Race and religion in Singapore took centre stage at the annual Conversation dialogue organised by the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity on 4 April 2017. The dialogue panel consisted of Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC); Dr Matthew Matthews, Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS); and Dr Roland Chia, the ETHOS Institute™ Steering Committee’s theological and research advisor and Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College.
Dr Chia, the panel moderator, kicked off the dialogue by asking Dr Matthews to share some significant findings from his extensive research on race and inter-faith relations in Singapore. Dr Matthews said that Singapore started off well. In an IPS survey some years ago, less than 10 per cent of those from the minority races felt that they received any worse service from the public sector because of their ethnicity. Ideologically, it has also been generally accepted that a multi-cultural society is good.
While Singapore has made much progress in inter-racial relations since the 1960s, Dr Chia brought up a finding in a recent IPS survey that 40 per cent of the respondents felt that racial tensions had not gone away. Furthermore, 30 percent shared that they had encountered an unpleasant experience with someone of a different ethnic group. Dr Chia asked: What are the fault lines and contentious elements still plaguing inter-racial harmony in Singapore?
Dr Matthews responded that the reality is fault lines do exist, not just in minority-majority relations but also with regard to perceived discrimination. Whether real or perceived, discrimination is real to the person who experiences it. He elaborated that the same IPS survey revealed at least a quarter of the minorities felt discriminated against in their jobs and some said they had to work a lot harder. While racial stereotypes persist, Dr Matthews voiced optimism as he has observed some younger people fighting against such stereotyping and engaging in conversations about how to change things and move forward. In addition, compared to the older generations, younger Singaporeans tend to be more multi-racial in their friendships.
Minister Chan noted that people may not be entirely logical in how they view other races. He went on to say that more intercultural marriages – not just between different races within Singapore but also across national boundaries – has led to a more diverse society than in the past.
Adding that many young Singaporeans (aged between 18 and 25 years) appeared to feel we are already “one country, one people, one Singapore”, Minister Chan voiced concern that they assume there is no need to think about issues of race and religion. He said that many things the majority takes for granted may not be so easily accepted. He expressed his belief that it is the majority’s responsibility to lean forward, go the extra mile and be sensitive to the minority’s needs and sentiments. Underscoring the difference between optimism and complacency, he said while he is optimistic, he hopes that Singaporeans do not become complacent.
Dr Chia highlighted that in the recent IPS survey, 70 per cent of the respondents agreed that the government is responsible for racial and religious harmony in Singapore. While the government has done much to foster social cohesion, another perspective – which may cause some alarm – is that it may signal an over-reliance on the government when social harmony is not just the responsibility of the government but of each and every individual.
Minister Chan’s response was that the government will always have a role in building a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Based on his experience with civil society in Singapore, he observed the general trend is that people are now stepping up and adopting a more proactive role. The roles of the government and civil society are not mutually exclusive since both parties should work closely to complement each other.
Dr Chia went on to pose a question about the Singaporean identity. He mentioned that Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had emphasised the importance of Singapore’s unity as a nation – one united people regardless of race, language or religion. One way to do this is to think of oneself as Singaporean first, e.g. Singaporean Chinese rather than Chinese Singaporean. Dr Chia asked whether being Singaporean first is intuitive or if we still had a long way to go.
“The frank answer is today we are better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today, I am confident of that. But are we there yet? Probably not,” replied Minister Chan. He said that the Singaporean identity is both the nation’s strength and challenge. He explained that historically and anthropologically, nation-states tended to form along the lines of geography, race and religion. For many societies, their sense of identity is based on ‘looking backward’ in that their people have usually come from a common stock with similar language and ethnic backgrounds.
Minister Chan’s view is that Singapore is in a unique position – it cannot look back to the past to draw strength from a commonality, so it makes sense to look forward with a vision and develop a shared ethos and set of ideals. Singapore can build on the very powerful concept of offering equal opportunities to everyone, regardless of race, language and religion.
Wrapping up the dialogue, Minister Chan emphasised the need for Singaporeans to work together to come up with better answers for building Singapore as a harmonious multi-racial, multi-religious society. He urged the audience to consider the challenging task of achieving Singapore’s aspiration to build a united nation, which seems to run contrary to the global tide of drawing lines along racial and religious differences.
Dean Koh –
is a member of Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is a writer/journalist by occupation and enjoys taking photographs.