SINGAPORE - Racial prejudice still exists in Singapore but the country has made much progress over the years and is in better shape today with regard to race issues compared with other countries, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong on Saturday (April 17).
"If you look around the world, I think we can say, hand on heart, that we are one of the few places where people of different races and faiths have lived peacefully and closely together for more than half a century," he said.
"It is something very precious that we must cherish and strive to protect."
Mr Wong was speaking at Regardless of Race, an online dialogue that provides Singaporeans with a platform to share experiences, ideas and views on social cohesion and race issues.
The dialogue was organised by OnePeople.sg and interfaith initiative Roses of Peace in partnership with Mothership. It was moderated by Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information.
Mr Wong said the Government has made a deliberate effort to ensure racial harmony, through multiracial policies in housing and a bilingual policy where all students learn English but also study their mother tongue to retain their cultural roots.
In the country's schools, children also learn together and grow up together, identifying themselves first as Singaporeans.
Said Mr Wong: "This enables us to build closer relationships with one another, and to forge mutual trust and understanding between our different communities.
"At the same time, we do provide space for different ethnic groups to celebrate their own cultures and traditions."
While the young and the old also have differing views on race relations, "we all subscribe to the ideal of a multiracial Singapore", Mr Wong noted.
He said the older generation tread more sensitively on race issues, having witnessed the conflicts and riots of the past, and knowing how difficult a journey Singapore has taken over the years to get to where we are today.
Younger people tend to have different perspectives, and some believe that racial differences are in the past, he said.
"Their reference points on racial issues are also influenced by events happening in other parts of the world, and so they feel we are ready to have more open conversations about race, to be more relaxed about some of our prevailing rules, and to take bolder steps to be a race-blind society."
Mr Wong said he understands the sentiments of both groups as he falls somewhere in between, adding that his parents had both experienced various episodes of racial riots in their lifetimes.
His father was from China but grew up in Malaysia, and experienced racial tensions there before he came to Singapore.
His mother and her family grew up in Kampong Amber, a Malay kampong, and were among the handful of Chinese families living there.
They enjoyed excellent relations with their Malay neighbours, said Mr Wong, but when the 1964 race riots happened, the situation became very tense. They decided to move out.
"Hearing these stories firsthand when I was growing up, I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for everyone during that period of racial strife."
He said he himself grew up in a different environment in the 1970s and 80s, in a Housing Board estate in Marine Parade.
He made friends with children of all races, played football and studied together with them, he said, adding that they were "hardly conscious of our racial differences".
"So, in that sense, I can also appreciate the perspectives of many young people when they express their desire to talk more openly about race, and to take a more progressive approach towards race relations."
Mr Wong also noted that social media has had a strong impact on racial discourse, particularly among young people, providing a platform for them to share the richness of other cultures and identities and move beyond stereotypes.
But it can also be dangerous, he said. "Incidents can be easily framed and sensationalised, quickly turning inflammatory. It can create echo chambers and deepen divisions, where positions harden and it becomes difficult to listen to the other side."
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has a part to play in mitigating such risks, he said.
He noted that MOE is stepping up cyber-wellness efforts and placing greater focus on multicultural appreciation, where students develop values like respect.
Students also get to discuss contemporary issues including on race and religion during Character and Citizenship Education classes, and teachers are being equipped and trained to facilitate these conversations.
However, opportunities to interact with people from other backgrounds should not be limited to within the school but also through other communities, Mr Wong added.
Still, while government policies and community initiatives can set the tone and framework, racial relations eventually boil down to how Singaporeans interact with each other on a daily basis, he said.
"(This includes) how well we know the cultures of our classmates, neighbours and friends; how we take personal responsibility in calling out racial prejudice; and whether we exercise personal responsibility in our discourse on difficult issues."
"We need to consciously create a culture of understanding, respect and trust in our society, where we are not defined by the colour of our skin, but where we value our neighbours of different cultures, religions and origins.
"Every one of us must play a part in this endeavour."