SINGAPORE - Singapore's multiracialism is a key defence against the scourge of terrorism, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 3), as he set out how the country will fortify itself against the terror threat.
This fundamental principle of Singapore society needs to be cultivated carefully, he added, even as the country strives to strengthen its social cohesiveness to overcome the challenges posed by terrorism, extremism and radicalisation.
Mr Shanmugam was responding to a parliamentary motion by some MPs that called on the Government and fellow MPs to meet these challenges with dedication and resolve, and by affirming Singapore's longstanding principle of multiracialism.
"We don't have in Singapore movements titled 'Black Lives Matter', or counter-movements 'Blue Lives Matter', because to us, all lives matter," he said, referring to activist movements in the United States.
The motion was filed by four People's Action Party MPs: Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) .
MPs on both sides of the House agreed that multiracialism was a bulwark against terrorists who seek to tear people of different races and religions apart, with Mr de Souza calling ita "socio-weapon".
Workers' Party Non-constituency MP Leon Perera added: "Multiracialism is the surest defence against terror. It is the ultimate goalkeeper."
A total of 17 MPs spoke during the 4 1/2- hour debate and everyone supported the motion.
Mr Shanmugam, in his response, stressed that a united community was a key defence, and the experience of other countries showed the aftermath of a terrorist attack often led to increased suspicion among communities.
"I think if you try to strengthen trust after an attack, it is too late. We need to strengthen cohesiveness and our unity now, and do what we have been going and add on to it," he said.
Going back to the founding of modern Singapore in 1965, he recalled the ideals set out by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said Singapore was to be a multiracial nation, where "everybody will have his place, equal; language, culture, religion".
A strong "Singaporean identity", that will overlay separate racial and religious identities and form the framework of a vibrant society - this is something Singapore can achieve, said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the Government takes an activist stance in this regard with policies that foster inter-religious and interracial harmony.
He also said that race relations remain fraught in most places, drawing MPs' attention to the situation in the United States, where the public's opinion of race relations has plunged in the course of the Obama presidency.
In April 2009, 100 days after President Barack Obama's inauguration, a New York Times/CBS news poll shows 66 per cent of Americans regarded race relations as generally good.
The same poll in July 2016 shows 69 per cent of Americans believes race relations were generally bad - a 40 point drop.
In Germany, the government had assumed new Turkish immigrants would assimilate over time butthe reverse has happened. "Parallel, isolated societies" have been created, he noted.
"We have never believed that a laissez faire approach in creating a national identity, a multiracial society will work. We were activists in this respect," Mr Shanmugam said.
He noted that MPs, including Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), had highlighted the benefits of the Ethnic Integration Policy in housing estates in creating common spaces where Singaporeans of all races can interact. The policy mandates a quota for all communities in HDB estates, to prevent racial enclaves from forming.
Workers' Party MP Mr Perera spoke of his childhood growing up in a three-room HDB flat in Commonwealth and playing with neighbours of different races.
Mr Shanmugam said Singapore's multiracial model had allowed Mr Perera, a "person from a minority community, to go from a rental flat playing with other races - which is a deliberate Government policy - to top schools and then to Oxford (University in England)".
"I believe the State paid for most of that. So in a sense, Mr Perera, you symbolise the success of Singapore's multiracial approach," he said.
Other efforts in this area include using English as a medium of instruction in schools and having National Service.
"We have been fortunate that 50 years ago our leaders had the foresight to deal with this problem without being clouded by ideology. They were practical, they were focused and their ideology was 'we want everybody to be together', which is a noble ideology," said Mr Shanmugam.
"Other countries' experience reminds us that we have to continue to build on the strong foundations that our country has had and we have to continue to be activist."
But more must be done to foster greater integration and keep out the "narrow-mindedness" creeping into some societies.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) cited the case of a laundrette over the Causeway in Muar, which had put up a sign last month saying it only welcomed Muslim customers.
The move caused a backlash that led to the Sultan of Johor publicly admonishing the laundrette's owner, saying the move to limit clientele was unacceptable and "extremist".
Said Mr Shanmugam: "The owner was asked to stop that discriminatory practice or shut down. We would not want something like that in Singapore. The tendencies and the risks are there and we need to guard against them."
He cautioned that Singapore must be on guard for segregationist religious teachings, such as those espoused by extremist Islamic preachers who say Muslims cannot express good wishes to believers during their religious festivals or vote for non-Muslim leaders.
Christian preachers who have made Islamophobic comments have also been banned from coming to Singapore, he added.
"Religion can, and has been a source of strength for our society. But we must also watch for exclusivist, intolerant practices because that can deepen fault lines and weaken our entire society," he said, adding that the Government was reviewing the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to deal with the issue.
He also responded to calls by MPs Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) and Mr Murali for the Government to do more about addressing hate speech online.
He said the Government was "studying whether we need to move more quickly", and be given more options to deal with it.
Mr Shanmugan, who closed his his 50-minute speech to rousing chair-thumps, also emphasised that terrorism was not connected to a single religion.
Rather, it is a threat that will not go away soon, and threatens Singapore's existence as a religiously diverse and harmonious society.
"We must resolve never to allow that, and maintain the precious harmony that we have here," he said.