Regardless Of Race - The Dialogue 2 - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 30 September 2019

Ladies & Gentlemen, 


1. Thank you very much for coming here.   


2. As I seek to answer those questions and share some of my own views on race, I thought it is helpful first to take a step back and ask ourselves what is the structure or model of Government that governs everything that we do, and how we do things.   


3. People focus on outcomes. We moved from the third world to the first within one generation. But what is the process? How did we do it? Then how do we fit in race relations, within that framework.  


4. There are three key aspects that I would like to share, in suggesting a framework about how we structure society. How we fit in any issue that arises within that framework.  


5. The first is the framework that sets out the country’s legal and political system, which includes the Constitution and other laws. That sets out the powers that the Government has, the relationship between man and man, man and Government, how we interact.  


6. The second is processes.  The political, legal or socio-economic processes, the means by which a state moves towards its desired outcomes. Whether it’s housing, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s education, whether it’s a type of politics we have. How they are actually implemented.  


7. You get the Framework right, you get the Processes right, then you will get the Results. And the results are something that we as a society have got to try and agree on. What are the results? What do we put values on? Peace, security, equal opportunity, fair distribution of benefits, achievement of potential, maximising the individual’s potential, and more.  


8. And for this to work, people have to believe that the outcomes they desire are fair and that the processes are fair. For example, the justice system. We have had some discussion over the last few days on the justice system. It promotes the order and justice in relationships between people, and between Government and people. The public has got their trust in it.  If the processes are fair, then there will be trust and confidence in that framework, and in our institutions.

9. So, fairness, trust and results are key to any governance philosophy. If one of these go missing, governance will wear down. For example, if public lose trust in the Courts, or the Police, or believe that benefits are not distributed fairly and equitably, then the public would lose faith in the system, specific parts of the system. And when people lose faith in the system, they will then seek to undermine or overthrow the entire system, even at considerable cost to themselves. 



10. So, the key is what are the Results we want? And, what are the Processes we are prepared to accept to achieve those results. Is it that we want jobs for everyone, is it economic prosperity, is it free speech, is it political stability?  


11. Remember, there are trade-offs.  For example, gun control in the US. The individual’s rights to have guns is emphasised or given primacy. Then there are consequences. And they accept it as a society. Their political system accepts it as a society. Surveys show that the majority of the people want gun control, but the political system today has led to a result where gun control is weak, and there are over 200-odd million guns in the US. It is something they chose, and when they choose that, then they also accept the consequences of that.  


12. It is always a question of choice. It is not as if you can get everything you want. They put primacy on free speech to the extent where you can stand on the steps of a Church and burn the Koran, and that’s your right of free speech. Or, you can burn the national flag, and that’s your right of free speech. Likewise, anyone can burn the Bible. Some guy, because of lack of gun control, may also take a gun and shoot either or both of them. Again, that’s a consequence they accept.  


13. Therefore we talk about any of these issues, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is: what is the end result, what is the balance we are happy to strike? Then we’ll be able to agree on processes too. Too often the discussion proceeds as if, we can have everything we have today, and yet make some changes.  


14. You must always ask, if you make changes in certain areas, what are the consequences? What do the processes add to the end results, and are we prepared to accept it? It is a free society, democratic society - if those are the consequences we accept, then fine. But, the debate often is, I want this, I want that, but without understanding or acceptance or even willingness to discuss, and anyone who discusses the end result is usually shouted down as though you are fear mongering. But these are real. We just have to look at other places.  


15. My own view on these things is - governance is a fine art, striking the right balance. Giving enough powers to the Government, giving substantive powers to Government, and at the same time, maximising the space for the individual to achieve his or her full potential. How you strike that balance, is at the heart of political models all over the world. And, if you strike it, I think in the way that the Americans have struck, it goes quite a lot towards an individual’s freedom. But the power of the state, at least in terms of whether we intervene and get better results - whether it’s education, whether it’s healthcare, or whether it’s gun control, is substantially weakened. Likewise, in a lot of Western Europe.  


16. On the other side, in China, the power of the state is far more substantive, compared to Singapore. The space for the individual, in certain areas, is then tacked back a little bit. It is a model that has worked at this stage for them.  


17. It is for us to decide what is that right balance between the power of the state, whether it is the rule of law; whether it is exceptions to the rule of law that we have through the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, where executive action is possible to detain people; whether it is the power of the state expressed through a variety of other legislations. To what extent does that impact on the freedom of the individual; to what extent does it help the individual maximise his full potential; to what extent does it hinder the individual from maximising his full potential.  


18. So, let’s look at race relationships in this context. 


19. When we had British colonial rule, Singapore was divided into a number of enclaves. We had Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Little India. And really, ethnocentric sentiments prevailed.   


20. We had our separation from Malaysia, and just prior to that we had, of course, the 1964 riots, the communal violence. Five years later, in 1969, we had a spate of violence, not to the same extent, but when things happened in Malaysia, things also happened in Singapore at a lower level. We can say - those of us who were around at that point and old enough to remember - that in the late 1960s, communalism was a very strong factor. In the 1970s, communalism was still a strong factor.  


21. The Government focused on securing racial harmony because the outcomes that were desired were peace, stability, harmony, jobs for everyone. If there were communal riots, or if there was instability, that impacted a variety of economic and social factors. And that was a known. We placed primacy on securing stability, preventing instability. Whether it came from communalism, from the left or any sort of instability, we cut down on that in order to achieve certain goals for society.  


22. The frameworks and the processes were designed to secure racial harmony, and not left to chance. So, you have a fairly tough set of laws, a framework of laws, that structured how people dealt with race and religion. You can go and proselytise, you can go and have your own culture, you can practice your culture - maximum space is given for that, but you cannot run down somebody else, you cannot denigrate somebody else. You cannot denigrate someone else on the basis of race, or religion, and we have those laws and we enforced them.  


23. That’s how it was, and that went hand in hand with a very activist interventionist Government, which intervened in the day to day lives of people. The ethnic integration policy of housing estates, 80% of the population are in HDB estates. This is probably the only Government in the world that says every estate should have a certain percentage of Malays, Indians and Chinese. It doesn’t happen in any other country. But there are reasons for that. People will have to live together. Schools are integrated - National Service, workplaces - not by decree but largely integrated.  


24. The Government also played an important role in setting that tone for discussion, about how these topics are discussed. How are they talked about. If you are not sensitive about how you discuss these issues, it can very quickly harden racism, very quickly deepen the fault lines. If all of us can talk to each other, and attack each other on the basis of race, along the lines that’s allowed in many other countries, does that help us integrate better, or does it actually weaken the social bonds and increase racial tensions? You think about it yourself.  


25. You take hate speech. Different jurisdictions have different ways of dealing with it. Some tolerate very much higher levels of hate speech, but they are also prepared to accept the negative consequences, knowingly or unknowingly. I gave a lot of examples in Parliament in April that dealt with this, but I will just give you one example here. You take London, UK - long tradition of debate. And, the thinking is idealistic - that you talk about different positions - you explain your position, I explain my position, you go to Hyde Park, you argue, and then you get clarity. People can see for themselves - this guy is talking nonsense, or that guy is talking nonsense, or this doesn’t make sense - good in theory.  


26. But when it comes to race and religion, you don’t necessarily get logic prevailing. You get rhetoric, you get people worked up, you get people thinking “I’m preaching to you about my God, you believe me, and my God tells me that I should be saying these things to you”. If you are a true believer you may believe in these things, some people may dismiss them, but there are people who will get influenced by it as well. So open speech doesn’t necessarily then lead to light. It often leads to heat.  


27. You had a preacher, one example - Abu Hamza, he was Britain’s most high-profile hate preacher. He was finally convicted in 2006 for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred in his “sermons”. But you know, he had been preaching for 10 years before that, since 1997. And in his sermons, he used to describe the Jews as the enemies of Islam, he told his followers to “bleed the enemies of Islam”, and they should not rest until they had created a Muslim State. Britain’s approach attracted a lot of people like Abu Hamza and London became known as a “Londonistan”. And his followers - one of them was that guy who is responsible for all of us now having to take our shoes off at the airports – the shoe bomber. A number of them have been convicted, his disciples.  


28. In any society - standard distribution, you will have a large majority of people in the middle who won’t fall into any of these, but you also have a distribution on the extreme sides - people who get worked up by these things. 


29. We have a different approach. After these number of years, the Government is trusted by the citizens to intervene decisively to preserve and grow the common space in a multi-racial society, and at the same time, have safe spaces for open discourse. Because we understand, just normal free and open speech on these issues is not magically going to lead to enlightenment and truth. Often more likely, it leads to tension. 


30. So we take very quick and swift action to prohibit hate speech. The speaker will be advised to stop and if he doesn’t, ISD will take action. Legislation was put in Parliament in 1989, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. We already have a number of prohibitions which maintained peace amongst race and religious, and we are looking at it further. We now have amendments to that in Parliament, which will be debated next month. 


31. The experiences of Singapore and other countries show this. If you have clear, firm laws which prohibit hate speech, and you also deal fairly with all the communities - whether majority or minority, any sort of community - then you can truly start building a multi-racial, multi-religious society, based on trust. People need to believe that the Government is going to be fair in dealing with the different races and the different religions and that mostly, they have a fair shake in the system. As long as people believe that, as long as results can be actualised for the majority. You will always have people in every community, who believe for one reason or another that they are being marginalised or victimised or trodden down. But if the majority in each community believe that they are getting a fair shake, that it’s possible to get a fair shake, then you get progress.  


32. But if the majority in any community, whether racial or religious, or other defined communities, believe that they are being discriminated, then there comes a point in time where the laws will not be obeyed, regardless of what laws you have. They will go on the streets, and they will protest, and they will want to seek to change the system, at considerable cost to themselves. Because what is the point of playing by the rules - it doesn’t mean that because you have the rules, people are going to obey the rules. You have to deliver the results, and the results have to be seen as fair.  


33. Even in economic terms – “Occupy Wall Street”, the top 1% against the 99%. Everything goes to the top 1%. Why should people play by the rules? They will start saying “we’re not going to play by the rules, because only you get the benefits. Let’s change the rules.” Which is why, what is the biggest attractive campaign cry in Western Europe and US today – change. President Obama campaigned on that before he became president. Change. Because people are so angry with the system, they want to tear it down, they want to bring it down. President Trump campaigned on the same thing – “I will drain the swamp”. 


34. But remember, earlier, I talked about the power of governments and the power to get things done. In some ways, the liberal system has weakened the power of governments to such an extent today that regardless of who you vote for, the governments cannot deliver. They cannot deliver on education, they cannot deliver on healthcare, they cannot deliver on jobs. In a large economy like the US, which is the world’s largest economy, there is a certain momentum, the genius of the people keeps it going; but in terms of what the government delivers, you eventually find that it is not so easy. 


35. So where are we on Race Relations? IPS has done surveys – 2013, 2016, 2018. In 2018, IPS and OnePeople.sg (OPSG) had a survey on race relations. 23% of Chinese respondents had a close Malay friend in 2013. That went up to 30% in 2018. So one out of every three Chinese says “I’ve got a close Malay friend”. It’s slow, but at least you are seeing good progress. More Singaporeans were also trusting people from other racial and religious groups. 


36. But the same survey found that about a third of the Malay and Indian respondents perceived discrimination - some at work, at least sometimes, and about a third still held racial stereotypes and they agreed with the view that race is an indicator of another person’s views or behaviour. IPS asked different ethnic groups, if you lost your wallet, who do you think is most likely to return it? Chinese, Indian or Malay? They thought that 46% of the time, the Chinese won’t return it. If a Malay found it, 57% of the time, they won’t return it. If an Indian finds the wallet, he is unlikely to return – 61% of the time. These are all stereotypes, there is this degree of racism.   


37. IPS also did a survey that goes to the heart of the matter. Who would you like to be your son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Those are very interesting questions. On one hand, people say that we are a racist society, and on the other hand, some say we have achieved nirvana, and we are a post-race society. Neither is true. You look at the figures yourself. They are prepared to accept [marrying into their family] Chinese [74% in 2019]; Malay less so; Indian a little bit more, but marginally; but Eurasian is all right. You think we don’t have feelings of race?  


38. One example is Yugoslavia. The Ottomans conquered the Balkans in the 16th century. From there, they spread. If you look at Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and so on, the DNA is the same. They are intermixed, they live in the same villages. Muslims or Orthodox Christians or Catholics was really a historical accident, but people are the same. They are not like us, they look alike. They speak the same language, lived together for 400 years and when Yugoslavia broke up, what happened? You remember the mass homicides - Serbs killing Bosnians, on the basis of religion, even children being massacred, there were massacres across all religious divides. 400 years, same race, same DNA, they lived next to each other in the same villages. There are certain animalistic feelings within the human being that doesn’t go off even after 400 years, and it requires that degree of control.  


39. But it doesn’t mean doom and gloom. The human spirit is very positive. The whole idea is to bring out the positive, keep a strong control on the negative, and try and move society along. But do we believe that tomorrow, we remove all the laws and everyone will be together and everyone will be great? We are not going to kill each other, Singaporeans are different I think, but let’s not believe that race and feelings of racism are going to go away.  


40. This is a question that keeps arising because again, to some people, they think only the PAP is racist and they will not put up an Indian as a Prime Minister. Again, the IPS survey showed that Chinese who will accept a Chinese as PM is 98%, Chinese who will accept a Malay is 53%, and only 60% of Chinese will accept an Indian as a PM. For the Malays, about 90% prefers a Malay PM, second Chinese, third Indian. For the Indians, they prefer an Indian PM marginally to a Chinese, and Malays, least acceptable. And the reality, regardless of what you would like to believe, is that an Indian candidate starts at roughly a 30% “discount”. If you weight it according to the Chinese, Indians and Malays, and give the “discounts”, the Indian candidate starts at roughly a 30% discount.  


41. So what are some of the things that we are doing? Let me share with you some aspects of what we do. MOM has come together with NTUC and Singapore National Employers Federation to set-up the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). For people who feel discriminated against in the workplace, TAFEP will provide assistance to them, to deal with racial discrimination. It is an example of how the Government, the private sector, civil society, unions, come together to try and deal with the problem. Is it better solved through legal action and the courts? You can prevent every employer from being racist? Or is it better solved through these ways - constructive discussion, trying to get people through, and more?


42. Let me quote you what the late Mr Lee said,  


“No amount of troops would be able to stop trouble if there was real hatred between the different communities. The decisive factor would be dependent upon the goodwill between neighbours.” 


43. He further said in 1999, “We did the easier part, getting raw, basic clashes to be muted, distributing the populations into mixed housing estates, sending them to the same schools, preventing them from segregating. It will take much more to get them to finally accept each other and begin to trust each other…The past is valuable in telling us how we got here, and having us understand what are our perils, what are our fault lines, and do not mistake them. They are not going to disappear in 20, 30, 40 years. But if we are aware of it, it is like living with an earthquake fault. We can build buildings which may be able to stand the shocks.” 


44. So now we are at the phase where we are working very hard to build that trust. We have prevented the clashes, we have put in the legal framework, we have been working very hard for the last 30, 40 years to build that trust. I think you are seeing the results in terms of the surveys, what people feel.  


45. Earlier on, I talked about how the Government plays a role in setting the rules and the tone for conversations on race. Let me just remind you on some of the frameworks.  


46. Politics. If you had a Parliament that comprised entirely one race only, or overwhelmingly one race, as a supreme, sovereign, lawmaking order, how will people feel? So we have GRCs. People say all these GRCs are designed to “fix the opposition”. But what has the concept of GRCs done? Rally after rally, do you hear race being talked about? Why not? Because in the past - let me be brutally frank - we very well know all the derogatory terms for all of the races right? Do you hear that now? No. Because you got an Indian too, in an Indian GRC and the other guy has got an Indian too. So what is the point of saying why do you want to vote for that Indian? We have removed the factor of race from the election rally rhetoric. 


47. I understand that last week, questions were asked about the CMIO model. It’s been suggested that our CMIO model prevents integration. It is actually the opposite. It really does not matter whether someone is Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian. We can be friends with anyone, we can eat with anyone, we can discuss with anyone. This is not determined by the colour of somebody’s skin.  


48. But the reality is we look different, and in each community there are people who need help. The CMIO classification, by being frank, honest, direct and recognising that we are different, has actually helped build trust. In an IPS survey in 2016 with Channel NewsAsia, 69 per cent of respondents - close to seven out of 10, believed the CMIO classification helps build trust and 71 per cent believed that the model helps to safeguard minority rights. They can then identify the minorities, they can say you have these rights. 


49. You know the French - everyone is French, whether you are Catholic, White, or whether you are Algerian Islamic, you are still French. You cannot make distinctions. If you are Algerian, you live in a Banlieue in ghettos, and your unemployment rate is higher - is everyone equal? Are you getting away from this classification, by saying everyone is French and therefore you are doing better? Or is it better to recognise that there are differences - that there are cultural and educational differences and to focus your efforts on uplifting the people who are less well-off?  


50. I was President of SINDA in the early to mid-2000s. We took a lot of pride in that 10 to 11 per cent of our volunteers were non-Indian. A lot of people, you go and tell them, these kids need help, they need tuition, they need other kinds of help. Would you come? There is something innate, it is from the gut, people come and volunteer if they identify. And race, whether you like it or not, is an identifying perimeter. So why not tap on the positive potential of people to help? 


51. Race-based sub-groups – the Government helps them, but we look at it as many different strengths, many different cultures and over which we have the Singaporean identity. And actually, it is stronger, and not at the expense of the Singaporean identity. That is how we approach this.  


52. But to achieve real, true racial harmony, we need to go beyond the Government. The Government is a big factor, it is a catalyst, it is an activist, but we need to go beyond the Government. You need ground-up activities, you need NGOs, you need volunteer organisations. For example, IRO, OPSG. They promote racial and religious interactions through various dialogues, this being one. At the constituency level you have IRCCs, inter-faith platforms. There are also youth organisations like the Roses of Peace and the Interfaith Youth Circle. They play an important role in mobilising young people and we do need to continue to do that.  


53. Let me conclude by asking you a question. Is there racism in Singapore? Which of us will say no? We will have to be quite innocent to believe that there is no racism. There will be racism in all multi-racial societies, at several levels.  


54. Is there a silver bullet out there for solving racism? If there is, I do not know about it and you can tell me. I think the answer is recognising it and working hard at it.  


55. I think our approach has had a fair amount of success over the past 54 years. But we have not arrived at a post-race Nirvana either. That perspective is, I think, naïve. And the examples of other countries, I think, are cautionary of how quickly things could go south in these things.


56. Just remember as our guiding principle, on the very first day of our existence, 9 August, as a sovereign, independent state, Mr Lee said, “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation.” Very brave words for a leader of a newly born city state, at that time, with about 75 per cent Chinese, to say something like that.  


57. In a way, people accuse us of being very practical. Actually, Singapore is a true example of a state built on a very noble ideal that man equals man, and man can arrange relationships without having to base it on race. That race need not become the dominant factor. It will be, but we can create a framework to say - it is probably the only country in the world where 6.5% [of the population] - Tamils have an official language. It is probably the only country in the world where we actively work to remove race from the equation of politics.  


58. You look now at Western Europe, you look now at the US. You ask yourself one thing. Is politics based on race? You may not openly say it. But there are “codewords” and we all know the “codewords”. You see how often those “codewords” were used and how much of the politics is now based on appealing to distinct groups, appealing to the majority. If we went down that path, it may not automatically be a disaster in the country. But what it will do to the noble ideal that we had put forward - is a question to think about. 


59. Thank you very much.


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