
A very good morning to all our panellists and guests, and thank you for inviting me to join you at today’s IPS-OnePeople.sg Forum on Ethnic Identity and Culture.
Introduction – A Work in Progress
1 I would like to begin by harking back to our history. Multiculturalism and meritocracy are the twin tenets upon which Singapore was founded. On 9 August 1965, our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew said “We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. This is not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore.” His vision and wisdom have since become Singapore’s cornerstone for nation-building. Multiculturalism and meritocracy are inextricably linked; we cannot have true multiculturalism unless everyone has a sense of fair play, and you cannot have true meritocracy unless opportunities are colour-blind.
2 Over the past five decades, we have given form and force to these values through our policies. Our bilingual policy enables Singaporeans to interact in English while remaining rooted to their cultures through their mother tongue languages. The GRC system ensures multi-racial representation in Singapore’s parliament. HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy has helped us avoid ethnic enclaves, which is a common phenomenon in many global cities. Our self-help groups focus on uplifting their respective communities, but they also rally together on cross-cultural issues such as education support and student care. So these policies and efforts, while not always popular, have collectively helped to build a robust system that demonstrates our firm commitment to the founding tenets, both in policy and in practice.
3 This system is even more crucial today, and I think this is evidenced by some of the more recent happenings that we see.
a. For instance, a few years ago, there was an attack on the offices of the French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, following its publication of offensive cartoons about Islam. Fortunately, in our context, we have strict laws against such actions that can foment hostility between different races and religions, allowing us to balance freedom of expression, with racial and religious dignity.
b. With the advent of social media, inflammatory content can be produced and spread at a moment’s notice. The infamous “curry incident”, where a YouTube video cast aspersions on the Chinese family involved, was viewed 9,000 times within three days.
c. At the same time, the immediacy and reach of social media can also be a force for good, helping to mobilise people to take a stance. In response to the same curry saga, active citizens successfully organised a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” initiative via Facebook, to encourage locals to share their favourite spicy dishes with foreigners and other Singaporeans.
4 While we can take pride in what Singapore has been able to accomplish as a multicultural nation, we cannot take it for granted nor presume that the work is complete.
a. Channel NewsAsia and the IPS conducted a thought-provoking survey on race relations in 2016. 96% of the respondents felt that people from all races should be treated equally, and 88% were of the view that having people of different races in Singapore was a good thing. However, 60% of respondents had heard racist comments, and over 40% of respondents held negative stereotypes about different races.
5 The survey’s findings show that our multiculturalism project is still a work in progress. Today, I want to share with you three ways in which we can build on and reinforce this important effort that we have undertaken as part of Singapore’s nation-building:
a. First, every individual must be able to cultivate a sense of belonging that transcends their ethnic identity, and develop a deep and genuine interest in Singaporeans of other ethnicities.
b. Second, at the societal level, we must encourage greater social interactions between different ethnic and cultural groups, so that people can naturally forge strong bonds regardless of the usual barriers of race, language, or religion.
c. Finally, on the global stage, we must signal our resolute commitment to upholding diversity, promoting tolerance and opposing discrimination, which takes on added significance given some of the rhetoric we hear around the world today.
Individual – Nurturing a Multi-Faceted Sense of Self
6 Let me begin by talking briefly about achieving a multicultural Singaporean identity and society and how that starts from within.
a. When it comes to the individual’s ability to hold both a strong ethnic and national identity, Singapore already seems to be doing relatively well. Last year, CNA and IPS collaborated on another study on ethnic identity in Singapore. It found that overall, 49% (the highest proportion) of respondents identified with both their ethnic and Singaporean identity simultaneously, compared to 35% identifying more with their national identity and 14% identifying more with their ethnic identity.
b. So, being a young nation with a strong Singaporean identity need not be at the expense of our deep ethnic and cultural roots. These are two important facets of our identity and they can, in fact, be symbiotic and draw strength from each other.
c. For example, Chinese/Malay/Indian-Singaporeans are proudly following their cultural practices and religious beliefs because we accommodate this. We cherish that in Singapore, but equally, they instinctively know that they have more in common with one another than with their cultural counterparts from China, India and the region.
7 However, our national identity would be incomplete if we do not have a keen understanding and appreciation of fellow Singaporeans who are culturally different to ourselves.
a. The same CNA-IPS survey found that while most of the respondents were interested in experiencing other ethnic cultures, ranging from trying their cuisine to learning their languages, there was a relatively lower level of actual inter-cultural exchange and engagement. Less than half of the respondents indicated that they often or always experienced or participated in other ethnic cultural events such as weddings and cultural celebrations.
b. This is quite telling because if you look at our context in Singapore, we have many opportunities to interact. In fact, we have designed for that, and that is why our policies to promote communication, understanding and social interaction between people of different racial and religious backgrounds remain as relevant and important as ever. We must ensure that Singaporeans are immersed in a diverse everyday environment, and remain curious about each other’s cultures.
8 While cross-cultural engagement is essential, I think we must also be prepared to take a stand against behaviour that is disrespectful to other cultures. And this is the responsibility of each and every one of us to stand up in the context in which we find ourselves, in order to defend what we believe to be of fundamental value.
Societal – Building Bridges for People to Cross
9 This brings me to the next aspect of creating a truly harmonious, multicultural Singapore by encouraging Singaporeans of diverse backgrounds to meet, interact, and forge mutual understanding or even lasting friendships. There are already some excellent initiatives and programmes for this purpose.
a. MCCY runs BRIDGE, or “Broadening Religious/ Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education”. It aims to build – as the name suggests -- bridges between different ethnic and cultural groups. This is done by developing content that fosters understanding of different racial and religious practices in a Singaporean context, providing safe spaces for frank discussions on sensitive issues, and supporting ground-up initiatives through MCCY’s Harmony Fund.
b. OnePeople.sg also introduced the CultureScope engagement programme, which makes use of narrative-driven learning journeys to deepen cross-cultural understanding among youths and educators. In partnership with MOE, OnePeople.sg has reached out to more than 1,500 educators and teachers through CultureScope over the last 2 years, organising visits to places such as the Silat Road Sikh Temple and Peranakan heritage space The Intan.
c. I am also heartened by several youth-led initiatives to take a stand against discrimination and promote interfaith and inter-racial understanding in Singapore. Noor Mastura is one of the founders of the Interfaith Youth Circle, or IYC, which aims to build strong links across religious communities, and give young people of different backgrounds a safe space to share their views. One of IYC’s most well-known programmes is SG Muslims for Eid, which allows guests, whether curious non-Muslims or Muslims without a place to celebrate, to visit the homes of generous Muslim hosts on the first day of Hari Raya. As we know, this is usually reserved for the closest relatives and friends and hosts opening up their homes on the first day has allowed guests to directly experience customs like going home to ask elders for forgiveness. The number of participants in SG Muslims for Eid has risen from 2015 to 2018, and I hear that Noor’s energetic team is looking forward to doing something similar for Christmas.
10 Noor started the IYC in 2014 after reading hateful online comments directed against Muslims on media reports of atrocities carried out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is a reminder that the Internet and technology can be unifying or divisive forces.
a. And that is why, in this regard, MCI has been working with other government agencies to combat online falsehoods that may threaten our social harmony. Also, earlier this year, we launched the Digital Readiness Blueprint to help Singaporeans navigate the online world confidently and safely. One of its key components is to strengthen Singapore’s focus on information and media literacy to build community resilience in the face of online falsehoods.
International – Showing the World what Singapore can do
11 In complement to these domestic initiatives, last November, we ratified ICERD, or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This Convention condemns discrimination based on race, colour, descent, nationality, or ethnic origin. Our ratification of ICERD is a tangible demonstration of our commitment to the global effort to promote diversity, and combat racism. Notably, ICERD also requires signatories to encourage groups, movements, and other means that eliminate barriers between races, and discourage racial division. I fully agree with this approach, as building trust between different groups in Singapore is an objective best served ultimately by ground-up initiatives.
12 Singapore has come a long way since independence in 1965 in strengthening the multi-racial fabric of our society. Our progress has been paved by the farsighted policies and efforts of our pioneers — our pioneer leaders and the pioneer generation of Singaporeans. It is incumbent that we continue their good work, by nurturing our individual identities, strengthening social interactions, and building more international linkages in this common effort.
13 I would like to conclude by thanking OnePeople.sg and IPS for contributing significantly to this effort through excellent community initiatives, and research work on intercultural relations. In particular, OnePeople.sg’s recent publication, “The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic: Many Cultures, One People”, meticulously documents the major cultures in Singapore and explores our various traditions, customs, and value systems. I am confident that this book will further enrich our understanding of the rich mosaic of our multicultural society and shared identity.
14 Thank you very much for joining us today, and I wish you a fruitful discussion on ethnic identity and intercultural relations.