SINGAPORE - Malayalees have long embraced and celebrated diversity, and shown how it can be turned into a strength, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Sept 29).
The community includes Hindus, Muslims, Syrian Christians and Roman Catholics, and is an example of the importance of staying open and outward-looking, he added.
Mr Lee was speaking at a dinner organised by the Singapore Malayalee Association to celebrate its 100th anniversary, where he noted that the South Indian state of Kerala, where Malayalees hail from, has since its early years been a melting pot of cultures and faiths.
And today, it remains a diverse, open, and outward-looking part of India.
This, said Mr Lee, is one reason for the success of Malayalees in Singapore and around the globe, and is also vital to other societies that - like Singapore - depend on globalisation and international trade.
"In many countries, exclusivity and extremism are growing, and breeding racial and religious distrust. Singapore is not immune to these diseases, but we can protect and strengthen our multiracial system to make our society more resilient against such external pressures," he said.
"The Malayalee community has shown how we can turn diversity into our strength. Singapore needs to do the same on a national level with our different races and religions."
In his speech, Mr Lee thanked the association for its work in uplifting the Malayalee community and strengthening the social fabric here, and announced that the endowment fund it had set up two years ago, as part of SG50, has now doubled to $1 million. It supports bursaries, which are open to all Singaporeans
He also noted that its centenary is a reminder that Singapore's nation-building history goes beyond its 52 years of independence.
The Malayalees, he said, were already here when Sir Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore's shores in 1819.
Since the Singapore Malayalee Association was set up in 1917, it has helped look after the welfare of the thousands of Malayalees who made the journey from Kerala to Singapore.
And while the community may be a small one - numbering just 26,000 - Malayalees have contributed significantly to the country's development.
Mr Lee cited former president Devan Nair, chief justice Sundaresh Menon and Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon as some of the outstanding Malayalees here. And Parliament currently has three Malayalee members: Senior Minister of State for Education and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, and MPs Vikram Nair and Murali Pillai.
The association has, over the years, helped the needy as well as helped preserve and promote the Malayalee culture within Singapore's multiracial context.
On Friday night, it paid tribute to some of its members for their work promoting Malayalam literature and arts, as well as their contributions to the wider community. Among them were dance pioneer Santha Bhaskar, poet and social activist K Bhasi and Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, who has not just represented Singapore's interests overseas in his long years as a diplomat, but helped build a vibrant and cohesive Indian cultural identity as the association's advisor and the chairman of the Indian Heritage Centre.
Said Mr Lee: "Your story is an important strand in our historical and cultural tapestry."