SINGAPORE - It is entirely baseless to claim that there is "Chinese privilege" in Singapore, though some Chinese Singaporeans might be unaware of how ethnic minorities feel, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 29).
In the Mandarin portion of the National Day Rally, PM Lee made the point that all races are treated equally in Singapore, with no special privileges for any.
But he also called on Chinese Singaporeans - who make up 76 per cent of the citizen population - to be understanding and accommodating of the concerns and difficulties faced by ethnic minorities here, especially in the areas of renting homes and looking for jobs.
PM Lee noted that in the early years of nationhood, Singapore's founding leaders stood firm on the overarching policy of racial equality, and that the Government was impartial when drafting laws and administrative measures not favouring any race.
This fundamental founding policy was supported by the Chinese community and became the bedrock of Singapore's multiracial harmony, he said.
"Chinese Singaporeans made some concessions for the greater good. For example, to put the ethnic minorities more at ease, we adopted English as our lingua franca. The use of English put those who spoke only Mandarin and dialects in a disadvantageous position," he said.
"Therefore, it is entirely baseless to claim that there is 'Chinese privilege' in Singapore."
He added that few countries have made it a policy to treat all races equally, and even fewer have actually managed to make it a reality.
The term "Chinese privilege", adapted from "white privilege" as used in the United States to describe the dominance of a group due to its racial identity marker, has sparked heated debate over its application and relevance to Singapore's majority ethnicity.
Proponents argue that to reject Chinese privilege is to ignore the discrimination faced by minorities here.
In his speech, PM Lee said the Chinese community had made a compromise half a century ago, with some feeling that they had made a "huge concession".
"But what we see after 56 years is testament that this fundamental national policy has benefited all races, including the Chinese," he added. "It has also helped to strengthen our relations with our neighbouring countries, and built mutual trust."
Still, he observed that decades of peace may have led to racial harmony being taken for granted, and to Singaporeans becoming less sensitive.
"Some Chinese Singaporeans may be unaware of how our ethnic minorities feel," said PM Lee. "While the different communities have become closer, racial emotions still exist."
In renting homes, for example, ethnic minorities sometimes come across Chinese home owners who would prefer not to have tenants of a particular race.
"Not all home owners are like that, but it's not difficult for us to imagine how hurt these minority tenants feel when they have such encounters," said PM Lee.
Minorities sometimes face more difficulties when looking for jobs as well, he added.
While it is understandable that some jobs demand Chinese language proficiency, for employers to still state Mandarin as a requirement for jobs that do not need it will be perceived by minorities as unreasonable and unfair.
"When we seek friends and life partners, we are drawn to those with similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This is human nature and common to any society or race. These are matters that concern our private lives and personal decisions, and generally have no great impact on society," he said.
"But when employing someone or renting a house... These involve the common space that all races share and directly affect race relations. If we let the preferences of such employers and home owners build up over time, they will become prejudice, and minorities will feel they are being discriminated against.
"If left unaddressed, such preferences will gradually deepen the fissures in our society," he cautioned.
The Prime Minister also said the Government will support all races in promoting and preserving their own rich cultural heritage.
The Republic's Chinese culture has also developed over time to reflect its unique Singapore spirit, he added, citing Cultural Medallion recipient Lim Tze Peng, who has integrated the artistic traditions of East and West to create his own unique style.
On Chinese-emphasis Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, he hopes these institutions would let their students - who are more likely to be Chinese - interact more frequently with members of other races.
"So that they will understand the importance of safeguarding our multicultural society from a young age. We must continue to prioritise this," he added.
PM Lee also pointed out how Singapore has accepted ethnic Chinese from overseas, among them successful individuals who have become Singaporean and done the country proud. For example, national table tennis player Yu Mengyu, who came to Singapore at age 17, moved and won the respect of many Singaporeans with her determination during a run to the semi-finals at the Olympics this year.
Calling on all Singaporeans to uphold the principle of racial equality, PM Lee said: "I hope Singaporeans of all races can continue to work for the greater good in the spirit of mutual compromise. Only then can we achieve lasting harmony and unity as a country and society."