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Why It Matters

Safeguarding social harmony

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam this week made clear where Singapore stands on safeguarding the rights of its minorities.

The country remains committed to protecting them, and guarantees safety, security and freedom to all, including the Muslim community, he told a symposium on religion, conflict and peace-building.

Singapore has long held firm to the principle of equality and equal opportunities for all races and religions, but recent upheavals around the world lend Mr Shanmugam's message new heft.

His pledge brings welcome reassurance at a time of global turmoil made worse by policies of the new US President Donald Trump, who last week suspended refugee admissions to the country, and put a temporary entry ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. His move validates anti-Islamic sentiments among some segments of his voters. These feelings have found a foothold not just in the US, but in other Western countries as well.

These are grave cautionary tales for Singapore, where the potential for sharp cleavages exist as well. It is not immune from Islamophobia, as it sits in a region gripped by growing religious extremism.

But Singapore must preserve its hard-won harmony. Mr Shanmugam highlighted a sobering reminder. Singapore's racial make-up - with the Chinese forming 74 per cent of its population - means majoritarianism could have taken hold.

But it did not, a development he credited to Singapore's founding leaders, whose strong beliefs in equality permeated government policies in the past 50 years, and laid the foundation for social harmony.

But Singaporeans need to do their part too and strive to expand the common space. They need to be constantly aware the situation can change swiftly if any party chooses to protect its own interests.

Mr Shanmugam's message serves as a balm in these uncertain times, assuring minorities of their place in Singapore. It should also be taken as a call to action, and a reminder to both the Government and the people that they cannot let up on efforts to safeguard Singapore's hard-won harmony.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'Safeguarding social harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe