IPS 35th Anniversary Conference Panel 3: Revisiting Pluralism - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 12 June 2023

1.   I have been asked to speak on pluralism.

2.   For me, at its core, this is about social cohesion.

3.   If you look at the Oxford dictionary, it defines pluralism as “the existence of many different groups of people in one society”.

4.   And that is a key part, a key basis, in the way our own society is organised. It is a melting pot – of people of different races, religions, languages, and cultures.

5.   Around the world, that concept is being increasingly challenged by the rise of identity politics and populism. 

6.   If you look at it, why is pluralism critical for Singapore?

7.   The operating framework for the survival of our nation was premised on a strong security framework that includes one, defence; two, a strong economy; and three, social cohesion.

8.   So, if you go back to 1965 – we had about 1.9 million people, about 580 square km of land. Without security or defence, we would not have survived as a country. Without a viable economy, there would have been no investments, no jobs. We would not have been able to feed our people. We would have had to go back to Malaysia, which is what Malaysia expected. And without social cohesion, the idea of a united society and national identity would have been untenable.

9.   A lot of people didn’t expect us to survive.

10.   That was the prognosis in 1965. No resources, low levels of education, no national identity, no self-defence force.

11.   Now, contrast that with where we are today.

12.   And really, I think it is useful to see the contrast, to look at some of the outcomes of governance.

13.   Today, the GDP is about US$400 billion, citizen population of 3.6 million and land area of 728 square km. Singapore is the second smallest in terms of population size in our region. Our GDP is higher than that of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar. It is only behind Indonesia and Thailand. Now, this is quite incredible because there is no reason why it should be higher than the Philippines, with its population of 112 million; or Vietnam, with almost 100 million; or Malaysia, with 33 million. It is, actually, quite incredible.

14.   When you look at GDP and land area, if you look at Malaysia – about 330,000 square kilometres. It has got everything that you can think of, 30 odd million population, but also every resource that you can think of. Likewise, the Philippines; likewise Vietnam. Malaysia has timber, got palm oil, and more people. Why is our economy bigger than that of Malaysia’s? Or that of Vietnam? I think there is one key, which is a combination of governance, a population that is hardworking and able to access science and technology, and a high-quality education system.

15.   And if you look at specific developments – human development. The World Bank's Human Capital Index ranks us first out of 157 countries. So, if you are a child and you want to be born, and you want to find a place where you have got the best potential, to maximise your potential, Singapore is the place to be born in.

16.   And if you look at our outcomes in education – PISA scores, we are number two. We used to be number one. You don't take your best students, you take the average students in average schools, and then you test them. After a while, China decided that their average students all came from Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, in specific schools. And therefore, we became number two. What you really want is to spend the least and have the best outcomes, and you can see that we actually achieve that. So, the Government is relatively stingy, compared with other governments. We spend less than Japan, we spend less than Hong Kong, and we certainly spend less than Finland. But in terms of outcomes, we do better than all of them.

17.   If you look at health, it is even more stark. If you look at where we are in terms of spending, yet we are second only to Japan in terms of outcomes. We have the longest life expectancy at 84.9 years, longest span of living in good health at 73.9, and we are the eighth healthiest country in the world.

18.   All of this is only possible because of a combination of stability, rule of law, an educated and skilled workforce, and most importantly, underpinning it all, is the unity that we have been able to achieve in Singapore.

19.   Other countries have natural resources, they have big markets. They don’t usually ask existential questions as to whether they will exist in 30 years, 40 years and so on.

20.   For us, if we are fragmented and disunited, if we lose our core of pluralism and coexistence, if our society is not stable, then that does raise existential questions.

21.   In the time available, I will only talk about one type of pluralism, and that is race.

22.   But you can apply the same to other issues like religion, politics, and so on.

Racial Pluralism

23.   On race, from the beginning, we firmly held to the principle that all races should be treated equally, and that is what got us kicked out of Malaysia.

24.   On the very first day of our independence, 9 August 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously declared, “We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place, equal”.

25.   There were, and there are, significant racial and religious differences.

26.   But over the years, we accepted those differences, and we built a national identity through our laws and policies.

27.   Let me explain.

Institutions to Protect Minorities

28.   From the beginning, we built institutions to protect minority interests.

29.   For example, the Constitution imposes a responsibility on the Government for the caring of the interests of racial and religious minorities in Singapore.

30.   It also acknowledges the special position of Malays as the indigenous people of Singapore, and the Government has to protect their interests.

31.   Another example is the Presential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR). It was set up in 1970, and specifically charged with scrutinising laws passed by Parliament, to see if they infringe the rights of minorities. The Chief Justice chairs that, and the Law Minister and the Attorney-General are members.

Policies to Promote Racial Harmony

32.   Second, we put in place policies to promote racial harmony, and encourage social interaction across the races.

33.   I want to touch on one policy by contrasting it with the United States (US).

34.   Because of their history and policies, in the US, you had racial segregation by neighbourhoods. This also then limited, in effect, which schools African American communities could send their children to.

35.   Now, we try and avoid this in Singapore –probably uniquely amongst any country. We intervene in our public housing estates to prevent segregation by races.

36.   By the 1980s, we were seeing clear signs that ethnic enclaves were emerging across Singapore. If you look at Ang Mo Kio, Hougang, Upper Serangoon, Beach Road, Tanjong Pagar – Chinese. Bedok, Tampines, Marine Parade, Eunos, Geylang, Ayer Rajah, Teban Gardens – Malays. Indians in Yishun and Serangoon Road; and Eurasians in Katong.

37.   The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989, to ensure that there was a mix of different races, a certain minimum number, in each housing estate.

38.   So, within our estates, and therefore it feeds off into our schools, we ensure a mix of races.

39.   If we did not do that, ethnic enclaves would have started to form in Singapore.

40.   Even last year, with all our policies, nearly one-third of all HDB blocks in Singapore, and 10 per cent of our neighbourhoods, reached the EIP limits. This means that the racial concentrations had reached a point where they were going to be higher than our threshold limits, and these threshold limits already have some buffer built in.

41.   That is with the EIP already in place. If we didn’t have the EIP, the enclaves would have become more pronounced.

42.   Of course, the side effect of the EIP is that over time, when people want to sell, if you are a minority and you have reached the maximum number of Malays or Indians or Chinese, you can only sell to another person of your own race.

43.   But for the minorities, because it is a smaller demand pool, you might take longer to sell, or there might be pressure on the price.

44.   This issue affects only thankfully a small number of resale applications. Last year, 1.5% of all resale applications involved EIP appeals.

45.   People appealed, and, for this group, HDB exercises flexibility on a case-by-case basis, giving them more time to sell, and sometimes, in very exceptional cases, waives EIP limits. Or HDB buys back the units directly, for those who have genuine difficulties selling their flat.

46.   In 2022, almost one-third of EIP-related appeals were successful.

47.   Our approach – rather than do away with the entire policy, which keeps Singapore cohesive, we exercise flexibility in a targeted way, to deal with the effects directly, for the small number who are affected. There is a word that the economists use – they say our government is very dirigiste. I think it means it's very interventionist. But I think there are some advantages to having an interventionist approach in these things.

Laws Against Inflammatory Speech

48.   Third, we have put in place laws against hate speech, racially incendiary comments, and inciting violence against other groups.

49.   These laws apply equally to all.

50.   For example, these are examples in recent years, of people whom we took action against. A Chinese who wrote down in an MRT station about Malays to die and various other things. A Malay who pretended to be a Chinese woman who said nasty things about Indians. The Polytechnic lecturer whose rant went viral. Our approach to these things – we take action.

51.   This is in sharp contrast with other countries. For example, in the US, you can burn the Quran or any Holy Book in the name of free speech, because their approach is to have a very high tolerance for free speech. For us, we think that if you burn the Quran or the Bible or any of the holy books, some people will get very upset. We see no reason to allow free speech to get to the extent where you have to put down or denigrate someone else's race or religion, and we will not allow it.

52.   Another example. In France, you can put out these sorts of cartoons against the Holy Trinity, the Pope, and the Prophet.

53.   Again, we will not allow inflammatory comments that attack other races, religions.

54.   And we are further updating our laws.

55.   In February this year, the Ministry of Manpower enhanced the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TGFEP), to guide employers and employees on how to be sensitive in the workplace. For example, discrimination along racial lines is prohibited.

56.   My Ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs, will also be introducing the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act, to better protect racial harmony, and to signal the importance of racial harmony in Singapore.

Current Challenges, Our Race-Sensitive Approach

57.   If you look at current challenges, we are still a work in progress.

58.   No society can claim that it is free from racism, and I think if you claim that, you wouldn’t be telling the truth.

59.   But the reality is that we don’t paper over our differences, we don’t adopt what some places call a “race-blind” approach. We don’t think that we should ignore race – that will not solve our problems. So, we take a race sensitive approach.

60.   The Government manages race-related issues, to ensure that racial minorities are not disadvantaged.

61.   That is why English is our working language, the language in schools, the language of business.

62.   When we gained independence, some Chinese businessmen went to Mr Lee, to ask him, now that we are independent, to make Mandarin the main language.

63.   Mr Lee said no. He told them that if we did this, our races would get into conflict, our minorities will feel disadvantaged, and Singapore would fall apart.

64.   So, we deliberately recognised English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as official languages, and made English our working language – a common language across the races.

65.   And our starting point has to be to accept that racism is innate in human beings, and racism, therefore, is present in Singapore – like in any society.

66.   But we need to work hard, to make sure that it is not institutionalised.

67.   And if you ask, are there advantages to being in the majority in Singapore?

68.   That is obvious and undeniable. Anyone who denies that is not being objective.

69.   If you are Chinese in Singapore, you have an advantage because you are part of the majority race.

70.   And we cannot deny that there is casual racism, some prejudice in Singapore – like in any society.

71.   But the key is that we, I think, deal with it better than most places. And like I said, we’ve tried to make sure it is not part of institutions, it is not institutionalised.

72.   And in fact, our laws, our structures, systems, and institutions like the PCMR that I spoke about, these are all institutions that are set up, and we work hard to deal with this.


73.   In the interest of time, I only spoke about race today.

74.   But as I said, these principles – of being aware of differences, acknowledging them head on, and then dealing proactively with them, rather than to paper over them – has be applied to other issues too.

75.   Pluralism, multiculturalism, is a foundational block of Singapore’s success, painstakingly forged by our founding fathers and the generations since.

76.   But it can easily change, as you see in many parts of the world, if we do not manage this carefully and constantly attend to it, and make sure our legal framework is there.

77.   But the legal framework can only do so much. It can say what people cannot do. It can’t make you like each other. That has got to be through societal efforts, and the Government has a big role to play, in all our housing estates. And a lot is done, to bring all races together, to have activities to help increase mutual understanding, and build our grassroots organisations and civil society organisations, to have genuine empathy and understanding for the different races and to accept each other. That's a very key part. That's when people develop the strong bonds across their differences. Once you have that, then the small minority who transgress, you can take action with your tough laws. But if you think of laws as your solution for these fundamental social issues, and a lot of people are used to transgressing them, then you wouldn't be able to apply the laws.

78.   The laws work in Singapore. We are able to charge those people that I gave you examples of, because they are in the extreme, tiny minority. If that's a majority behaviour, we wouldn't be able to enforce. So those my few comments on this.

79.   Thank you very much.