The need to secure position of minorities, common space

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam yesterday spoke of how rising anti-Islamic sentiment and growing polarisation could affect Singapore at a round-table discussion on religion, conflict and peace-building organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This is the text of his speech.

I was not due to speak today but events around the world give cause for pause and reflection. I decided to share some thoughts with you and the public in Singapore, as there have been a lot of questions on the ground and in people's minds on what is going on.

It is now a cliche to say that 2016 was a year of shocks, surprises and unexpected turns. You have had Brexit, the Italy referendum and the United States election results. President Donald Trump himself thought he was the underdog. Most others thought so too, with some giving Mrs Clinton a 90 per cent chance of winning.

Post-US elections, there has been a scramble to predict the policies of the new administration and what it means for the world.

In the last seven to 10 days, we have had a preview of what might happen as a superpower, the world's largest economy, the country whose actions possibly have the greatest impact on the world, seeks to change course, and change course fast and sharply.

Singapore's approach to embracing diversity over the past 50 years has involved working towards a common space in interactions among a diverse ethnic and religious mix, says Mr Shanmugam, but this is not possible without the support of the community. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Within a week, the United States went out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), imposed a ban on nationals from seven countries and made a promise of much more to come. It is going to be interesting when a superpower moves this fast for us, who are smaller, to avoid being caught in the slipstream.

In imposing the travel ban, President Trump validated the feelings of a significant section of his electorate. Those feelings are sweeping across the Western world.

Anti-Islam feelings are feeding the far right in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and gaining significant support. In the past, one could simply dismiss it, but I think we can no longer simply dismiss it. It is a groundswell fuelled by fear and a substantial element of racism. Many otherwise reasonable people are also supporting such movements.


Anti-Islamic rhetoric is gaining ground. We, in Singapore, have to make sense of what is happening and understand these trends. If we are not careful, we can easily face a similar situation, with a population mix of 85 per cent non-Muslim and 15 per cent Muslim. The potential for sharp cleavages exists.

Why do we have this wave around the Western world? When I say Western world, I think one can, in this context, possibly exclude Australia and New Zealand.

Based on my own views, there are many causes for such sentiments. One of them is a reaction to a perception that minority communities and immigrants have been taking advantage of the existing systems, taking advantage of hard-working citizens. And that political correctness and weak leadership have been too accommodating.

I am not saying whether any of this is right or wrong. I am simply seeking to set out what I see and observe is happening, the social forces at work. It is, of course, only my interpretation. Others may well disagree. I see it as a reaction to the feelings and perceptions among host populations - that law and order has gone down, that welfare systems are being abused and that their rice bowls are being threatened; in fact, that their entire way of life, culture, conventions, are all being threatened. Politicians who advocate tolerance are seen as out of touch and weak - therefore a fascination with leaders who promise strength.

You see reactions everywhere. In Switzerland, recently, you would have heard news of a legal challenge. A challenge on compulsory co-ed swimming classes for boys and girls. A Muslim couple did not want their two daughters, aged seven and nine, to attend the classes with boys. They challenged the school officials in court. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the school.

In France, you had the ban on "burkini" in beaches, banned by some French cities. Women in burkinis in beaches were fined, asked to leave or even asked to remove their burkinis.

So, leaders are now saying to immigrants: "Behave normally or go away." These sort of sentiments, "behave or go away", would have been seen as not quite in keeping with the European values of tolerance and acceptance. But, as I said earlier, leaders have had to adjust to populist and populists' sentiments.

There is a serious risk. If this is not addressed, this reaction to popular sentiments can go too far. If it goes too far, it is going to be very unhelpful and will legitimise Islamophobia. It is not good for the world. It strengthens extremists on both sides and helps them feed off each other. We have so far avoided getting into this vicious circle, but this is a risk that the world faces. The reaction is gaining ground in many countries - and might become mainstream. Basically, to say "if you don't like it, go", or "it's just too bad for you" or "this is what the majority wants".

What we are seeing is a set of policies on refugees, on treatment of minorities, on the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims not quite succeeding for a whole host of reasons. And there is a backlash against these policies from the host populations.

You can say that one of the causes is a lack of integration between the communities. There are, of course, several reasons why this has happened. For us in Singapore, it is extremely important to understand why this has happened. We need to understand so that we don't repeat those mistakes. Time, however, does not allow me to go into them.


We have so far avoided the backlash of this nature against the Muslim community or the other minority communities.

It is useful to see what has worked for us and what we need to continue to do. I will touch on that.

Our approach over 50 years has been centred around three core principles. First, equality and equality of opportunities.

Second, accepting the facts within Singapore: We are different, we look different, let's accept that, and let's celebrate our diversity while building an overarching Singaporean identity.

And third, while there is considerable ethnic and religious diversity, let's also work actively to keep as large a common space as possible in our interactions.

Three principles. And there is no point just talking about them, you have to actually work at them. You see many government policies in the context of these three principles. Some of them were criticised but, with hindsight, we can see they make sense.

The Government's approach is activist. It is anything but laissez-faire. And I think one of the reasons you're seeing the reactions you're seeing in the West today is because of a laissez-faire approach to ethnic relations.

There are some examples you can see in Singapore. Under the ethnic integration policy - the Government intervenes on where people live and makes sure that no ethnic enclaves develop. People have to live together. No banlieues in Singapore.

In schools, there are standard uniforms for everyone. There is common identity in schools, with the majority of schools compulsorily racially mixed, offering compulsory education and so our young children have to interact with each other, learn to get on with each other, learn to respect and value each other.

Self-help groups have been subject to some criticism but the basic point is that we accept that there are Indians, Malays, Chinese, Eurasians and others. You get more Chinese volunteers coming forward to help the less well-off in the Chinese community. We have more Indian volunteers coming to help the less well-off in the Indian community. We have more Malay volunteers coming to help the less well-off in the Malay community. So let the Government come together with self-help groups, organised along racial lines.

There are laws - a tough framework of laws - touching on what you can and cannot say about race and religion.

In Singapore, you cannot burn the Quran or the Bible on the basis of the freedom of speech and if you did, you will be behind bars.

We have our share of religious leaders who make offensive remarks about other religions and ISD (Internal Security Department) will talk to them. We had a pastor on YouTube who said Buddhism is a superstitious religion and he went on to make other remarks... We talked to him, he apologised and made no more such remarks. Everybody understands and everybody accepts this.

Another example: Some newly converted Christians felt that they needed to enlighten Muslims on the faults of the Prophet. They had received various tracts from the United States which set out all the things that the Prophet was supposed to have done wrong and they decided they would mail the tracts to Muslims whose names they found in the telephone book. They were arrested, they were charged in court and they went to jail. Again, the message was sent and everybody understands. There is a certain balance that we keep. So tough laws and willingness to enforce the laws are necessary. But laws alone do not work. You need the community to work together.

So we have had well-meaning, highly educated people, Singaporeans, who look at these things - self-help groups, ethnic integration policy and so on - and say why do we need it? We are all Singaporeans. Do we really need it? In fact, why does our identity card talk about our race? Why does it say that we are Chinese, Malay or Indian? Well-meaning, as I said. But I think if the Government had not intervened, if I remove the ethnic identity from the IC (identity card), do we all become the same the day after?

Without active state intervention, after a while, you will get segregated communities, you will get segregated schools and you will have lessening of the common space and a reduction of opportunities for minorities.

If there is state intervention in such a situation, to help the minorities, through more welfare, quotas and so on, you risk a backlash from the majority who might then see it as accommodating the minorities too much. Then you will get a vicious circle, and it will be too late.

The Government would have got credit from some if we had removed, for example, ethnic identity from ICs. These sort of gestures play well to the gallery. Some governments may do so to give the appearance of activity, decisiveness, openness and so on.

But the realities of governance are different from theatrics. Good governance in our case requires us to eschew theatrics, and do what is good for society as a whole. And what we did was the right thing to do.


But we should not assume that Singapore is going to be immune from this wave of populism that is sweeping the West, which has let loose xenophobic tendencies, racism, tribalism. And in our case, let us not forget the racial mathematics which are quite stark.

It starts with one statistic - 74 per cent of our population is Chinese. Our system of elections means majoritarianism could have easily taken hold and can, in the future, easily take hold. Remember, many aspects of our society, as we see it today, are not normal or usual. Malays are 15 per cent of the population, Tamils 5 per cent of the population. And, yet, we have both as our official languages.

That does not happen in a normal place. And English as the official language of business.

When the Government was formed in 1965, senior Chinese leaders went to see Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) to say Chinese should become the language of official business. He was able to say no. But that was again not normal. Equal opportunities for everyone, in Government and private sectors. We guarantee religious freedom, strict protection against hate speech.

As a result, any Singaporean, regardless of (whether) Malay, Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, can walk in public with a sense of being yourself, comfortable in your own skin, as an equal citizen. That is the lived reality of a Singaporean.

That was only possible because Mr Lee and his team managed to get the majority Chinese to agree to this. Let's not forget that.

And that is not easy. Whoever forms the government in Singapore must continue to be committed to maintaining those values and protecting the minorities and not engage in racial politics.

We also need the majority of the community, which means we need the majority of the Chinese, to support this. Without that, what we have is not possible. None of this is a given. Ultimately, it depends on the people who are in government. And what the majority of the population accepts and wants.

There are a number of trends that can affect this dynamic. First, of course, rising religious extremism on all sides. As you can expect, we are already seeing the undercurrents in response to rising extremism. In the current context, extremism is often associated with rising Islamic extremism in some parts of the world. There is an undercurrent and a reaction from the non-Islamic communities to that. But it can happen to other religions as well. We have managed to keep that under control so far. If, however, the reaction takes a populist tone, then we will be in trouble.

Second, there are regional trends which are disconcerting. Just to give one example, you have had the Mufti of Pahang, who says those who oppose Islamic law in Malaysia are "kafir harbi". Kafir are infidels. Kafir harbi are infidels who should be destroyed. That, I presume, also means the majority of Chinese and Indians who oppose Islamic law. Malaysia is a moderate Islamic country but you are getting an increasing amount of such rhetoric.

In Indonesia, we have seen recent large-scale demonstrations, with somewhat religious undertones.

If these trends continue in the region, and if racial-religious rhetoric increases, that can impact Singapore quite severely and there will be a reaction obviously from the majority Chinese community. That also presents an opportunity for unscrupulous people in the region, who then might try and champion the rights, or what they perceive to be the rights, of specific minorities within Singapore.

The third risk is polarisation. You get people targeting specific racial groups and making more demands. Targeting Malays, targeting the Chinese, targeting Indians and targeting groups based on other interests. What you will get over time, as you are seeing with other societies, is that people will be driven apart on specific interests. It could be on race, it could be on religion; different kinds of formulations. And if everyone pushes, the centre collapses, that will be bad for Singapore.

We here as a government try very hard to keep that common space and keep the centre holding, and try and keep a set of values together for all Singaporeans. But this cannot be done by the Government alone.


Leaders of religions and leaders of the different ethnic communities have a huge role. They can no longer see themselves simply as leaders of their religion or of their community. They have to really understand the context of what is happening around the world; that they now have to also champion the cause of integration and creation of the common space, and an acceptance of values which will increase interaction and integration, rather than promoting values that create greater differences.

This is critical. This is not just the Government. It has to be the effort of the entire community. And it is the leaders of the community who have to take on this role. They have to push back against polarisation.

We have to do all of these to preserve what we have achieved in Singapore, in one of the most racially and religiously diverse societies in the world and, yet, one of the most religiously harmonious.

What happens in the US can also impact racial, religious context here. We are seeing some degree of public disagreement in the US - the President versus the Acting Attorney-General, protests on the streets, deep rifts within Congress. Some people might say that's not new. But it's all happening at the same time.

There are many consequences of what is happening, to the perceptions of the United States, to what it means, to what is the perception of its leadership role in the world, and so on. And also there are implications as to what the rule of law means, and how valued it is in the United States. Those are not issues I am going to talk about.

But one of the consequences of everything that is happening, including the debate and the characterisations, and sometimes the caricatures - I think could lead to Muslims around the world, some of them, becoming more anti-American, believing that the US has become more Islamophobic. And that has serious risks for a lot of people, including us.

We have to watch this carefully.

So let me end by saying, in the face of all of this, the Government has to convey a clear message. What is that? First, we are all Singaporeans. Two, we guarantee the safety, security, freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community. Three, as a community, it is not just the Government, but as a community, we must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobism and majoritarianism to overrun the protection and guarantee of equality, particularly to minorities.

And four, the Government can only do this if the community supports this. For this to work, therefore, obviously the majority will have to support it. And the minorities have a significant role. They cannot become more exclusive.

They have to play their part in integration. So both the majority and the minority have to work together, to increase the common space. And work with the Government that is determined to hold the common space together. That is the only way we can resist this kind of populism that is sweeping the rest of the world, and keep to our way of life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'The need to secure position of minorities, common space'. Print Edition | Subscribe