SINGAPORE - Everyone wants to reach the ideals of a "race-blind" society, where there is no racial prejudice and discrimination in attitudes and practices, the way people treat one another, and select candidates for jobs, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman.
But the desire for such a society should not be confused with "being blind to the genuine differences and contexts across races", he added.
Singaporeans should also take care not to ignore or underestimate the "severe and sometimes unintended negative consequences that can easily occur with unrestrained comments" on race relations and related issues, he said.
Speaking during the debate on the President's Address in Parliament on Thursday (Sept 3), Dr Maliki called on all Singaporeans to continue upholding a spirit of respect for all races, and strengthen the nation's racial and religious harmony, and its multicultural ethos, which he said is "core" to building a fair and equitable society.
Dr Maliki, who is also Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, outlined the key principles he said Singaporeans should continue to agree on.
First, to be an inclusive society, Singaporeans must accept that there are differences across races and approach these differences in a constructive manner, he said.
"These could be differences in cultural traditions and practices, emphasis on priorities and what matters more in life, but also the specific community problems or issues that members of a race group find that they have to grapple with, and require dedicated attention and assistance," he added.
To continue being an inclusive society, Singaporeans must recognise, appreciate, understand and accommodate these differences, he said.
Singaporeans, Dr Maliki said, should also allow for a "positive sense of racial identity to exist and develop", and have in place a comprehensive set of policies and community initiatives, including self-help groups.
This will help address issues in the community as part of a larger ecosystem that provides help to those who need it, and solve problems effectively and with empathy.
On Tuesday in Parliament, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) touched on several issues the Government could review to move Singapore along in its "journey towards being a race-blind society".
She also called for an open review of several race-based policies, including the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model of ethnic classification and the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy.
On Thursday, Dr Maliki said there is no inherent contradiction in an individual having a strong racial identity as well as a strong Singaporean one.
To be truly Singaporean is to understand and respect race differences, he added.
That is why having in place the CMIO framework "does not make us less Singaporean, and doing away with it does not mean we will become more Singaporean", he said.
"To be truly Singaporean does not at all mean that we must forgo or dilute our racial identity, or pretend that we are not of a particular race, or can't see the race of a fellow Singaporean."
However, it is key that there is awareness of and respect for these differences, he added.
Such an attitude has added to the richness of Singapore's culture, instead of an approach that makes it seem like races and their differences do not exist, he said.
Dr Maliki said how race issues are discussed publicly - and how the boundaries of such dialogues are pushed - will evolve over time.
But Singaporeans, he added, need to always remember to make the effort to be inclusive, especially when the interaction is conducted in common spaces. They should also work towards building mutual understanding, he said.
Said Dr Maliki: "The underlying value and guiding principle must be mutual respect for differences and strengthening social cohesion."