In a live interview with radio station CNA938 yesterday (June 10), Home Secretary and Justice Minister K. Shanmugam spoke about the recent incidents of racial baiting in Singapore.
Last Saturday, a polytechnic lecturer confronted a multiracial couple on Orchard Road, saying that Indian men should not "exploit Chinese girls."
A film recording of the encounter was posted on Facebook and has since gone viral. His former students have also come forward to share their reports of racist remarks and anti-Islamic comments from the now-suspended lecturer in class.
Photo credit: Livanesh Ramu via Facebook
Recently, Facebook user Livanesh Ramu published a clip on Wednesday in which a man performs a Hindu prayer ritual in front of the door of his house, while in the background a woman who appears to be Chinese repeatedly strikes a gong in what appears to be a spiteful counter-speech.
In addition, a woman named Catherine Beow Tan – also known as the "Hwa Chong" woman – has made headlines for making racist statements against fellow commuters on the MRT train.
It later emerged that she also had her own YouTube channel that perpetuates racism and harassment, which has since been discontinued.
Minister Shanmugam said it was "not entirely surprising" to see this rising trend in racist incidents. He later admitted that there will always be some level of racism in the community that is inevitable for any multiracial society. He noted that Singapore's leaders have always recognized the existence of racism here, which operates in three ways: deep racial distortions, overt racism and racial preferences.
"When you have preferences and you bring them out in public and express them and make them the norm for others, then I think that crosses the line," he said.
“You should exclaim (racism), you should frown, and you should take action if they break the law. Because it is carcinogenic, it divides and undermines the values of our society. "
Racial harmony has made great strides, but are we going backwards?
He pointed out that many government policies are based on the existence of racial preferences and racism in Singapore.
"The question is how do we weaken this to ensure that the achievement society works and that people of all races have fair opportunities?" He emphasized.
While there is indeed racism here, he believes Singapore's racial harmony is definitely not on a knife's edge.
We have made tremendous progress, there is racial harmony (and) most people accept the norms of a multiracial society. The direction was positive, but I put a question mark (after) the recent events: Are we threatening a step backwards? It's a direction that worries me. "
– Minister K. Shanmugam
He added that while racism exists here or in any multiracial society, the frameworks and processes that have been put in place have helped protect racial and religious harmony.
"We're pretty strict in Singapore and the law is pretty tight, but you can't always see the law as the solution to every situation."
“The legal framework is part of it, but government and society have to work hard to keep harmony. You can't bring about racial harmony and tolerance as acceptance just by having laws and enforcing them. ”So while laws are important in setting the framework and foundation, we need to do a lot more and go beyond racial harmony.
Everyone must do their part to maintain racial harmony
Image source: Singapore Policy Journal
The government undoubtedly plays an important role in maintaining the racial and religious harmony that is a cornerstone in Singapore.
Minister Shanmugam stressed, however, that society as a whole – people and even institutions – also play a crucial role.
There is no subtraction for Singaporeans to say that I am Indian, Chinese or Malay. … In addition (sub-identities) we are also Singaporeans and that is a common identity. We need to emphasize this common identity, even if we recognize (and accept) our individual identity.
We need a shared vision to build a system based on justice, equality and efficiency, in which everyone can feel equal and protected. The government plays a huge role in formulating this vision.
– Minister K. Shanmugam
He went on to give examples of how some Singaporeans tend to react to racist incidents with their own racist remarks, which he considers ironic behavior.
The government is keen to raise awareness of such behaviors because if not addressed the next turn of the page may limit the government's ability to take action.
"The rule of law means that the law applies to everyone – majority and minority – alike," he said.
“Did we apply the law fairly? Do people think we are applying the law fairly across all races? Are everyone protected? If they believe that, people will say I accept the work of the law. "
While it appears that racism is on the rise, it is important to understand that this has always happened, except that social media has now helped shed more light on these matters.
"We shouldn't think this is new," said Minister Shanmugam.
Racial harmony has progressed, but it is also a work-in-progress
Singapore has always been regarded as an exemplary model when it comes to racial and religious harmony.
"There is racism in Singapore, but we are a better society than most of the other multiracial societies I know," said Minister Shanmugam, outlining the fact that our model has worked better than most.
However, our state of racial harmony is not natural and requires constant attention and care, otherwise we risk losing what we have achieved so far.
Singapore once suffered from race riots sparked in 1964 by deep political and economic differences, tensions that contributed to the decision to separate from Malaysia in 1965.
In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, the government has anchored multiracism in its main national policies, which has helped to build a fairly harmonious society.
For example, the government has introduced guidelines based on the CMIO framework, such as the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and the cautious presidential election, which ensures the representation of minorities.
There is also the Ethnic Integration Policy, a program adopted in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of ethnic groups in HDB stands.
However, some naysayers have criticized the government for taking race into account in developing our electoral system or the elected presidency.
They claim that by doing this the government is underscoring the racial differences. In a June 6, 2021 Facebook post, Howard Lee argued that such "guidelines play (a role) in exacerbating racism".
For example, Teo Soh Lung, a former member of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), mentioned in a separate Facebook post that the HDB's ethnic quota was "discriminatory".
In a 2015 BBC interview broadcast, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke at length about ethnic integration policy. He described it as "the most intrusive social policy in Singapore", but also considers it the most important.
Image source: 99.co
Once people of different ethnic groups live together, they don't just walk down the corridors and take the same elevator, he explained. "The children go to the same kindergarten, the children go to the same elementary school, because all over the world young children go to school very close to where they live and grow up together."
As such, the EIP has helped maintain racial and social harmony in Singapore by providing opportunities for social intermingling among Singaporeans of different races.
Regarding the reservation of the elected presidency for minority candidates, critics say this policy violates Singapore's meritocratic values. In fact, hundreds protested in Hong Lim Park days after the first election – which was reserved for the Malays – and saw Madam Halimah Yacob sworn in as President on September 14, 2017.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the issue as an example of how Singapore is proactively strengthening the institutions that support its multiracial and multireligious society.
He stated that it would be more difficult for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected president through a national vote. “How would the minorities feel if the President of Singapore was almost always Chinese, year after year? In the long term, such a scenario would stir up deep misfortune and undermine the fundamental values of our nation. "
He went on to say that the move gives ethnic minority groups the assurance that their place in society will always be respected.
We simply cannot deny that so much has been done to protect our national cohesion, and we should not allow racist incidents, in which Singaporeans measure themselves against another Singaporean, to shake our faith.
When such racist incidents arise, most Singaporeans are quick to judge and leave a hasty comment on the person (s) concerned. Such a negative online discourse elicits more negative reactions and does not bear fruit.
Instead, we need to make concrete suggestions on how to improve race harmony in Singapore to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
Multiracism is not yet perfect and we need to take pragmatic steps to gradually get there. It's important to note that the government is always open to feedback and alternative policies – that's what parliaments are for.
If we are to continue to live in harmony, we must handle racial and religious issues carefully and not leave them to chance. It is also important that we recognize the persistence of racism on an individual level and work hard to combat it.
Ultimately, every single generation must do its part to maintain racial harmony, and it is an ongoing work for us to find this important balance.
Photo credit for selected images: Bloomberg