Singapore must safeguard position of minorities amid growing polarisation abroad: Shanmugam

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking at the RSIS Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies symposium on Feb 1, 2017. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
(From left) RSIS board of governor chairman Eddie Teo, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, Professor Yan Kejia and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong at the RSIS symposium on Feb 1, 2017. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Singapore must remain committed to protecting its minorities as the world sees a rise in rising anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment, and as the region sees growing polarisation along religious lines, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (Feb 1).

"In the face of all this: our Government must convey a clear message: We are all Singaporeans. We guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community," he said.

"And as a community: we must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism to override the protection and guarantee of equality to minorities."

Mr Shanmugam's comments come as US President Donald Trump moved to ban refugees and temporarily keep the citizens of seven Muslim-dominated countries out of the United States. The situation in the US could lead Muslims around the world to turn against it, believing it has become more Islamophobic, he noted.

This situation presents a serious risk for Singapore, said Mr Shanmugam at a symposium.

With its 15 per cent Muslim and 85 per cent non-Muslim population, it can easily face a similar situation amid the growing anti-Islamic rhetoric around the world, he added.

The Government must steer clear of engaging in racial politics. But it can only do this with support from the community, he added.

While the majority has to back these efforts, the minorities too must play their part, and not be increasingly exclusive. "Both the majority and the minority work together to increase common space, and work with the Government that is determined to hold the common space together. That is the only way we can resist the tide of populism that is sweeping the rest of the world. We keep to our way of life," said Mr Shanmugam.

He was speaking at a symposium on religion, conflict and peacebuilding organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)'s Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.

The racial mathematics in Singapore are stark: 74 per cent of its people are Chinese, which means majoritarianism could easily take hold, he noted. But it has ensured equal opportunites regardless of race or religion, guaranteed religious freedom, and clamped down severely on hate speech.

"The result is, most importantly, regardless of all else, you can walk with a sense of being yourself, comfortable in your own skin, as an equal citizen... That is the lived reality of a Singaporean," he said.

This takes work.

Singapore's approach

In the past 50 years, Singapore's approach has centred on equality, accepting and celebrating differences and diversity while building a Singaporean identity, and creating as large a common space as possible.

The Government has not taken a laissez faire approach. This shows in its policies, noted Mr Shanmugam, from the Ethnic Integration Policy in public housing to prevent the formation of racial enclaves, to standard uniforms in schools to maintain a common identity.

Then there are the ethnic-based self-help groups and the laws on speech touching on race and religion.

"These and other policies have been criticised. Well meaning, educated people ask: 'Why do we need all these? Remove them. We are all Singaporeans'," he said.

But without active state intervention, consequences would have been different: "After a while, you will get segregated communities, segregated schools, the lessening of common space, and a reduction of opportunities for minorities."

If the Government has gone along with demands to do away with racial classifications on identity cards, for instance, "these sorts of grand gestures play well to the gallery".

"We would have gotten a round of applause. Governments engage in them to give the appearance of activity, decisiveness, openness, and so on. But the realities of government are different from theatrics," said Mr Shanmugam.

"Good governance in our case requires us to eschew theatrics, and do what is good for society as a whole... We should not assume that Singapore would be immune from this wave of populism that is sweeping the West, which has let loose xenophobic tendencies, racism, and tribalism," he added.

Worrying trends

Mr Trump's refugee ban and temporary block of citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the US has validated the feelings of a significant section of the US president's voters, the minister noted.

These anti-Islam sentiments have swept across the Western world. It is fuelling growing support for the far right in France, the Netherlands and Germany.

While fear and an element of racism may spark these sentiments, there are also many reasonable people who feel the same way.

He believes this could be a reaction to the perception that minority communities and immigrants have been taking advantage of existing systems and hard-working citizens, and their entire way of life and culture are being threatened and uprooted.

There is also rising religious extremism on all sides - even hitting close to home.

Mr Shanmugam cited recent demonstrations in Indonesia along religious lines, and the Mufti of Pahang in neighbouring Malaysia who branded those opposing Islamic laws as infidels.

"If these trends continue in the region, and if racial and religious rhetoric increases, that can impact Singapore quite severely," said Mr Shanmugam.

"There will be reactions among our majority Chinese community, and it will also present opportunities for unscrupulous people in the region to champion rights of minority communities," he added.

Racial and religious leaders here must move beyond only promoting their respective faiths, he added.

"They have to also advocate, work hard at enlarging the common space, push back against polarisation, champion the cause of integration and interaction, rather than create greater differences," he said.

"We have to do that to preserve what we have in Singapore," he added.

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