Racial diversity and equality for women may feel like a natural state of things for Singapore, but they did not come about without design, said Madam Halimah Yacob, the Speaker of Parliament.
They are a result of law, policies and community programmes started by the Government over the years, she said yesterday. Yet, legislation cannot solve everything.
"We can, through legislation, prevent people from saying really nasty things, inciting violence against each other or aggression.
"But we cannot really make people like each other and support each other," she said.
Madam Halimah was speaking at a conference on diversity organised by the Singapore chapter of the International Women's Forum (IWF), attended by 140 IWF members and guests who comprised women leaders in sectors ranging from business to academia and law.
Panel discussions ranged from how arts and culture contribute to harmony, to how different generations view diversity. Other speakers included novelist Meira Chand and clothing designer Priscilla Ong Shunmugam.
Madam Halimah said globalisation is giving way to new challenges and social fault lines - specifically, immigration and a rise in inter-ethnic marriages, as well as terrorism.
At the same time, Singapore is reaching the limits of what policy alone can do, she said. "It is clear that Government cannot and should not single-handedly create harmony or shape our future."
But a strong civic culture can overcome these challenges, said Madam Halimah, describing it as "one in which everyone sees that a harmonious society is a shared responsibility for all. One in which there is care and consideration for each other, mutual respect between different groups and maturity when negotiating differences, which are inevitable. One in which everyone feels that they have equal access to opportunities to improve their lives".
If people disagree, they must still remember "we are dealing with a human being with a life story, with their own share of joy and grief that made them who they are today".
Madam Halimah said Singaporeans need to speak up against violence, unkind behaviour, prejudice and discrimination.
"Sometimes, when everyone is silent in the face of unacceptable behaviour, we may mistakenly assume that we are alone and, even worse, that our fellow citizens condone such behaviour," she said.
"We must show that this is not the case. We all share this civic responsibility, regardless of race, language or religion."