Transcript of Berita Harian’s Podcast Interview on Racial and Workplace Discrimination With Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 26 August 2023

Host: Hi everyone. Welcome back to another podcast on #NoTapis, a podcast by Berita Harian. I am your host Natasha and co-hosting with me today is BH news editor, Hadi Saparin. How are you Hadi? 

Co-Host: Hi Natasha.

Host: And we also have the privilege today to have with us Minister for Law and Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam to discuss and provide his perspective on this important issue. Minister, thank you for being with us here today. How are you?

Minister: Thank you, I’m good. 

Host: Wonderful. The three of us are in the studio today to talk about an issue which actually sparked an unfortunate incident. Before we begin, I’d like to send, once again, our condolences to the family of our Singapore Police Force (SPF) officer, the late Mr Uvaraja Gopal. In late July of 2023, Mr Gopal was found at the foot of a residential block in Yishun. He had taken his own life and he had left a note on social media explaining how he had to endure workplace bullying, racial discrimination and family issues. His death sparked an intense discussion on bullying and particularly, racial discrimination. There were some comments and follow-up posts from other former officers in the SPF, who claimed that they too were victims of bullying and discrimination.

Question: Minister, if we can jump straight into today’s topic. Perhaps you can share with us some perspective to the safeguards against discriminatory practices that are in place and how we can create a safe environment, and a safe space for minorities in these instances. 

Minister: When I approach this – there are two aspects to this. 

One, as a system, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Police Force as a command, you have SCDF and also other organisations: as a system, is racism institutionalised? Is it systemic, is it everywhere? Is it part and parcel of people's thinking? That's one aspect. The second aspect is, even if it is not systemic, there will be individual cases. So let me deal with both.

The first and most important in my book, is that it should not be part of the system. You cannot allow that. And the responsibility for that starts from the top, from me. And then it goes down through MHA management, down to Commissioner of Police, and then below. How do you make sure that it's not part of the system, that it's not something that's institutionalised? That people automatically understand that they should not be racist, that it will not be allowed, and that severe action will be taken?  

It’s part of training: When you induct trainees, right from the ground level to officer level, every aspect of training, it's got to be in there, that you cannot be racist. In fact, you cannot be discriminatory; it's not okay to be discriminatory in other aspects either. So it's not just racism – if you have sexual harassment, if you make derogatory remarks based on religion, none of that is acceptable. So that's the starting point. 

Then, human nature being what it is, inevitably, you will have individuals who could be racist, who could use bad language, who could do things which they shouldn't do. And you've got to make sure you take action. Investigate and take action. Because you cannot 100% stamp out individual bad behaviour. What you can do is make sure the system is not like that. 

And I can say that the MHA system sets a strong face against discrimination and racism, discrimination on religion. How do we do that? And how do we know we do that? All our aspects of training, management, incorporate that as a key facet. 

And, we can do all that, but how is it on the ground? Here, we conduct very regular surveys – anonymous. So there are Pulse surveys conducted twice a year. There are employee engagement surveys, and there is also a 360 degree survey by the junior officers on their senior officers. And since these are anonymous, if it is systemic, enough people will say, look, they have faced this sort of discrimination and we would have picked it up. And I can say safely that that doesn't come up – racial discrimination. In all of these, I think one has got to look at the statistics, rather than deal in generalities. 

If you look at the five years, from January 2019 up till now, how many cases have been reported? There have been 310 cases and this will cover all workplace issues. If you look at the Home Team, it has got 29,000 officers, so that is about 1.1%.

Of the 310 cases, six were on racial discrimination. And of the six, after investigations, we found that three were substantiated and action was taken. Three were not substantiated. So six for 29,000 officers. So that gives you a sense of the proportion. And we address different issues. 

For example, more recently, there was a case where a male officer used inappropriate language – sexually explicit language – towards a female officer. Action was going to be taken against him, disciplinary proceedings were started; he resigned. There was another officer who used vulgarities, expletives, towards another officer. Action was taken; he was warned. Three, another recent case: senior officer borrowed money from junior officers, didn’t pay back. We generally don’t even like the fact that senior officers borrow – that’s not something we really encourage. But not paid back, and action is being taken.

I think whenever we have these issues, it's useful to go back to data. So 310 cases, of which six were race-related, of which three were made out, and for three, action was taken. And the employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, all the anonymous surveys, don't throw it up as a major issue, or even as an issue. 

That doesn't mean we sit back and say that “oh, we are good”. You’ve got to continuously make sure that this is drummed in. 

Question: Just a short follow-up question to that. Sometimes, the line between institutions and individuals can be blurred. So how do we ensure that safe space, beyond surveys, are in place?

Minister: It is absolutely essential, beyond surveys and maybe I should have mentioned it earlier, that there is a right to complain and complaints will be confidential. People can complain to any level, and within the organisation. If they feel that no proper action has been taken, they can go direct to appeal to the Human Resources Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs. And if they feel that that is not adequate, they can go to the Head of Civil Service. So, there are those channels, and at my level, we can also set up independent review panels to investigate whether something has gone wrong. 

So, there are a number of ways in which complaints can be made and will be investigated. So, it's not just surveys. There are two parts to this. One, surveys are proactive – the institution checking on its own health and making sure that it is healthy. But there is also the reactive. When people have an issue, how do they bring it up? Is there a safe way of making complaints? Will complaints be dealt with and how can they escalate it? So, you got to have a clear, safe process for that, and there is. 

Question: Do you think that having safe spaces and ability for these officers to share, it has allowed them to be confident that what they share is something that will be taken seriously?

Minister: That is what our surveys show, because if it is not going to be taken seriously, or if there is a perception that is not taken seriously, that would have shown up in the Pulse surveys as a major issue. Second, they can see that the fact that there are only six cases that have been complained about, and they can see that for half of them, action was taken when we found that it was merited. I am only talking about racial discrimination cases. There are other cases too, and some, we take action; where we investigate, and when we find no basis for the allegation, of course it's different.

Question: Okay, so that is the case in the Home Team specifically. Maybe you can share your views on the state of racial and religious discrimination in Singapore, like has it become something that has more attention recently, with this case being shared online and everything?

Minister: I would put it this way – how do we handle race and religion? You know, as a country. For me, the starting point is always a quote by Mr Lee soon after we got independence on 9 August 1965. He made this point (I'm paraphrasing) that we are not a Chinese country, not a Malay country, not an Indian country, we are Singaporeans. Singapore is based on a very strong idea, the idea of equality of the races, meritocracy. Everyone has equal opportunities, and that powerful idea stands in stark contrast to, say what happens in many parts of the world, including this region, where so much of politics and economics and every aspect of life is governed by your skin colour, who you are. And your skin colour then dictates how much benefit you get from the state, or what opportunities you will get. 

There is and I've said this: there is an advantage to being part of the majority race in Singapore. There is, however, no positive or negative discrimination in favour of one race or another, unlike what you see elsewhere, and it’s equality of opportunities, regardless of race, language or religion, for housing, education, healthcare, and all the opportunities that a society can give. 

If you take the Malay community for example, and I follow this data very closely, you look at the census data from 2010 to 2020, university graduates – from 5.5% in 2010, to 10.8% now. Double. Per capita household income grew at 3% per annum in real terms, which is higher than other ethnic groups. 3% in real terms means plus inflation. Employment today – 40% are in PMET jobs, up from 30% 10 years ago in 2010. So nearly one in two. 

If I were to put it in blunt terms, let's take the average Malay person in Singapore and compare him or her with the average Malay person in Malaysia, which has positive discrimination. An average Malay person today in Singapore, two thirds (66%) live in four-room flats or bigger. In Singapore, I think if you live in a four-room flat or bigger, you have some equity, which is usually a six-figure sum, which belongs to you. Almost one in two has got a PMET job, particularly the younger groups. So if you compare that profile, with the average Malay person in Malaysia, the potential for our Malay population is much higher. They are much better educated, they have better jobs, they have more assets, and they can look forward to a better career just as a comparison. 

Now, that doesn't mean the work is done, there is still a lot more to do, because there is still a gap between their performance and the performance, for example, of the Chinese. And we recognise this openly, say it as it is, and then put in more effort.
For example, M3 – various ground level initiatives, those are all important. And as a society, we need to be very focused on making sure that we deal with both the positive and the negative. 

What do I mean? You will have to have clear laws that prevent discrimination, hate speech. So many things that you say in Singapore for which you will be pulled up, in other countries, whether in the west or the east, is nothing. You remember the Chinese Polytechnic lecturer who verbally abused a mixed race couple. He lost his job. He was charged, he went to jail. Won't happen anywhere else. You had a Malay man pretending to be a Chinese girl making nasty remarks on emails, websites about Indians and Malays; was found out, charged, went to jail. You had a Chinese who put up graffiti on some MRT station about “Malay Mati”; we traced him, charged him, he went to jail, he got caned as well. We are very serious about this. 

See, 95% of society don't need these laws to prevent us from saying nasty things. But 5% will. And if you allow the 5% to do it, then that'll become 10%. And then it'll become the norm as it is, in most places, under the guise of free speech. We don't allow that. So people, particularly minorities, can go about knowing that they're not going to be abused for their skin colour, or their religion, race and other personal characteristics too. So, we have amended the law to broaden it. That's the first framework. But that tells you what you cannot do. That alone is not going to be enough to make you like each other or come together as one in society. For that, you need additional things.

You need the Government to work closely with the people to try and create a framework for people to understand each other across races and live with each other in some harmony and work together. How do we do that? 

Of course, the Ethnic Integration Policy in the housing estates, so you have to live together in certain proportions. The schools are integrated; the workplaces are integrated. And a lot of community activities; People's Association. People underestimate the importance of this. But in every housing estate, residence committees, the CCCs, they come together, they bring the Malays, Indians, Chinese, regularly. And when you interact, you go on bus tours, you do things together, you take part in each other's festivals, you have a greater appreciation. So, that builds the deep links at the very foundational level. 

There's a legal framework of what you cannot do. If you did all of this, the Police will come after you. And within that, build linkages. That is why our society looks so different from other societies. In 2020, more allegations came up, there were some racist remarks made and then there were some racist incidents. 

So, I asked for the statistics. 60 Police reports – but for a population of 5.2, 5.3 million in Singapore, including residents and PRs. Citizens 3.2 million, PRs another 500,000, the rest are foreign workers and so on. 60 Police reports based on racial incidents, that's like 1.2 for every 100,000. And since then, the numbers are much lower. So you got to take it in context. 1 million households in Singapore living right next to each other in HDB flats. So, within that context, this is the number of police reports. So, take it in context; yes, every incident has got to be looked at carefully, but overall, is the state of racial relationships healthy or not healthy? 

Here, you’ve got to go back to these statistics. And very important piece of legislation the Workplace Fairness legislation. This requires employers of a certain size not to discriminate against employees based on personal characteristics, which would include race and religion. Of course, religious organisations will be given a bit more privilege to employ people that they feel are suitable, if it is necessary. So, job requirements. But other than that, in normal establishments, there is this very powerful legislation which is coming through, which is a signal to employers and people working together that certain things are not acceptable, and there are remedies that are put forward. 

So we have to put both together; we have to work very hard to make sure that people appreciate each other, celebrate each other or at least tolerate each other, at the minimum. And at the same time, are very clear what they cannot say, and what they cannot do. 

So individual cases, Uvaraja’s case is a very sad case. I think racism - there was allegation that somebody called him “keleng kia” - which is not acceptable. That was investigated, and is being investigated again. Because one half of the story is his allegation, the other half – got to listen to what the others have to say. I have given instructions to give this the utmost attention and it will come to me. And we will go and discuss this publicly. There is no place for racism. But it is one of the allegations. He had various other allegations. 

You have also seen the Police statement in response, which I think seems to highlight that we are going to say this and in all fairness, we wanted to tell the family that these are the other aspects – last year, he was at work for less than 30 days, this year, likewise, less than 25 days. There were a number of issues. From the Police statement you can see that the Police had been trying to help him with his issues – counselling, various other types of assistance. And we will look at everything he has said and we will give an account and then the public can have a better sense. We will deal with this seriously. 

Question: I guess we will look forward to that as a closure for the family as well. But Minister, I think most Singaporeans will acknowledge that race relations are healthy, and the fact is that – even this legislation that was recently introduced - even MOM’s data shows that the numbers are very small. Yet, we are taking such a big step in legislating it. But sometimes race relations are not so clear-cut regarding race and religion. So how do we navigate this? Speaking about race and religious issues sometimes can be quite intimidating for people; you never know where the discussion will go towards. So how do we navigate this? Especially in this world that we live in that is so polarised and changing all the time? 

Minister: There are many structures which are provided for by NGOs as well as PA and other institutions, for people to come together and discuss race. SMS Janil leads OnePeople.sg where he discusses issues of race in much detail for those who have an interest. There is nothing to prevent people from coming together to discuss it in ways that they want to. I would just say, have a care, because it can easily go off into an attack against each other. And we need to be careful because that can tear our social fabric; and we do have 74% Chinese, 15% Malays, 8% Indians – so distinct communities – and then Others, Eurasians as well. 

We want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable, and we need to have continuous discussions on race, to have that awareness so that people don't just forget about it and slip into patterns of behaviour. So they need to be aware. 

We need to build up conventions, which make it clear; it must be automatic that certain things you don't say, certain things you don’t do and it's the right thing to do. You don't do not just because of the law, but you don't want to do it. It's got to be internalised and that I think we have moved a long way from say where we were in 1965 or 1975 to now, where I would say it's now become the convention. So you don't need the laws for most people to avoid being racist. And we’ve got to continue to work at it. And as I said, we got to move from there and I think we are moving, we have moved, to celebrating each other's culture. Because as Singaporeans together with our different cultures and celebrations and languages and religions, we can actually be stronger. It brings different perspectives together.

Question: So basically, what you were saying is that the melting pot of cultures in Singapore is actually important – it makes us what Singapore is, right? 

Minister: I would use a different word from ‘melting pot’, because ‘melting pot’ could mean that we all become the same, or look alike. I would say, we used to make this analogy: if you toss together a salad – you put it together, but each one has its own flavour. We’re all Singaporean first. But you celebrate Hari Raya, I celebrate Deepavali or Thaipusam. So, you can understand what I celebrate, I can understand what you celebrate. I can be happy for you, you can be happy for me. Chinese celebrate different festivals, we can see and to the extent that we feel comfortable – and I hope more of us feel comfortable – we should also take part in the celebrations. Particularly if they are cultural and not religious. 

Thankfully, in Singapore, we don’t have a situation where many people feel – oh, I cannot go into this religious institution. Say a wedding is taking place in a temple or a church, people don’t feel, oh, I cannot go there. Some people may feel, but we need to create a bigger and bigger common space, where people feel comfortable. And we can have – as in South Bridge Road, a mosque, a temple, a church somewhere nearby, a synagogue. And people feel completely comfortable going to each of these, and safe. And, come out, you’re still a Singaporean. In National Service, you work together, you have a proportionate number of MPs who are Malays and Indians in Parliament, you have a place in the sun, you have good schooling, good housing, and you have leaders who are actively thinking about this. None of this is to be taken for granted. It can easily change. As you see from the West, and from countries around the region. So not quite a ‘melting pot’.

Melting pot means all of us come together and we create one dish. We don’t want that. We want our distinct flavours, we want people speaking Malay, speaking Chinese, speaking Tamil or other Indian languages, and at the same time being able to converse in English, and celebrating our different cultures, and drawing strength from your roots, and creating, at the same time, a common Singaporean identity. That’s what makes us successful.

Question: So, I mean, race relations will continue to be a work in progress, yes?

Minister: Yes, it will always be a work in progress.

Question: From time to time, there will be some incidents that we have to tackle…

Minister: 60 Police reports in a year, when there were heightened sensitivities; it’s probably come down now. If it goes up to say 600, then I would say there is a problem. 

Host: Then we will invite you again for another podcast.

Minister: Hopefully, we would have taken action by then. By the time from 60 it goes to 90, we would have taken action. 
Host: Maybe just to wrap up this podcast today, I think we talked about tackling this as a society. Like PM Lee Hsien Loong actually mentioned in his National Day Rally speech – it is our mutual trust that has become the bedrock of our success. Like today’s discussion, we can only add to this process of building trust among the different races within the society. Thank you so much Minister and Hadi for joining me today. Maybe we hope to see you in another episode on the #NoTapis podcast?

Minister: If you invite, I will come.

Co-Host/Host: Thank you Minister.