Race, multiracialism and Singapore's place in the world

At a People's Association Kopitalk dialogue last Saturday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke for the first time about public unhappiness over the reserved presidential election. It is not a step backwards to racial politics, he said, but a necessary move to strengthen multiracialism. Below is an edited transcript of his remarks.

Singaporeans have made significant progress in becoming one people over the last 52 years, but PM Lee said "what we have here is not something natural... It is the result of very hard work, a lot of toil and sweat, and the gradual education and bring
Singaporeans have made significant progress in becoming one people over the last 52 years, but PM Lee said "what we have here is not something natural... It is the result of very hard work, a lot of toil and sweat, and the gradual education and bringing together of people". ST FILE PHOTO

Race has been a fundamental issue for Singapore from the very beginning of our nationhood. In 1965, on the day we became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said Singapore is "not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore".

He said this to assure the minorities in Singapore that they would always be protected and not be treated worse than the majority. But he also said this to remind the Chinese majority never to oppress the non-Chinese, because they themselves had felt squatted upon when Singapore was in Malaysia. It was a two-part message - not only to reassure the minorities but, at the same time, give a sober reminder to the majority not to overstep their bounds and make life miserable for those who are not the same colour as them. Why was this principle so important to us? There are two parts to this answer.

First, this was the fundamental ideal over which we fought with the central government in Malaysia. Our founding fathers - Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Othman Wok - believed passionately in the vision of a multiracial society. Where nobody would be favoured or disadvantaged because of the colour of his or her skin. Where everybody would have equal opportunities, feel kinship with people of different races and religions, and share the same Singapore nationality.

Malaysia was different. The Umno leaders in Kuala Lumpur - the central government - wanted one dominant race, i.e. Malay Malaysians, to enjoy special rights, while the Chinese, Indians and other citizens would forever be in a subordinate position. We fought that, and disagreed with them. Eventually, we separated from them because it could not be settled.

The second reason we have to make a fundamental point about multiracialism is that Singapore is a Chinese-majority country, in a Malay-majority part of South-east Asia. In the 1960s, 50 years ago, Singapore had already been perceived as a "Third China". We were seen as a Chinese country, a proxy, a stooge for communist China, and not an independent player. If Singapore had been identified as a Chinese country, it would have caused problems with our neighbours. We would not have been able to live peacefully in South-east Asia. So we had to make quite sure that people understood that we were an independent, multiracial country.

Singaporeans have made significant progress in becoming one people over the last 52 years, but PM Lee said "what we have here is not something natural... It is the result of very hard work, a lot of toil and sweat, and the gradual education and bringing together of people".ST FILE PHOTO

Therefore, our founding fathers made multiracialism the fundamental principle on which Singapore was founded, and enshrined it in our Constitution. They drafted the National Pledge, where we "pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion".


In South-east Asia, race and religion do not affect only society and politics, but also terrorism and violence. This has afflicted many countries in South-east Asia. Hundreds of Indonesians and Malaysians have gone to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

We are not insulated from terrorism. Every month or two, the Internal Security Department picks up one or two Singaporeans who have become self-radicalised. They are not down and out, and neither are they from the Middle East. They were born and raised in Singapore, educated in state schools. But they have become self-radicalised. Most are men, but there are even some young women. They want to join the militants in Syria, and do something violent in Singapore. So it is not a question of "if", but "when" a terrorist attack might happen in Singapore.

Multiracialism by itself will not stop an attack. It can still happen because even if 99.99 per cent of Singaporeans believed in multiracialism, there would still be a handful who do not. But multiracialism will help us cope with the day after a terrible attack has happened - when people are in shock, in pain, and feeling angry and fearful. It is very easy for an attack by terrorists - who act in the name of Islam - to cause a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, and for us to become split as a society. Many people will be angry and scared. But if you have been working together at this through the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and SGSecure, and you have all our neighbourhood groups and religious leaders working together, then we can hold on together and let life go on as one people.

That is why I recently held closed-door briefings to discuss the issue of terrorist threats. First for Muslim religious and community leaders, and then for a mixed group. The briefings were useful for them to understand how important and urgent the problem of terrorism is, and to get them on our side to help us to deal with it. They responded positively. I think we will have their full cooperation in working towards multicultural unity.


Over the last 52 years, we made significant progress in becoming one people - regardless of race, language or religion. We take pride in our country, and in our identity. We have worked together, built together, mourned together, and celebrated together as one people.

But you must remember that what we have here is not something natural, nor something which will stay there by itself. It is the result of very hard work, a lot of toil and sweat, and the gradual education and bringing together of people. It was also because of the gradual inculcation of shared values and attitudes that we came to have the confidence, trust and mutual respect to make us one people. We brought people together and consciously created common spaces and opportunities. We used English as our common working language, while ensuring a place for our mother tongues. We mixed all races together in HDB estates, so that there are no enclaves or ghettos in Singapore. In schools, we recite the Pledge every day. We created GRCs so that in Parliament we will always have minorities represented.

We came down hard on extremists - regardless of whether they were Chinese chauvinists or Malay, Indian or Hindu extremists - because they have to understand that this is what Singapore is, and this is how Singapore will act when racial chauvinists try to stir up sentiments against others.

Sometimes we think we have arrived, and that we can do away with these provisions and rules which feel like such a burden. But in fact, it is the other way around. It is precisely because we have these provisions and rules that we have achieved racial and religious harmony.

We have not yet arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race. Yes, we have made progress, but it is a work in progress.

Last year, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) did a survey. They asked people what they thought about being with someone of a different race. First, "Are you okay with somebody of a different race being your colleague?" No problem. "Are you okay with somebody of a different race being your business partner?" Here, they have to think a bit more carefully. "Are you okay with a person of a different race becoming your daughter-in-law?" Very difficult. But this is the reality. We are friends and citizens together but there are different circles of trust. One of these circles is being of the same religion and race.

IPS did a different survey with CNA and asked: "Are you okay with a person of a different race being President?" The answer was: "I have to be more careful than having my colleague at the next desk work with me, but it is a bit easier than having a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law." I think that is an honest answer. We are not completely colour-blind, and this makes a difference. It will influence our thinking and choices, either consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, it is harder for a minority - a Malay or Indian or Eurasian - to win an open election for President, than it is for a Chinese.

I think you can accept it when I tell it to you like this. But when you make these arguments outside, people get worked up about the reserved election. They wish this bias were not true. But I just give you one fact.

This time we had a reserved election. There were three Malay candidates who came forward, of whom two did not qualify - but they came forward. Then you look at the presidential election in 2011. It was hotly contested. A lot of people thought the Government needed to be checked. Was there a Malay candidate? Where were the Farid Khans and the Salleh Maricans? Why didn't they come? It did not cross their minds? No. So why didn't they come? Because they knew that in an open election - all things being equal - a non-Chinese candidate would have no chance. So you had Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say. But you did not have a Marican, nor a Khan or any other Malay candidate. It is a reality. We have to know this, we have to manage this.

These are the big trends. Elections happen only once in a while. But even in our day-to-day lives, we have racial issues that we have to deal with. Minorities sometimes face discrimination when looking for jobs. Sometimes, landlords prefer not to have minorities rent a house from them. Racial stereotypes persist in conversations and jokes.

There was a recent incident where someone put up a decoration with a young Malay girl's picture on a construction hoarding. It showed her wearing a tudung. And after that, somebody went and pencilled "terrorist" on the picture.

These are the realities we have to manage. The Chinese in Singapore may not realise it, because the Chinese are the majority race.

They may think that Singapore has "arrived" as a multiracial society. The younger ones have known only peace and harmony in Singapore, and it is very easy to believe that race does not matter any more. But this is not so. We have to know our blind spots, and make a special effort to ensure our minority communities feel welcomed and valued in Singapore.

The Chinese community particularly must make a special effort to make the minorities feel welcome in Singapore.


This is why we amended the Constitution to ensure that minorities regularly have a chance to be the President, and to strengthen ourselves as a multiracial country. Just having multiracial Presidents will not in itself make Singapore a multiracial country. But it is one important symbol of what Singapore stands for, and a declaration of what we aspire to be. It is a reminder to every citizen, especially the Chinese majority race, that there is a role for every community in Singapore.

We have not had a Malay President since our very first President, Encik Yusof Ishak, more than 50 years ago. But I am very happy that we now have Madam Halimah Yacob as our President. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said when we were attending her swearing-in, and singing Majulah Singapura: "It is a special feeling."

We have spent nearly two years preparing to make this move. Ever since I raised the subject when Parliament opened in January 2016, we have been discussing and debating this continually. But it is only now that people are seized with it, after a reserved election in which only one candidate qualified.

There was some unhappiness. I can feel that; you do not have to tell me. People think we may be going backwards, towards racial politics. But actually the reality is the opposite: We are making necessary changes to strengthen our multiracial system, in order to continue to progress as one united people. If we did nothing, it was very likely that we would not have had a Malay President for a very long time. After a while, the minorities in Singapore would start to feel left out, and understandably so. The Chinese majority might also become less sensitive to other races. This would weaken our sense of shared nationhood for all Singaporeans.

When we created the elected presidency about 25 years ago, we knew that we might have trouble electing minority Presidents. In fact, Malay Singaporeans at that time immediately sensed this - that it would be difficult to have a Malay President in future. But at that time we had to address the more pressing issue - how to find good candidates to be President. So we decided to observe and see how things developed. Now, after 25 years, it is time. We know how things have developed, and how they are likely to be for quite a long time to come. We think we know what to do in order to mend this problem.

We should not be shy to acknowledge that in Singapore, the majority is making a special effort to ensure that minorities enjoy full and equal treatment. We are not unique in making special arrangements for our head of state. It is necessary in many multiracial countries. They make deliberate arrangements - either constitutional rules or conventions - but they have some kind of rotation or special representations for the minorities. Canada's governor-general alternates between the French-speaking and English-speaking communities. In New Zealand, they have minorities too. They have had a governor-general of Indian descent, and the current governor-general has Maori blood. These examples do not happen by chance. In these countries, they specifically looked for distinguished individuals from minority communities to be the head of state. Switzerland - an ideal country, 900 years of nationhood - they have got Swiss Germans, Swiss French, Swiss Italians, and their president rotates between these three groups. Because if you just have an open election, the Swiss Germans would probably win every time. That is why we have to make arrangements.

How did we have Encik Yusof Ishak as President? It was not an election, but a choice. How was the choice made? Mr Lee Kuan Yew specifically looked for a distinguished Malay. Why? Because he wanted to show Singaporeans and the Federation of Malaya that we can work with the Malays, that we are part of Malaya, and we are one Malayan society, and not a Chinese society. So he asked Encik Yusof Ishak, who agreed and became our Yang di-Pertuan Negara, and later our first President.

Today, our Presidents are chosen by election. But we need to have mechanisms in place so that minorities have a chance. How did we do that? The Constitutional Commission recommended a hiatus-based mechanism, with reserved elections for the presidency. This meant that if there was no Malay President for a long time, the next election would be reserved for a Malay. No Indian President for a long time, and the next election would be reserved for an Indian. In fact, for good measure, the Commission said if there was no Chinese President for a long time, then the next election would be reserved for the Chinese.

Actually, there was no need to do so for the Chinese. But the Chinese community felt that if you did not also make provisions for the Chinese, something was not right under the sun. So we did it, and this shows you just how sensitive and necessary the mechanism is.


Did I know that this subject would be a difficult one? That it would be unpopular and cost us votes? Yes, I knew. If I do not know that these are sensitive matters, I cannot be in politics. But I did it, because I strongly believe, and still do, that this is the right thing to do. There is nothing natural about where we are - multiracial, multi-religious, tolerant and progressive. We made it happen, and we have got to protect it, nurture it, preserve it, and never break it.

President Halimah said at her swearing-in ceremony that she could understand why people did not like the reserved election. And, like them, she looks forward to the day when we no longer need it, and Singaporeans naturally and regularly elect citizens of all races as President. I, too, hope that we will eventually not need such a mechanism to ensure minority representation. But we are not there yet, and it will take a long time to happen. In climbing towards that ideal state, we need guide-ropes and guard-rails to help us get there and to prevent us from falling off along the way. The reserved election for the President is one such guard-rail.

After the swearing-in, I posted a picture on Instagram of myself, President Halimah and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. A Chinese, a Malay and an Indian - only in Singapore. During the F1, one international visitor from Brazil saw the picture and commented on it. He said it was most amazing what we have in Singapore. He could not imagine it happening anywhere else.

In fact, it is amazing. It shows what Singapore is - multiracial, meritocratic, one flag, one people. That is what makes us Singaporean. It is not just resonant rhetoric, or a warm, fuzzy feeling. We have to live it out daily, in little ways and big. You have a neighbour of a different race, and you can celebrate each other's festivals. Share pineapple tarts, kueh dadar and murukku - many reasons to break your diabetes vows! But it is also much more than that. It is about having colleagues and true friends from different races whom we laugh and cry with. It is about being able to accommodate one another and to work through our differences. It is about having the honesty to recognise that our multiracialism is not yet perfect, but having the courage and determination to take pragmatic steps to get there, step by step.

That is how we will continue to expand our common space, strengthen trust, and become one people, one nation, one Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline Race, multiracialism and Singapore's place in the world. Subscribe