Battle against extremism: Singapore takes a ‘different approach’ on race, religion

Mr K Shanmugam, Minister of Home Affairs and Law, giving a doorstop interview after visiting the Emergency Response Team on July 22.
Mr K Shanmugam, Minister of Home Affairs and Law, giving a doorstop interview after visiting the Emergency Response Team on July 22.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

So far, it has worked but global events show the allure of radicalism remains potent: Shanmugam

Singapore's management of ethnic and religious differences has dampened the lure of extremism in the country, but global events show the allure of radicalism remains very potent, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.

In recent months, there has been a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, and France, in particular, has been hit hard.

This has led some to ask "Why France?", Mr Shanmugam told reporters on Friday when the Government announced that four men have been arrested under the Internal Security Act for terrorism-related activities.

While he stressed that he does not have the answer, he noted the "slightly different approach" France and Singapore take on race and religion.

He compared four key areas, even as he acknowledged that France - a large country with a long history - is unlike Singapore.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

They are not going to go away any time soon. Let's recognise them and then let's see how we work on them to achieve a higher ideal.

MR K. SHANMUGAM, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, on ethnic differences.

For instance, French official documents do not record the ethnic identity of its citizens. In Singapore, identity cards state the race of an individual and some Singaporeans have asked about the need for it. "Many people say, in the IC why are they saying 'race'...why not just say Singaporeans?" he said.

Although Singapore has somewhat succeeded in forming a Singaporean identity, he said ethnic differences have not gone away.

"They are not going to go away any time soon. Let's recognise them and then let's see how we work on them to achieve a higher ideal," he added.

Singapore also forbids the denigration of religion that many Western countries allow in the name of freedom of speech.

"We will not, for example, allow the kind of religious satire that publications can put up, of Catholic nuns engaging in sexual acts or burning of the Quran, in the US under the framework of freedom of speech,'' Mr Shanmugam said.

He added: "Such publications won't be allowed. Burning of religious books will not be allowed. So we take a stricter approach."

Also, Singapore's housing policies prevent ethnic enclaves from being formed. "We live in mixed communities and that's part of our ethnic integration policy - active intervention by the state," he said.

Such ethnic enclaves are found in many countries, including France, but "whether that resulted in these attacks, I can't say", he stressed.

Singapore also ensures adequate representation of different communities, he said, adding that minorities must feel they have a stake in society and fair participation in all aspects of life, including politics, business and academia.

Singapore's group representation constituency (GRC) system guarantees that minorities are represented in Parliament. "If you had a Parliament that did not have that representation... minority communities will feel different about their say and stake in what's happening."

Based on these fundamentals, Singapore has spent decades building tolerance, acceptance and appreciation across religious and racial lines, Mr Shanmugam said.

It is still a work in progress.

He added: "Minorities must not feel shut out unfairly. Meritocracy is important, but they must not feel that there are other factors at play that keep them out."

Community and religious leaders also subscribe to "a common vision for Singapore and a Singaporean identity and subscribe to a secular elected government".

Despite the progress, the fight against extremism is ongoing, he said, adding: "Now, we also have to say a big 'no' to extremism and all teachings that tend towards extremism. Otherwise, the ground would become fertile for extremist teachings to be absorbed and then for terrorism."

Returning to the question of why terrorists are targeting France, he said: "I'm in no position to say but we do some things differently from France based on our history, our geography, our culture. And, so far, it has worked for us but the currents sweeping across the world are very powerful and we are going to face challenging times."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore takes a 'different approach' on race, religion'. Print Edition | Subscribe