Make minorities feel welcome, PM Lee Hsien Loong reminds Chinese Singaporeans

He recalls founding prime minister's words on the day Singapore became independent


On the day Singapore became independent in 1965, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew declared that "everybody will have a place in Singapore".

He also stressed that Singapore is "not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation".

His remarks on race were not just to reassure minorities, but also a sober reminder to the Chinese majority not to oppress the non-Chinese because they themselves had felt "squatted upon" when Singapore was in Malaysia.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recalled the event at a closed-door dialogue last Saturday with 500 grassroots leaders. A transcript of his speech was released yesterday.

Recounting Singapore's early days as he spoke on race, multiracialism and its place in the world, PM Lee reminded Chinese Singaporeans of their responsibility to make minorities here feel welcome.

He said Singapore's objection to Malaysia's leaders wanting one dominant race to enjoy special rights and its belief in multiracialism led to Separation. This was one of two reasons multiracialism was made the fundamental principle on which Singapore was founded, he said.

The other was about survival as it is a majority-Chinese country in a Malay-majority part of South-east Asia. Being perceived as a "Third China" or a proxy for communist China would have caused problems with Singapore's neighbours, and "we would not have been able to live peacefully" in the region.

In the past 52 years, PM Lee said, Singaporeans have made significant progress in "becoming one people - regardless of race, language or religion". It took hard work, toil and sweat. It is "not something natural, nor something which will stay there by itself", he said.

Measures include designating English as the common working language, imposing ethnic quotas in HDB flats to ensure people of different races live together and creating group representation constituencies (GRCs) so there will always be minority MPs.

"Sometimes we think we have arrived, and that we can do away with these provisions and rules which feel like such a burden," he said. "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."

Still, Singapore has yet to arrive at the "ideal state of accepting people of a different race", PM Lee said, citing surveys that show people are not completely colour-blind.

In day-to-day life, minorities also sometimes face discrimination when looking for jobs or places to rent, he added. The Chinese may not realise it, being the majority race, and "may think Singapore has 'arrived' as a multiracial society".

They, however, may get "small reminders from time to time" of racism when they go abroad.

"If you go to America or Australia or somewhere in Europe, you may know what it feels like to be treated as a minority," PM Lee said.

Younger Singaporeans, having known only peace and harmony in Singapore, may believe race does not matter any more, he added.

"But it is not so. We need to know our blind spots and make a special effort to ensure our minority communities feel welcomed and valued in Singapore," he said, adding that the Chinese community, particularly, needs to make a special effort.

This was the reason for amending the Constitution to provide for reserved presidential elections, to ensure minorities are elected president from time to time, he said.

It applies to the Chinese community too, should there not be a Chinese president for five terms, though PM Lee felt "there was no need to do so for the Chinese".

"But the Chinese community felt 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 this mechanism is."

Other nations too make arrangements to ensure their minorities become head of state, he noted. Canada's governor-general post alternates between the French-speaking and English-speaking communities, and Switzerland's president post is rotated among Swiss Germans, Swiss French and Swiss Italians.

"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," he said.

Having multiracial presidents 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."

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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 Make minorities feel welcome, PM Lee reminds Chinese Singaporeans. Subscribe