Why It Matters

A place for every race

In Singapore, diversity is a fundamental aspect of the identity of each race, and no race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority.

These remarks on ethnic identity by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were made last week at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. They reaffirm Singapore's approach to multiracialism. It encourages the different races to preserve their own cultures and traditions while appreciating and respecting the practices of others.

PM Lee's comments are timely.

They are also particularly relevant today when far-right sentiments are gaining ground in several parts of the world. The rifts appear to be most visible in Western countries where an influx of immigrants has increased the risk of a clash of cultures.

Minorities are often forced to give up some of their practices to fit in. But PM Lee has made it clear that Singapore is not going down that road.

"Our aim is integration, not assimilation," he said. "Being Singaporean has never been a matter of subtraction, but of addition; not of becoming less, but more; not of limitation and contraction, but of openness and expansion."

This attitude has helped forge a unique Singaporean identity, he said. It is founded on each race retaining and evolving its own culture and heritage while allowing itself to be influenced by the customs and traditions of other races. At the same time, Singapore has frameworks to encourage interaction: The bilingual education system lets people of different cultures communicate, and the common spaces allow various groups to mingle.

The races have played a part, too. As Mr Lee noted, although Chinese are the majority, they did not demand minorities adopt their culture or way of life, or speak Mandarin. Such policies and practices prevent resentment, among minorities particularly, of losing their identity to the majority.

They are vital for ensuring harmony in a multiracial and multi-religious society like Singapore's. People must never let up on it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'A place for every race'. Print Edition | Subscribe