Diversity As Singapore’s Strength

1965 still stands today as a pivotal year in Singapore’s history. That year saw Singapore declaring its independence as a sovereign state after separating from Malaysia due to differences in political ideologies between the leaders of both countries. Only a year ago in 1964, these differences had birthed communal tensions that ultimately spawned the racial riots (“Communal riots of 1964”, 2014; “Singapore separates from Malaysia”, 2014).

These events taught policymakers an important lesson: Racial tensions must be curtailed to prevent a repeat of the 1964 riots. Thus, the government had to shape Singapore society over the decades through judicious use of policies centred around the theme of multiracialism closely intertwined with multiculturalism as core principles (Chua, 2003); every race, language and religion will be treated as equal. Those principles would then act as the state’s “top-down” strategy to drive nation-building efforts and steer policymaking in the years to come (Benjamin, 1976, p. 120-121).

That payoff would come in the form of Singapore gaining a sterling reputation as a multiracial, multicultural, safe and prosperous country to work, play and live in, regardless of one’s background. Kathiravelu (2019) states that “Singapore remains a bastion for liberal mobilities and cultural tolerance”. Though, she adds that Singapore must build an inclusive society that recognises the inequalities resulting from differences. Here, Kathiravelu is speaking of Singapore as a plural society where differences must be acknowledged yet not cause tension nor strife between the different races (Benjamin, 1976; “Pluralism in Singapore”, 2009).

So, against the backdrop of Singapore’s history marred by racial clashes, inequality and differences, this paper will stake the claim that Singapore’s approach to managing a diverse populace is sufficient but not perfect. Adding substance to that claim is the absence of racially sparked riots in over 40 years (Chen, 2014); that absence will be used as a yardstick to affirm the validity of state policies. Additionally, a sociological perspective can then examine how policies preserved and encouraged the blossoming of diversity in the racial and religious aspects of Singapore and its citizens in a sensitive manner, all found on an island spanning only 742 square kilometres.

To Build a Multiracial Society

In 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared that Singapore was “not a country that belongs to any single community” but one that belonged to “all of us” (“A place for all”, 2015). With multiracialism and multiculturalism as guiding principles in nation and state-building, the government remained steadfast to Lee’s words. Building a place for every Singapore citizen necessitated the government’s hand in civic society.

Benjamin (1976, p. 120-121) notes the “multiracial guide for social action” and writes of the clear delineation in the races. Then, Singapore citizens were constantly categorised as either a Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian. In doing so, citizens were pressured to define themselves and conform along ethnic lines. Benjamin (1976, p. 124-125) further notes the strict adherence to cultural rules in Singaporeans and government ministers. As a result, the multiracialism model had bred in its citizens the cultural knowledge and “link” to their ancestral homelands, even if they were not born there.

A Common Language

However, there were challenges. The largely migrant society of Singapore then and even now meant that citizens spoke different languages. Thus, Prime Minister Lee had citizens adopt English as the national language alongside a “mother tongue”; this was the concept of bilingualism.

The Chinese would learn Mandarin, the Indians would speak Tamil and the Malays would pick up the Malay language. Having English as a national language mitigated the communication barriers between people from different races. The effect of speaking one common language also meant that minorities are not disadvantaged. If the majority Chinese population conversed and transacted in Mandarin, this could potentially reduce the social inclusivity of the other races and effectively bar minorities from meaningful participation in society.

Thus, Bilingualism was one such state policy in ensuring inclusivity and cohesion of all races and different ethnicities. Lee Kuan Yew noted the tight link between language and culture in forming a coherent society. He coined the “cultural ballast” and described how culture and language tie in the behaviour, beliefs and value patterns of citizens, thereby anchoring people to a nation and contributing to its stability.

Multiracial Representation and Integration

Much more effort had to be made to steer Singapore towards a multiracial ideal. In the political sphere, Singapore bakes into its constitution the guarantee for minority representation. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme aimed to do just that (Ng, 2017). 

The number of minority Members of Parliaments (MPs) grew to over 30 as a result despite civil society group Maruah arguing that the GRC scheme shuts out smaller political parties who may not be able to field enough candidates to form a team. The GRC may not be a perfect system, but it must be acknowledged that minority representation is at least achieved to a relative extent.

One clue that points to fault lines is in the formation of racial enclaves seen when people from the same race congregate in housing estates. Hence, the Singapore government sought to eradicate enclaves by implementing the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) which set racial quotas that must not be exceeded in such estates. The policy also aimed to seed estates with a balanced mix of ethnicities to encourage interracial mingling; it has largely worked as seen in the lack of deep racial conflict on a wide scale.

Conscripted Interracial Harmony

National Service (NS) is commonly cited as a vehicle in promoting interracial harmony. Regardless of race, language, religion or class, conscripts are drafted and intermingling of people across every segment of society is essentially made mandatory. Dr Tan Ern Ser notes that conscripted soldiers acquired a “common national purpose” (Ng, 2017). 

As Singapore is a vulnerable and tiny nation-state surrounded by countries many times its size, NS serves to bolster Singapore’s defence capabilities but also strengthen the ties between citizens and state. Singapore allocates a considerable amount in its defence budget. That is understandably so, given its size as compared to potentially hostile neighbours. The “siege mentality” was and still is a dominant narrative that continues to shape the civic, political and religious aspects of Singapore society.

The next section will expand upon the sensitive yet critical need to establish a safe and harmonious space for the practice of religion.

Religious Freedom in Diversity

A 2014 analysis by the Pew Research Center paints Singapore as the world’s “most religiously diverse nation in the world” (2016, Benner). In a Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations (CDAC) held in Beijing, President Halimah said that “Singapore’s diversity is its strength”. That strength is derived from a Singaporean society boasting equality in ethnicity, religions and culture. She further adds that Singapore safeguards and promotes racial and religious harmony (Cheong, 2019). This points to the government’s consistent stance on protecting religion and its practice through state policies despite it being a secular state.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) states that Singapore is vulnerable to being exploited by foreign actors seeking to harm Singapore society. Hence, the government amended the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) to streamline and safeguard the nation’s religious harmony against harmful actors and influences (Kwang, 2019). The government even recognises the offence when committed by foreign actors based outside of Singapore.

Additionally, the government sanctions spaces for the practice of different religions (Mathews, Lim, & Selvarajan, 2019, p. 12-13). One can pass by a church, mosque and temple all in the same street. Singapore also encourages and acknowledges religious diversity by gazetting holidays marked by the major religions from Vesak Day, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali and Christmas. 

It is readily apparent that Singaporeans can freely practise any religion without ideological conflicts giving rise to strife (Benjamin, 1976, para. 1). These are all indicators of the ease with which Singaporeans interact and transact with each other, bolstering the evidence of successful state policies in reducing racial conflicts arising from religious practice.

Conclusion

Singapore’s approach to diversity, while not perfect, is sufficient as long as state policies evolve with the times. Singaporeans must tap into diversity as a source of strength and avoid having itself split by racial or religious lines. The state must also continue to be mindful in separating religion from politics by remaining a secular state.

References

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Benjamin, G. (1976). The cultural logic of Singapore’s ‘Multiracialism’. Riaz Hassan (Ed.), Singapore: Society in Transition, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 115–133. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/1022143/The_cultural_logic_of_Singapores_multiracialism_

Benner, T. (2016, September 27). Singapore’s Road to Multiculturalism. Fair Observer. Retrieved from https://www.fairobserver.com/region/asia_pacific/how-to-overcome-racial-tensions-55645/

Chen, S. (2014, October). The Little India Riot: Domestic and International Law Perspectives. Third International Conference on Human Rights and Peace and Conflict in Southeast Asia 2014, October 15-16. 1-18. Research Collection School Of Law.

Cheong, D. (2019, May 15). Singapore’s diversity is its strength. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/singapores-diversity-is-its-strength-president-halimah-yacob-tells-conference-on

Chua, B. H. (2003). Multiculturalism in Singapore: an instrument of social control. Institute of Race Relations, 44(3), 58-77.

Kathiravelu, L. (2019, January 16). Rethinking Singapore’s approach to diversity and social inclusion. TODAY. https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/re-thinking-singapores-approach-diversity-and-social-inclusion

Kwang, K. (2019, September 2). Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: What you need to know about the proposed changes. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/maintenance-of-religious-harmony-act-what-you-need-to-know-11864292

Ng, K. (2017, August 8). The policies that shaped a multiracial nation. TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/policies-shaped-multiracial-nation

Pluralism in Singapore: Something to talk about. (2009). Singapore Management University. Retrieved from https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2012/06/26/pluralism-singapore-something-talk-about

Singapore separates from Malaysia and becomes independent. (2014). National Library Board. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/dc1efe7a-8159-40b2-9244-cdb078755013