Common Senses for Common Spaces Dialogue - Speech by Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment

Published: 08 August 2021

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Chairman of Humanity Matters

Esteemed Faith Leaders

Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends


1.   First of all, I would like to thank the panellists, for sharing their thoughts. And, not only the panellists, but the audience also. Many faith leaders have shared their views and their thoughts on many issues beyond the holy smoke.

2.   Singapore, as you know, we are a densely populated island, city state, country. In fact, we are the third most densely populated country in the world, just after Monaco and I think Macau. As a result of this, we can imagine that whatever we do in our community sometimes will have an impact on other communities, especially our religious practices, and we hear of many examples and many of these cultural rituals that are performed in our densely populated society. As a result, I think there are also very sensitive topics that sometimes, it may not be easy for us to talk about. But it is also important for us to bring it up in a setting like this, so that we can learn, and we can understand each other a little better.

Singapore's Social Fabric and Fault Lines

3.   In Singapore, we have decided since independence to adopt a multicultural, multiracial, multireligious society. That is our decision. From the day we achieved independence, those were the core values of our independence. And the result of that, is that, yes diversity, multiculturalism is a strength. In fact, it is a huge strength for us.

4.   Just look at it. Today we can practise our own faiths. That defines us. We can speak different languages. We walk into the hawker centre, and we have a wide range of food from roti prata to satay to chicken rice and nasi lemak – all kinds of foods that were brought to the shores from a diverse community around the world. That is a strength in itself and that is something that has defined us as Singaporean, that is something that we value and cherish, and that is something that we want to continue to build.

5.   But at the same time, a diverse society also means that there will be occasional tension and even conflict that can arise.

6.   From the early days, I am sure those who were perhaps not my generation, but even earlier than my generation, would have experienced the blood that was shed, the injuries that were incurred, the lives that were lost, as a result of some of this tension and conflict that arose from racial riots in our early days. So, that is the price that we pay at the very start of our independence. And we must not forget that because it is part of our history, it is part of the reason why multiculturalism and multiracialism is so important to us.

7.   We are much better today. According to the 2019 Gallup World Poll, 95% of the respondents in Singapore reported that Singapore was “a good place to live” for racial and ethnic minorities. The global average was about 70%. So, we are much better. In fact, we were ranked first among the 124 countries that were polled for this question.

8.   But we know that this state of affairs is not static, it is not permanent, and it is not perfect. In fact, I doubt any society would call themselves perfect, for it is almost human nature for us to be comfortable to be with people who are like us, and we are less comfortable to be with people who are unlike us because human beings, instinctively, we are tribal, to some extent.

9.   Last month, Parliament debated on the topic called the “Unending Project of Building Racial Harmony in Singapore”. Minister Edwin Tong quite aptly said that “There is nothing natural or pre-ordained for racial harmony.” It took a lot of hard work and sacrifices from different communities, from leaders, from practitioners, from people in the community to make it work. So, if you do not continue to exercise this care and attention, I think the good work that we have achieved can actually be quickly lost.

Social Cohesion - A Collective Effort

10.   Now, so what do we have to do as a society? How do we continue to maintain this? I would say that trust and cohesion across communities take time and effort to build up and maintain, and it must be a joint effort that can only be achieved with all levels of our society.

Government – Legislations and Policies

11.   The government must do our part, and that’s where we have firm and clear legislation in terms of our laws, to set the foundation, as well as the parameters, to define where our actions, our perspectives, our behaviours, mustn’t cross those lines. So, the laws are there to protect, to make sure we don’t allow any form of racial or religious hate speeches, or anybody who tries to agitate or foment racial or religious discord. Our laws are clear and firm, and they are designed to also deal fairly with all communities.

12.   But I think it’s more than just law. I believe that the law provides the boundary, and the solid foundation for us to interact with each other, and to know where not to cross the line.

Individual-Level – Dialogue and Action

13.   More fundamentally and importantly, it comes down to the individual, our community and our families, as many of the esteemed leaders have also mentioned.  

14.   It comes down to the individual, how we approach the different race and ethnicity and religious issues in our community. How do we respond to racist incidents or insensitive acts as we have witnessed in the last few months? How do we respond to those incidents? We are not a race- or religion- blind society – or rather, not yet, at least – which means such incidents can still happen every now and then, from time to time.

15.   Often our immediate reaction will be, you know, maybe we’ll get angry, or we try to respond with our personal, very emotive reactions, and maybe even try to go head on with the other party, to try to confront, or try to correct it. Yes, racist and insensitive acts should be condemned, and authorities will step in for egregious ones. But let us not counter racism with more racism, or extremism with more extremism, because this will only lead to a greater divide among our people and communities.

16.   Instead, we should try our best to bridge the divide by fostering greater understanding. Some of us may recall a couple of years ago where there was an incident of a young lady, who is also a social media influencer. When she was attending the Grand Prix event, she was blocked by two men who were wearing turbans at the Grand Prix event. She posted that online, and of course, she received a lot of criticism online as well, as a result. And from that incident, you could imagine those from the Sikh community could be angry because of her racial insensitivity.

17.   But rather than adding on to the heated criticisms, the Young Sikh Association chose instead to reach out to the young influencer, the lady. They invited her to a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, and helped in the community kitchen. They showed her the principal scripture of Sikhism. They took the opportunity to engage her, to bring her on board, to educate her, and to raise her awareness and understanding of their religion and practices. And of course, she in turn learned from it, was sincere about it, she apologised and she said that she learned a lot more about the Sikh practices. So, there is really a lot we can learn from this one incident, on how individually we can play our part to respond when we encounter or experience certain acts.

18.   But beyond action, beyond how we respond, I think we also agree that there is an important need for us to have more of these kinds of dialogues and conversations to create awareness, and this is where I thank Humanity Matters for continuing to champion this “Common Senses for Common Spaces” dialogue platform as a safe space for us to come together to see not just the similarities, but also commonalities amidst the differences. You know, they say it’s different, but also same-same. So, how we use different senses, different cultural, ritual practices, actually, there are a lot of commonalities, but more importantly, learning to appreciate why certain things are done in a certain manner. So, we want to thank Hassan Ahmad, who has been quite instrumental as Special Advisor for Humanity Matters, for continuing to join this effort as a platform to foster stronger cohesion and social harmony.

19.   Through constructive dialogue, we will realise that across different races and different groups, while there are different practices which we talked about just now, these practices have a certain origin and certain purpose, and we shouldn’t jump too quick to conclusions about why they are done in certain ways, but try to understand and appreciate them.

20.   And, dialogue alone may not be enough. We, after all, have to translate them into action. So, reaching out to each other, communicating, participating in community activities in your neighbourhood, I think these are personal efforts that can help, for us to foster stronger racial harmony.

Community Partners – Mobilisers to Amplify Social Cohesion 

21.   Most of us here would be familiar with the SGSecure movement.

22.   At the core of the SGSecure movement, it is about how to prepare our community in the event of a terrorist attack. And we do recognise whether it is a religious or non-religious terrorist act. It is very important, as a small society in Singapore, that we continue to stay strong, stay united, and to stay resilient as a society.

23.   I just want to say a very big thank you to all of you. All of you sitting here today are religious leaders, business leaders, community leaders or academic experts. Regardless of your field or influences or networks, you bring to the table important resources and important ideas and contributions to the whole SGSecure. I would like to encourage all of us to continue to support this movement and to continue to support our national effort to promote racial and religious harmony in Singapore.


24.   In closing, building a more cohesive, united and resilient Singapore is a collective effort. It will always be work in progress, and we will continuously strive to do better. 

25.   As we celebrate National Day tomorrow, let us celebrate our achievements, and continue to find strength in our diversity. This is the Singapore way of life that we must continue to build, continue to cherish, and continue to safeguard.

26.   Thank you very much and Happy National Day.