Published: 04 September 2021
Ambassador Ong Keng Yong,
Chairman, Humanity Matters,
Justice Chao Hick Tin,
Chairman, Presidential Council for Religious Harmony,
Mr Benedict Cheong,
Chief Executive, Temasek Foundation International,
Participants of this SG CORE Pilot Programme,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Good morning to all of you.
2. It’s a privilege to be with you here today for this launch of the SG CORE Pilot Programme.
3. What’s the aim of this Programme? It aims to strengthen the Singapore spirit, engage about 400 adult and youth participants over the year intensively, through programs that emphasize our multiculturalism and commonalities.
4. In line with the theme of this programme, I will speak about racial harmony. This has received some attention recently.
5. Racial harmony for us is at the core of our Singaporean identity.
Race Relations Are Shaped by Historical Context
6. Race relations in any country are shaped by historical experiences.
7. We can refer to any number of examples. I’ll refer to the US. Racial inequality was a part of its early history.
8. You had slavery, government-mandated segregation of cities, poll taxes that disenfranchised African American voters, segregation in schools, and much more.
9. What’s referred to as the Jim Crow laws, they existed for more than 100 years, and extended to all aspects of life. And the result was racial segregation in housing, medical care, employment, transportation, education.
10. This long history of racial inequality then has had very long arms and reaches out to the present day, even though the laws have gone.
11. African American communities have been impacted in education, economic status, employment, health, amongst other things.
12. These historical policies, events and practices created and perpetuated racism.
13. So, it shows how history impacts the present.
14. In this context, useful also to look at our own historical experience in Singapore.
15. Before our independence in 1965, the major ethnic communities concentrated in, lived, worked, in separate identified communal areas. This was thought useful by the British to prevent clashes among the different groups. Keep them apart and they won’t fight with each other.
16. But it also meant that each community kept to itself, and that limited inter-racial interaction.
17. When we were part of the Federation of Malaysia from September 1963 to August 1965, we disagreed with this Malaysian government’s approach in granting special rights and privileges to one racial community.
18. Instead, we advocated very strongly the idea of “Malaysian Malaysia”, where all races are treated equally.
19. This difference in vision and push for a Malaysian Malaysia led to Singapore being kicked out of Malaysia.
20. We then committed to becoming a multi-racial and multi-religious nation.
21. As some of you will know, Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously declared on the very first day of our Independence 9 August 1965:
“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…”
22. Meritocracy, that we are one united people regardless of race, language or religion as we say in our pledge; These are our core principles.
Singapore's Progress in Building Racial Harmony
23. And I think we can say without too much disagreement, that we have made good progress on race issues over the last 50 odd years.
24. And we are one of the few examples in the world of a multiracial yet largely stable and peaceful society.
25. If you look at the 2019 Gallup World Poll, 95% of respondents in Singapore said that Singapore was “a good place to live” for racial and ethnic minorities. The global average was about 70% and we were ranked first worldwide among 124 countries polled.
26. The Constitution of Singapore, requires the Government to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore, entitled to equal protection of the law.
27. The Presidential Council for Minority Rights was formed in 1970. It is tasked to examine all legislation to ensure that our laws do not disadvantage any racial or religious community.
28. The Penal Code makes it an offence to wound others’ racial feelings, or to commit acts prejudicial to racial harmony.
29. And, there are a number of policies and programmes aimed at forging social cohesion, ensure that the minorities are represented and their voices heard.
30. We have four official languages, but we adopted English as a neutral language common to all, as the common language in schools and in public administration.
31. We implemented the GRC system to ensure that minority MPs are represented in Parliament.
32. We introduced HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy to prevent ethnic enclaves and to create more common spaces for interaction across ethnic groups.
33. Ethnic self-help groups like CDAC, Mendaki, SINDA, and the Eurasian Association – they support the communities and complement the government’s efforts to enhance social mobility.
34. And we continue the hard work to help our entire society to progress.
35. The Department of Statistics recently released their Census 2020 findings in June 2021.
36. That shows that over the last 10 years, the period 2011 to 2020, all the different ethnic groups have attained higher educational qualifications. The number of Malays who obtained post-secondary or better education saw the highest jump of 16.4 percentage points to about 48%. For the Chinese, it was a 12.5 percentage point increase to about 58%, and for the Indians, it was a 8 percentage point increase to about 67%. So, in absolute terms, the Malay community still has to push harder and we will work with them. But the increase, 16, 17%, is very significant.
37. Income levels for all three major ethnic groups increased over the decade. Median household incomes increased by 32% for Malay households, 40% for Chinese households, and 42% for Indian households.
Racism in Singapore
38. But having said all this, communal relationships are still work-in-progress. It will always be work-in-progress.
39. You can never say the work is done, there is no racism. There are no racial issues. You can never say that.
40. There continues to be a degree of racism in our community.
41. If you look for example, at the workplace. The 2019 IPS and OPSG survey found that around a third of Malays and Indians perceived discrimination at the workplace at least sometimes. 10% of Chinese respondents also felt that they received discrimination. That’s at the workplace.
42. That’s at the workplace. I’m sure the experiences in casual settings, in social context, in the neighbourhood context, would be similar.
43. These are issues that we must now address at the next bound, as we move forward.
44. How will we address them?
45. At the NDR, Prime Minister spoke about two new laws.
46. First, we now have the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, or TAFEP in short. These guidelines prohibit discrimination including discrimination along racial lines. And, as PM said, these guidelines will now be given legal force. Any sort of workplace discrimination – whether it is based on age, race, sex, religion, or disability – will be dealt with, with legal force. If you discriminate against a woman because she’s a woman, or you discriminate against a Malay or an Indian, or a Chinese for that matter, those can be dealt with and now there would be legal force.
47. Second, there will be a second law that will be introduced called the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act. My ministry, Ministry of Home Affairs, will introduce this. It will first consolidate all the different laws we already have on dealing with racial issues. And, we are likely to introduce additional measures and new sanctions. But I think when we look at the sanctions in this area, we need to be careful, because day-to-day interaction in the market or in the hawker centre or in the lift, you don’t want to bring all of them to court and then put them in jail, or impose a fine, or treat all of them as criminals. I think it will be an impossible situation. Instead of making things better, you’ll make them worse. So I think we have to look at a lot of – a significant framework of non-punitive sanctions, which will have to try and shape behaviour, including social behaviour and social norms. So we will work closely with MCCY, other agencies, including OPSG, to see how we can frame these, so that when someone contravenes the norms, perhaps the person can be asked to go and do community service in the community that he has disparaged or he hasn’t understood properly. And that might help in the greater understanding, without being punitive, and without having criminal records, and without shaming people. The focus must really be to try and get people to understand each other better, and get on better.
48. And the laws, ultimately, if they just stand on their own, without support from the community would be meaningless. If people think I don’t do it simply because there is a law, it’s not good enough. It’s a start, but really what you want is a social norm shaping, and people’s social norms to change and genuinely understand and genuinely believe in multi-racialism and multi-culturalism. That’s the ultimate goal. The law is just a guide rail, a way to get there. So we have to continue to push for greater understanding, and greater tolerance. And coming together of our own people, through their efforts, and the shaping, guiding hand of the Government.
49. We will need everyone, the Government, the community and individuals, agencies, NGOs, community organisations, community leaders – everyone to play a part in building this new social consensus. I shouldn’t say new – it’s a social consensus most of us accept, it’s just taking it further.
50. So in this regard, it’s extremely important that initiatives like these, Humanity Matters has taken the initiative to come up with this SG CORE Pilot Programme to engage both the young, and adults, or older adults.
51. The programme appears to be well-researched and curated. Values and lessons that the programme seeks to inculcate in the participants, I think they’re important in helping us seed and maintain our multi-racial Singapore core and preserve our racial harmony.
52. I also extend my congratulations and appreciation to the organisers and the SG CORE programme partners. And I hope the participants will have a fruitful learning experience.
53. I’m pleased to declare the SG CORE Pilot Programme officially launched.
54. Thank you.