S'pore's ethnic harmony made possible because majority knew what was at stake: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaking at a public forum on race relations on July 24, 2021.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaking at a public forum on race relations on July 24, 2021.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans have managed to enjoy living in a peaceful and stable multiracial society because most people here understand the fundamental ideals on which the country was built.

The vast majority of Chinese in Singapore know what is required to uphold this ethnic harmony, and what is at stake, and have helped foster a society at peace with itself despite its diversity.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam made these points at a public forum on race relations on Saturday (July 24), which was organised by government feedback unit Reach and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.

"We are in a very good situation in Singapore… Overwhelmingly, Singapore is a peaceful place, with good racial harmony, good religious harmony," he said.

"The large majority of Chinese Singaporeans, the large majority of Singaporeans, understand the ideals, understand what has made us work, and really, they know what's at stake."

Elaborating, the minister said that if the three major racial groups in Singapore were to collide like balls crashing into one another, the Chinese group would prevail, by virtue of its size.

But this would cause unease among the minorities, and the pushback that could arise would leave everyone worse off.

"Just because there have been recent discussions, a lot of them led by people from the minority communities, doesn't mean we have to go down this road, doesn't mean we have to push along lines of race," he said.

His remarks at the Reach-Zaobao Dialogue come as recent incidents of racism sparked soul-searching about the state of race relations in Singapore.

Also on the panel were Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations president Tan Aik Hock, lawyer Hee Theng Fong, actor Tay Ping Hui, and moderator Ho Sheo Be, political editor of Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese Media Group's NewsHub.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the Chinese, as the majority race, and institutions like Lianhe Zaobao, have a role to play in holding society together. Zaobao has persuaded the Chinese ground to align to the values of multiracialism, even as it promoted Chinese culture and language.

"Singapore is based on a very powerful ideology which runs contrary to the rules of race and nature. Zaobao has helped in nation building by accepting that and putting that forward. It would have been far easier to have played a role as an advocate for Chinese chauvinism. It didn't do that," he added.

This is in contrast to the majoritarian sentiment expressed by some, he said.

At the dialogue, one participant asked why the majority race in Singapore should not be given the right to decide on the direction to take in issues like education and language use, like in other countries. Another had lamented that minority groups were given more and more concessions, but the Chinese were still accused of always having their way.

Noting that these are not mainstream views, Mr Shanmugam added that they were dangerous and could lead Singapore down a slippery slope. He added that he was sad at the tone and substance of these questions.

It was the rejection of majoritarianism that led Singapore to separate from Malaysia in 1965. Right from the start, Singapore's founding leaders had worked to stamp out any kind of chauvinism, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian, to pursue the equality in Singapore that very few societies have tried to achieve, he added.

"I will tell the majority that if we move away from that, the minorities suffer, but the country will suffer, and the Chinese will suffer too. So, let's have a care," he said.

During the dialogue, the minister was also asked about a WhatsApp message, purportedly written by a former Malaysian living in Singapore, who said Singaporean Chinese were naive for allowing Indians to "dominate almost all Singapore's national institutions", such as the Judiciary and the Cabinet.

Describing the message as "nasty, dangerous", Mr Shanmugam said it was worse than the racist sentiments uttered by a Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer who had scolded an Indian man for "preying on Chinese women".

"That was crude and unacceptable, but this is poison, and it's dripping poison," said the minister.

He noted that if Singapore moves away from its current principles towards majoritarianism, statements like those in the WhatsApp message will start to gain traction.

He noted that politically it was easier to appeal to the Chinese ground to win votes, but said he hoped Singapore would never go down that route.

"Singapore will be destroyed, demolished, and the Chinese will suffer as well in the long run, because the racial fault lines will be deeper, you will have a permanent underclass based on race, and that means that the country as a whole will not prosper," he said.

Mr Shanmugam also said that antagonism and extremism has crept into discussions on race here, and warned against this tit-for-tat approach.

One participant at the dialogue, for instance, had suggested that if Special Assistance Plan schools, accused of lacking a multiracial mix, are to be closed, then madrasahs should similarly not be allowed.

Saying he was sad the questions had taken such a tone, Mr Shanmugam added: "Have a care in making these points, because it may come across as pushing very hard. And when the Chinese community pushes hard, it's a scary thing for the minorities."

Another topic that emerged was the issue of "Chinese privilege", or the applying of the idea of "white privilege" to Singapore. The latter refers to differences in institutional treatment of whites and African-Americans in the United States that continue to persist.

The minister noted: "If you tell a significant number of Chinese Singaporeans that they enjoy Chinese privilege, they will be perplexed and they will be upset. Because for them, they gave up their university, they gave up Chinese schools, they gave up what is common in every other society when one race is 75 per cent - that (their) language dominates."

Noting that in every society, being part of the majority brings certain advantages, he added: "But that is not, in my view, the same as privilege. Privilege and structural racism are different from the natural advantages that come from being part of the majority, and some of the disadvantages that come from being part of a minority."

Singapore has worked because the Chinese community had been very mindful when discussing such issues all along, he said, adding that has helped the country safeguard its racial harmony.