Parliament: S'pore has become less race-conscious, but has not yet arrived at a 'post-racial state', says Edwin Tong

Students in ethnic costumes celebrating Racial Harmony Day at Chua Chu Kang Secondary School on July 17, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While Singapore has become less race-conscious and more tolerant of differences, Singaporeans must not think that they have arrived at an ideal "post-racial state", or that no more effort will be needed to bridge different groups.

"Race and religion remain fault lines, and are emotive issues. The risk of regressing on what we have achieved is always there, and we cannot assume that our progress will be in a straight line," said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong on Thursday (Sept 3) at the debate on the President's Address.

Indeed, Singapore is by no means perfect, and discrimination remains a "visceral lived reality for some", he said, echoing points that had been made by Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) and People's Action Party MP Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC) during the debate this week.

"We must continue to find ways to do better".

Singapore's progress in managing race relations

The minister said that there is "absolutely nothing natural or inevitable" about the progress that Singapore has achieved on issues of race and religion over the years, with the young, especially, perhaps coming closer to the ideal state of unity and harmony than their parents and grandparents.

"If it were an expected or natural progression, it would have occurred elsewhere in the world naturally, including among our neighbours in Asean," said Mr Tong.

"We got here precisely because we have worked consistently and systematically at it, through policies that touch almost every aspect of our lives," he added, noting how Singaporeans of different races live together, study together, and go through national service together as a result of policies that have been put in place.

Common spaces like public parks, schools, libraries, sports facilities and public housing, where all races interact - whether accidentally, or deliberately, through the Ethnic Integration Policy - also help promote a more open and shared outlook across communities by creating opportunities for social mixing and doing things together, he added.

"We recognise that communities can be narrow and exclusive, as well as generous and inclusive. And our policies must be aimed to promote the latter and counter the former."

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Jamus Lim's question regarding minimum wage drew a number of responses from PAP MPs, in particular Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Edwin Tong and Maliki Osman both spoke on matters of race.

A race-blind society should also acknowledge diversity

Consciousness of race in Singapore cannot be erased - nor should it be, Mr Tong said. "If we were all the same, we would have nothing unique to contribute, nor learn from anyone else."

Such diversity adds to the richness of Singapore's culture, and differences should be viewed from "the lens of contribution, and not separation", he added. "Because we are not the same, we each have something unique to contribute, something only we can give to the common good of all of us."

Neither does pledging to remain as "one united people, regardless of race" mean that Singapore should renounce cultural affinities or discourage people of the same community from coming together to support each other and others in the community.

Mr Tong noted that while the ethnic self-help groups are race-based, they are not race-bound, and have rallied their respective communities to serve the more vulnerable across racial and ethnic lines.The volunteers in such groups, too, cut across racial boundaries. Almost a quarter of the volunteers at Malay self-help group Mendaki are not from the Malay race, he said.

"Our ideal is that one day, we want to see a Singapore where we do not need such self-help groups. But that is not going to come about by wishing the differences away. It can only come about by working at it," said Mr Tong, responding to points made by WP chairman Sylvia Lim on Tuesday (Sept 1).

Ms Lim (Aljunied GRC) on Tuesday had called for an open review of various race-based policies, including the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model of ethnic classification, the Ethnic Integration Policy and the race-based self-help groups.

She said that while the self-help groups have done good work, their existence reinforces racial consciousness, and that the different sizes of the ethnic groups contributing to these organisations may also affect the amount of resources they have.

Mr Tong said that Singapore cannot take its social fabric, which has been built up over generations, for granted.

"We must recognise that it takes years to weave a good tapestry, but mere moments to destroy it. And once the threads start unravelling, it will be difficult to bridge the social divide, the racial divide, the ethnic divide, and to stitch the tapestry back together will be a mammoth task."

Singapore's youth must have as much a voice in this discourse on race as anyone else, added Mr Tong. Such discourse must also take place across generations, he added.

"We need to talk about how we can refresh and revitalise the bonds that bind us, because the social solidarity we enjoy today - and that has proven so important during this crisis - is not a given. It needs constant attention."

Thus, Singaporeans have to practise and work on inclusiveness every day. He added that inclusiveness is "not about ignoring or just living with differences, or denying that different groups have different and even conflicting agendas".

"It is about accepting that there is always going to be some give and take. And appreciating that everyone is entitled to their positions as long as those positions do not encroach on another group's right to also have a position, albeit a different one, and perhaps even one that you might disagree with."

A certain maturity of thought is required in order for a meaningful discourse on such issues to take place, said Mr Tong. It also requires common values that anchor the social compact among Singaporeans, as well as between the Government and the people, he added.

"Ms Sylvia Lim on Tuesday spoke about becoming a race-blind society. We share the same aspiration - recognising the individuality of each of our races, but at the same time reaping the strength in that diversity behind the common Singaporean identity."

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