National Community Engagement Programme Dialogue 2015 - Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

Published: 23 May 2015

Standing United as One People, One Singapore


Good afternoon everyone,

My Cabinet colleagues,

Lim Swee Say

Lawrence Wong

Masagos Zulkifli

Community leaders,

Friends in the community engagement family


This year's National Community Engagement Programme (CEP) Dialogue is of special significance because we mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence.


2.     While we are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, it is especially meaningful for us to reflect on how Mr Lee and our founding leaders worked hard to realise the vision of living together in harmony in a multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore. It is a special legacy which we must cherish and build on. 

Singapore Society Over 50 Years


3.     In our early years as a colony, people came to Singapore from our region and beyond, for trade and commerce. They brought different cultures, different languages and different religions. Ethnic communities lived separately. The thinking then in colonial Singapore was that to reduce friction, we keep people apart. Integration was not necessary, especially since many were not here for the long term. They came to work, and were thinking of returning to their land of origin. Some, however, decided to stay a little longer and eventually put down roots, particularly after the Second World War.


4.     When Singapore became independent in 1965, it would have been the easiest thing for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues to appeal to exclusive racial and religious identities because that was the norm during post-colonial times and also in our region, in many Asian and African countries. But Mr Lee and his colleagues were keenly aware that differences in language, race, or religion could easily be exploited to generate conflict. These are all emotive issues. Indeed, differences such as race in particular, was a key reason for Separation. Thus, Mr Lee and his colleagues chose the more difficult approach: to create a Singaporean Singapore based on equality and meritocracy, regardless of race or religion.


5.     These were not just words or lofty ideals, but put into action through actual, practical policies and programmes that enlarged the common space, to unite all Singaporeans. Public housing, schools, our bilingual policy brought families of all races and religions together, while allowing each community to maintain strong links to its own language, culture and roots. It was not always an easy journey. And it is not always easy to continue on this journey. Families had to get used to living in new neighbourhoods, albeit in better and more modern surroundings. Education in their own languages gave way to a forward-looking national school system based on English.


6.     The various communities and their leaders were committed to work together to strengthen our social harmony. No community insisted that its race, or its language or its practices should be above any of the others. One of the key reasons was that they had all lived through racial and religious strife, and saw what happened, and did not want to see this happen again. They knew how precious harmony is, and were prepared to take a perspective that allowed all communities to work towards this goal - Give and take, mutual understanding, to achieve a common objective.


7.     Today, Singaporeans of all races and religions live and work together. Very often we take it for granted, thinking that this is a normal state of affairs. We share common spaces and experiences – all of us enjoy our favourite meals at the same hawker centres and "kopitiams". Our children study together, play together, and grow up together in our national schools. Our young men do National Service together.


8.     This racial and religious harmony that our forefathers have painstakingly built has provided a firm foundation for our social stability and eventually our economic progress. It has become a hallmark of Singapore, something which people recognise Singapore for, and which other countries seek to replicate. I was struck by what the President of the Inter-Religious Organisation, Mr Gurmit Singh said, just two weeks ago, on the occasion of the IRO's 66th anniversary. When Mr Singh was asked by someone from another country how Singapore managed to have peace and harmony, he gave a very simple, honest, and practical reply. His reply was, "We work at it and do not take peace and harmony for granted". That is a very simple and practical answer.


Key Driving Forces


9.     Indeed, we have to keep working at it. While we have not experienced racial riots since the 1960s, we must remain alert to trends and driving forces that could take root here and disrupt our social cohesion and communal harmony.


10.     Three trends pose challenges to us. One, globalisation and technological advances allow ideas and information to spread very quickly around the world, and affect us, here in Singapore, like a wildfire. Anonymity and amplification on the Internet can allow an irresponsible, and even untrue, remark to go viral in a matter of seconds, and quickly stir up deep racial and religious sensitivities. Once stirred up, they are very difficult to rein in again. 


11.     Two, Singapore has always been a society with people of diverse backgrounds. According to the Pew Research Centre, we are also the most religiously diverse country in the world.[1] We also have new groups who can press their point of view vigorously and sometimes intemperately, in a hot-headed and confrontational manner. New fault lines could emerge in our society. While diversity has been a strength for Singapore, it can also be a vulnerability if we do not manage it well.


12.     Three, the resurgence of radicalisation and violence based on extreme interpretations of religion is another cause for concern. 14 years after 9/11 and the discovery of the terrorist network that called itself Jemaah Islamiyah in Singapore, terrorism continues to be a threat around the world, including Singapore. ISIS has used online media extensively to radicalise and recruit foreign fighters worldwide, and called on its overseas supporters to carry out attacks in their own countries. ISIS has also produced recruitment videos in local languages, for example, Bahasa Indonesia, to entice fighters from our region to join them.


Role of the CEP


13.     In the face of these new challenges, our Community Engagement Programme which aims to strengthen social cohesion and resilience has become more important. Government will continue to closely partner community leaders, like yourselves, to weave a strong and multi-layered social fabric that is resistant to tear. 


14.     Let me speak about two areas we should emphasise in CEP as we go forward.  


Building and Sustaining Mutual Trust


15.     First, building and sustaining trust between communities.


16.     We have seen sad examples where the breakdown of trust between communities has led to conflict. In the US, racial unrest broke out in Ferguson, Missouri last August, and again in Baltimore, Maryland last month. In our own region, race and religion are often politicised leading to a highly charged atmosphere for inter-communal relations. These are stark reminders that race and religion continue to be salient and sensitive in many countries, and a spark can set off an escalatory spiral of unrest and violence that is difficult to rein in. Even though we live in peace and harmony with each other, never for one moment believe that the issues of race and religion will disappear and go away. We only need to look around to know that these are deep, emotional issues for everyone.


17.     Here in Singapore, we have had to deal with incidents where people had attempted to incite racial or religious unhappiness. At this year's Thaipusam, we had a law and order issue. Three men were arrested for disorderly behaviour and assaulting a police officer. They are being accorded due process of the law. However, some irresponsible persons tried to stir racial and religious sensitivities by spreading falsehoods and rumours online and offline. They made use of something that had happened and stirred things up. The Police eventually had to arrest several persons for inciting enmity between different communities and races. Fortunately, the malicious comments did not catch on in the wider community.  Why is that so? One of the reasons is because we have worked at it.


18.     Most Singaporeans and groups understand the sensitivities in our society. Most Singaporeans appreciate that even though we are the most religiously diverse country in the world, we live in peace and harmony - and we are able to do so because we have worked at it. Our communities are free to practise our respective religions – I would say even more so than in many countries – all this while respecting the beliefs of other faiths. But even as we allow each community its own space, we must always continually deepen the trust between communities, and expand our common space where all communities can come together. So, the solution is not to live apart. We have to live together, get to know each other and live in harmony. If any one group insists on maximizing the space for itself, other groups will immediately push back, and the outcome will paradoxically be that every group will have less space and society, as a whole, will have less space. We should let the things we have in common unite us, and not accentuate differences so that they divide us.  


19.     One key area is to raise youth awareness. I'm very happy to see that we have many young people here with us today. Our pioneers lived through racial and religious strife, and they developed the instincts for tolerance, mutual respect, and reaching out to achieve harmony. We need to pass on these instincts to younger generations of Singaporeans.


20.     The IRCC Youth Steering Committee, which was formed to network with and engage young people across religious groups, Institutes of Higher Learning and self-help groups, is a good example. MCCY also organised a youth dialogue on the "Impact of Terrorism on Security and Social Cohesion" at ITE College Central in February this year, where more than 300 youths discussed the roles they could play during a crisis. They thought about what they could do, not just what they could say, but what they themselves would do in a crisis. Next year, our JC1 students will discuss how they can help maintain communal harmony as part of Character and Citizenship Education.


21.     We must also continue to promote inclusivity and meritocracy in the workplace. I'm happy to see that the Singapore Business Federation and the Singapore National Employers Federation have developed four Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications modules to help HR practitioners implement fair recruitment and selection methods, and resolve grievances and disputes at the workplace.


22.     It is heartening to see our various community groups, like the IRO, business groups, youth groups, and grassroots groups, taking ownership of the issue, and taking active steps to deepen mutual trust among our different community groups. During today's discussions, we can share ideas and good practices on how to further engage and build mutual confidence and trust.

Strengthening Social Resilience and Our Ability to Respond "The Day After"


23.     Second, we must also strengthen social resilience and our ability to respond in what is called,  "the day after".


24.     The threat of radicalisation is real and it is not something that is 'over there', in some other country or region. It is 'over here' in our region, and is also present in Singapore. Individuals from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia, including our neighbouring countries and Singapore, have been radicalised. We thus have to counter this threat. Countering this threat is not just an issue of implementing security means but also to lead individuals away from radicalisation through counselling and rehabilitation.


25.     I would like to commend the good work done by our Muslim religious leaders in the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) who counsel radicalised individuals. They have been doing this since we had to detain JI detainees in 2001, so it has been almost a decade and a half. The RRG also holds public talks and has produced publications to counter radical teachings. Several of our Muslim organisations have also formed the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG). The Aftercare Group provide emotional, social and financial support to the families of detainees, and help detainees to re-integrate into society after release. This is an important part of the whole rehabilitation process. After all, these are our fellow citizens and we want to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into our society. These are all important steps, taken pro-actively by our own Muslim community to take ownership and counter the danger of radicalisation to individuals, families, the community and our country. This work has been acknowledged internationally and we should also acknowledge their work because this gives us the knowledge and confidence that all of us in Singapore are working together towards a safe home.


26.     Last month, Singapore hosted the East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration. Religious scholars, academics, practitioners, international experts and policy-makers from more than 25 countries attended, took part and exchanged ideas. The Strategies on Aftercare and Reintegration (SOAR) network was launched at the end of the symposium to share information, ideas and strategies on terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration. This is important as this is not an issue that a single country deals with on its own but it is an issue in which there are cross-border implications that we need to look at.


27.     However, despite our best efforts, we cannot guarantee that a terrorist attack will never take place in Singapore. The attacks in Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen took place even though these countries and these cities were already on high security alert. They were prepared for  something to happen, and the security forces were on alert. These were good and professional security forces and yet the attacks took place.


28.     The main objective of a terrorist attack is to divide society and strike fear. How Singaporeans respond should an attack occur is therefore vital in order to prevent terrorists from achieving these two objectives, to divide our society and to strike fear. Do we come together as one? Or do we pull apart, pointing fingers and ascribing blame to particular communities or each other, and help the terrorists achieve their objective?


29.     The response by Sydney to the siege at a café in December last year is a positive example. In just four hours after the attack, 150,000 Australians showed their solidarity with the Muslim community through the hashtag #Illridewithyou. Australians reacted calmly and backed the action taken by their security forces and agencies. They refused to be cowed, they refused to be divided, they refused to fall into the trap that the terrorists wanted them to fall into. Similarly, if an incident were to happen in Singapore, we must pull together as one people, one community, and one Singapore. This is something we must reflect upon and prepare ourselves psychologically for.


30.     Community preparedness is therefore the key to help us bounce back quickly after an attack, and emerge stronger. Life-saving, fire-fighting and evacuation drills at the constituency level, these are all important to reduce loss of life and injuries.[2] We also have national-level exercises to hone our response to homefront security incidents, such as the recent Exercise Northstar 9 which involved some 1,300 volunteers from the community as well. We will also stress-test our CEP community response plans, which will help Singapore remain resilient and return to a state of normalcy after an incident. A table-top exercise, involving key Ministries and lead agencies, will be held in October this year.


31.     But most importantly, community leaders like yourselves, and indeed, ordinary Singaporeans, ordinary citizens, all of us have a role to play to show solidarity, and help calm tensions that may arise or which may be stoked up should an incident occur. Government will continue to provide training support to help community leaders play this role. This Dialogue and the exercises and training programmes in the community are examples of this.




32.     Strengthening communal harmony requires constant work. As community leaders, "We work at it and do not take peace and harmony for granted". We need to win both hearts and minds, to build the trust and support of our people to avoid a crisis if we can, and to recover from one if it does occur. I urge all of you to exchange ideas and best practices, to share openly and think critically about areas for improvement. But equally importantly, get to know each other, to build trust and confidence in each other.


33.     Mr Lee Kuan Yew and our founding generation built a harmonious multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual Singapore. Let us come together in this SG50 year to honour and build on this precious legacy that they have left for us, so that we continue to stand united as one People, one Singapore, through to SG100.


34.     Thank you to all of you for your presence.


[1] A report by the Pew Research Centre in 2014 found Singapore to be the most religiously diverse among 232 countries.


[2] The People's Association, for example, organised five district-level crisis response exercises last year which involved 600 participants. These test the operational processes of grassroots organisations in managing volunteers and crisis communications. Over the next three years, another 15 similar exercises at the GRC-level have been planned, with a targeted outreach of 1,500 grassroots leaders, community volunteers and stakeholders.


Community Engagement