Published: 18 September 2019
Your Excellency, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Chairman, Institute of South Asian Studies
Your Excellency, Mr Milinda Moragoda, Founder, Pathfinder Foundation; and former Cabinet Minister of Sri Lanka
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen
1. Thank you for inviting me to the 13th International Conference on South Asia. The theme of today’s conference is “Politics in a Changing South Asia”, and how technology is transforming this landscape. It is a timely discussion.
2. In many societies today, divisive discourse exacerbated by the internet and social media have become one of the most intractable challenges. Such discourse now traverses national boundaries with great ease. This has profound implications for politics everywhere.
3. Among the forces that can threaten societal cohesion, race and religion are probably the most potent. This morning, I would like to share my thoughts on Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious heritage, and what we are doing to moderate the risks that we observe elsewhere. It is my sincere hope that they provide useful references for your discussions today.
Celebration of our ties with South Asia as part of Singapore Bicentennial
4. As many of you know, this year is Singapore’s Bicentennial. Two hundred years ago, the British arrived and made it a free port.
5. But in fact, our history goes back much further. It did not only begin in 1819. The island had been inhabited since around the 13th century. But the arrival of Stamford Raffles marked a major turning point in Singapore’s engagement with the rest of the world. In the years that followed, many more people came. Along with this came the exchange of goods, international transport, communications connectivity and the infusion of different cultures into this small island.
6. Most of the people came in search of a better life. In the beginning, they were mainly sojourners looking forward to the day when they could finally return home for good. Eventually, many of them including those from South Asia, chose to settle here instead – as labourers, businessmen, professionals, civil servants. Over time, Singapore became their home and where their hearts belonged. They worked hard and contributed actively towards Singapore’s early development.
a. One such person was Naraina Pillai, who incidentally arrived in the same year as Raffles. He started work as a government clerk but later became an entrepreneur and community leader. He is credited with establishing Singapore’s first Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple, which still stands today on South Bridge Road.
b. Another pioneer was Hunmah Somapah, a prominent landowner who lobbied the colonial government of his time to make Deepavali – the Hindu Festival of Light – a public holiday in Singapore. He also started a scheme to provide free cooked meals for the poor at the Sri Krishna Temple.
c. In the turbulent years after World War II, one young man who had been born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, helped to change the course of our history. S Rajaratnam was a prominent journalist when he co-founded the People’s Action Party with Lee Kuan Yew and several others. Together, they led Singapore towards self-government and eventual independence. Rajaratnam became our first foreign minister. To him, we also owe the formation of ASEAN and our National Pledge.
Maintaining our multi-cultural and multi-religious society
7. Just as the Bicentennial has brought renewed interest in the contributions of different communities to Singapore over the last 200 years, it has also sparked deeper reflection on our journey from “Singapore to Singaporean”. In fact, Rajaratnam gave one of the most profound answers to this important question. I don’t think at the time that he said this he was thinking about the journey from “Singapore to Singaporean”. But if we were to look back and say, “what are the answers to this question?”, “what did it take for us to get from “Singapore to Singaporean?”, then I think one must agree that Rajaratnam gave one of the most profound answers, because he declared, “Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is a matter of conviction and choice.”
8. Rajaratnam may have also been just expressing his own opinion. But as one of our founding fathers, his words carry weight for us even today. For the PAP government, our conviction and choice must always be multiculturalism, to represent everyone who chooses to call themselves Singaporean, regardless of background.
9. This is a country where every language, culture and religion has its place. In terms of ethnicity, Singapore is becoming more diverse, even though Malays, Indians and Chinese still make up more than 95% of our population. According to a Pew Research Center report, Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world. You can see this at our major events, where the Inter-Religious Organisation that gathers to pray comprises representatives from 10 religions. Regardless of our differences, every Singaporean knows that we want to be “one people, one nation, one Singapore.”
10. It would, however, be naïve to believe that the state of communal harmony we enjoy today is self-sustaining. It had never been so.
11. In the 1800s, to manage the growing disorderliness in our multi-racial society, the British implemented a policy of ethnic residential areas. The European town comprised European traders and Eurasians; present-day Chinatown and the south-eastern part of Singapore housed the coolies who had arrived from various parts of southern China; Indians were located in Chulia Kampong, and Malays resided in Kampong Glam. Immigrants identified primarily with their own communities and not with the other inhabitants of our island.
12. From the early 1900s, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the colonial administration and a growing sense of national identity. But I say national very carefully, because at that time, it was not such a clear concept of Singapore as a nation. But there was a certain identity that was emerging. Even so, the different races were confronted with the dilemma of identifying with their original homelands, or with their new home in Singapore. There were also debates on whether all races had a rightful claim on Singapore, and were able to call this land their home.1
13. Such divisions did not go away even as we struggled for self-government. In fact, they were played up at different times in the 1950s and 60s, leading to communal riots. Though we have not experienced such incidents in recent years, older Singaporeans can still remember the calamity that follow when racial and religious fervour become inflamed.
14. This is why the Singapore Government does not take racial and religious harmony for granted. Multiculturalism is not a state of nature. Instead, it takes unstinting commitment and deliberate interventions to create and to maintain. For example,
a. Our policies on urban planning and public housing ensure that we have inclusive neighbourhoods.
i. The Ethnic Integration Policy ensures diversity of races down to every block of flats in public housing estates, in which more than 80% of Singaporeans live. As a result, no Singaporean goes home to a racial enclave.
ii. As children tend to attend schools near their homes, this policy also ensures that all Singaporeans interact with fellow citizens of other races from a young age and feel no discomfort with one another. In fact the boys in particular, when they serve national service later in life, actually sleep in the same quarters, fight together, train together, and also learn how to fulfil mission critical objectives together.
b. We teach English as a common language, so that different racial groups can communicate effectively with one another. While each racial group continues to study its own mother tongue, a common language promotes inter-racial understanding.
c. Schools organise activities to celebrate the different racial and religious festivals, as well as a designated Racial Harmony Day, which allows students to gain an appreciation of the cultures of other races and religions. Of course when the children are supposed to join in, partake in the Racial Harmony Day activities, they also ask their parents if they have something for them to wear that will spark interest among their friends. That therefore transmits also to the parents that they gain a consciousness that they have to mark this important occasion to do something together.
d. More recently, within neighbourhoods, we set up the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), which comprise leaders from local religious and ethnic organisations and the community. These IRCCs help to bridge the differences among the diverse groups, and deepen each other’s understanding of various faiths, beliefs and practices.
The increasingly uncertain, divided and digital world that we live in
15. As a young nation, it would be wise for Singapore to treat our communal harmony as a delicate sapling, still needing care and nourishment in order to blossom and at the same time, to sink deeper roots. Without such efforts, we cannot prevent racial and religious tensions from rearing their ugly heads, and eventually seeping into our politics.
16. This is why we do not take lightly recent developments around the world. In particular, the resurgence of identity politics and divisive sentiments along racial and religious lines is deeply troubling.
17. While the internet and social media have opened up great opportunities for economic growth and development, they are also easily exploited as instruments to sharpen divisions in society. Social media has enabled misinformation to spread rapidly and widely, resulting in greater polarisation along our social fault lines. A 2016 Pew Research Center report showed that about half of internet users in the U.S. find political discussions on social media to be less respectful, less likely to be resolved, less civil and angrier than other places where they talk about politics.2 These are the kinds of data from 2016, if you fast forward to 2017, has it gone away? I think anecdotal evidence suggest that in fact the situation has worsened.
18. Such polarisation has erupted into the carnage of violent extremism in the real world. For example:
a. In March this year, a white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday prayers, killing 51 people. Of all places, Christchurch, one of the most peaceful cities you can think about. It was later revealed that his activity on social media and online message boards had allowed him to connect and interact with others who shared similar extremist beliefs. He also live-streamed his attack, accompanied by a manifesto, to further spread his brand of hate and violence online.
b. Just last month, another mass shooting occurred in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people. Similarly, the shooter posted a manifesto on an online message board just before the shooting, in which he expressed support for the Christchurch shooter’s actions and manifesto.
Implications for Singapore
19. Divisive views also surface in Singapore from time to time. For example,
a. In 2015, there was a teenager then called Amos Yee who posted a video, full of expletives, which contained derogatory and offensive remarks against Christianity.
b. More recently, in January this year, another person by the name of Chen Jianbang scrawled racially-charged and vulgar phrases on walls and in the sheltered walkways near Aljunied MRT and other areas in Geylang, which as we all know is a place frequented by members of our Malay community.
20. In both these cases, as well as many other similar ones, the Government decided to act quickly. We had to make clear that these actions were unacceptable, and initiated criminal investigations against the perpetrators.
a. Amos Yee was eventually charged for wounding religious feelings and publishing an obscene image, and given a four-week jail sentence.
b. Chen Jianbang was charged with vandalism and for wounding racial feelings, and given a 13-months’ jail sentence and 9 strokes of the cane.
21. Community and religious leaders, as well as ordinary Singaporeans, also denounced their actions and affirmed the importance of respecting all races and religions in Singapore.
22. These reactions demonstrate the seriousness with which we, as a society, treat our racial and religious harmony.
23. I must however make clear that the Government does not seek to suppress discussion and debate on race and religion. On the contrary, we do not pretend that race and religion no longer matter. But the discourse must be conducted with mutual respect for each other, and in ways that are sensitive to each other’s feelings. These principles must underpin all such engagements.
24. At the same time, we must safeguard our status as a secular democracy. Singapore upholds the separation of religion and state. This means that the government, in policy and in law, does not favour or endorse one religion over another. Likewise, religion does not influence government decisions.
Preparing for disharmony in the digital age
25. This does not mean the Government has no role in the matter of religion. Government plays a major role in ensuring that there are common spaces where people of all religions can interact and communicate equally, without the denigration of other religions, which could foment distrust, hatred and violence against other religions.
26. To preserve these principles, we regularly update our laws.
27. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) tabled amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, or MRHA, in Parliament.
28. The MRHA plays a key role in providing clear standards of behaviour to maintain religious harmony, so that such common spaces are protected.
29. I won’t go into the full details of the MRHA amendments here, but I thought it would be useful to just highlight one key change to keep it relevant in the digital age.
a. The MRHA allows Government to issue a Restraining Order on anyone that threatens religious harmony. Currently, it requires a 14-day notice period to be given.
b. This provision was not an impediment to timely response 30 years ago when the MRHA was first enacted.
c. However, in present times, the battles to counter hate and violent extremism on cyberspace are won or lost in minutes and seconds. 14 days in the physical world is a century in the cyber-world.
d. One of the key changes is therefore to allow Restraining Orders to take immediate effect once they are issued.
30. Each country’s experience and context in dealing with the divisive discourse in our digital age are unique. In Singapore, we have sought to create safe and diverse physical spaces from the start, through social and education policies.
31. As we enter the digital age, we recognise that we must also protect digital spaces, so that differences can be openly discussed and accommodated, and divisive rhetoric and sentiments do not grow to the point of tearing our society apart. We have done this by updating our legislation to ensure that our digital spaces can be safe and diverse as well.
32. I am aware that, given the uniqueness of our circumstances, Singapore’s methods cannot be wholly replicated elsewhere. But still, I hope that our experience can be a useful reference point for the discussions today.
33. Let me end by saying that the inter-connectedness of our world demands that we think and work collaboratively across borders. It used to be physical borders, but more and more, we must strive to connect across the borders of our cultures, our beliefs and our minds.
34. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”. Let this be a call for all of us to act in a collaborative way today, to build a future that remains connected, and that is respectful of all peoples and cultures. I wish you success in this endeavour. Thank you.
 Looking back at 700 years of Singapore” by Tan Tai Yong as published on nlb.gov.sg.
 As quoted in “How Platforms Are Poisoning Conversations” by Maeve Duggan published on theatlantic.com on 11 May 2017.