Some Singaporeans who have no direct knowledge of wrenching past events may see the observance of Racial Harmony Day today as a politically correct annual ritual that is conducted more for form's sake. Just as no one doubts the capabilities of the institutions and people behind the security of the nation, the resilience of the bonds that have brought the communities closer over time is taken for granted. Indeed, Singapore's achievement of security on the foreign and domestic fronts, as well as the state of race relations, is a key marker of its arrival as a nation-state. In a sense, the experience of everyday life bears testimony to the reality of total defence and racial harmony.
Yet, there is value in remembering the past out of which the present has been moulded through sheer strength of political and social will. The fall of colonial Singapore to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942, was a moment like no other in the strategic history of the island. And the race riots that began on July 21, 1964, when Singapore was a part of Malaysia, threatened the viability of what would become a sovereign nation the following year. To observe Racial Harmony Day is to recall a time when peace, to say nothing of harmony, had fallen apart so badly that the front-page headline of this paper on Sept 5, 1964, read: Singapore a 'danger zone'. Ethnic violence questioned the degree to which the social fabric had been mended since the Maria Hertogh riots of 1950. The wounds had never really healed as 1969 also saw race riots. The social progress achieved since then created confidence in the nation's resilience. But the Little India riots of 2013 sprung an ugly surprise on Singaporeans who believed that they had put lawlessness on the streets behind them.
Hence the need to regularly commemorate the social peace Singaporeans enjoy today. The depredations of global terrorists today threaten not just the lives of people - "enemies" and co-religionists alike - but also the collective identity of communities that have learnt to live together. Suicide bombings and targeted killings can drive them apart. In such circumstances, the fearful might look for security and succour among their ethnic own. Yet, it is precisely this ability to drive inclusive people into exclusively tribal enclaves that gives terrorism its terrifyingly regressive historical power. The challenge is to ensure that Singaporeans will not move backwards should terror strike here one day. Racial harmony cannot be taken for granted, any more than national survival can. Foreign invasions draw communities together against a common enemy. Racial strife fuelled by terror, however, is insidious. It creates mass suspicion and fear that make citizens their own worst enemies. The hard-earned peace that Singapore enjoys today remains something precious and vulnerable, to be cherished and nurtured.