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Speech by Minister for Transport, S Iswaran, at the Opening of Jamiyah Singapore’s Inter-Racial Harmony Seminar, ‘Whither Racial Harmony in Singapore: What More Should Be Done’

17 Jul 2021 Speeches

Datuk Dr. Mohd Hasbi Abu Bakar, 
President of Jamiyah Singapore,
Distinguished Panellists,
Ladies and Gentlemen
1.     Let me begin by thanking Jamiyah Singapore for inviting me to this seminar on inter-racial harmony. It is a timely initiative with an apposite theme, especially in light of recent events.
2.     Multiracialism is a founding tenet of our nation. The quest for racial harmony is deeply imprinted in our national DNA, with the vision of “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion” immortalised in our National Pledge, and in the words of our founding fathers.  
3.     Many Singaporeans were therefore deeply perturbed, if not outraged, by recent acts of racial insensitivity in our society. And they have sparked an important national conversation on the state of racial harmony in Singapore, and soul searching on the values we stand for as a society. 
4.     The road to the unifying vision in our Pledge is paved with challenges. The quest for a truly multi-racial nation has never been easy nor one we can take for granted. But despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, it is vital that we persevere, hold fast to that inspiring vision, and stay the course. Singaporeans, especially those of an older generation, understand this – that it requires an unrelenting national effort, especially in the face of adversity, with each generation building on the progress painstakingly achieved by its predecessors. 
5.     The creation of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, the advent of community-based self-help groups, the establishment of Special Assistance Plan schools, the introduction of ethnic quotas in HDB estates, and the formation of Group Representation Constituencies – each of these and other policies and programmes serve a specific objective. Collectively, they also serve a larger purpose – to build and fortify our common space anchored by a common Singaporean identity, while according our different cultures, languages, and religions their own space to thrive. 
6.     Singaporeans today still steadfastly hold to these ideals. But as our society evolves, so too will our perspectives on race and on ethnic-based policies, with differences arising from our lived experiences. 
7.     This is not new. In 1997, in my maiden speech as a newly elected Member of Parliament, I said that, “There is a concern amongst young Singaporeans, particularly professionals, that we may be becoming a more ethnocentric society at the expense of our national identity.” I emphasised the importance of reviewing our ethnic-based policies and programmes as our needs and circumstances changed.
8.     Hence, nearly 25 years later, it should come as no surprise if younger Singaporeans hold different views on issues of race, compared to their parents or their grandparents. It is noteworthy, for example, that in 2019, 22% of marriages were inter-ethnic, compared to just 8% in 1990  – a nearly three-fold increase in three decades. 
9.     Singaporeans of different races also have different lived experiences. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies and, about one-fifth of Malay and Indian respondents felt discriminated against when applying for a job, compared to just 3% of Chinese respondents.
10.    We must acknowledge and respect these differences in perspectives, across generations and races, and never discount or dismiss them. If we are to continue to grow our common space, its foundation rests on taking seriously these diverse viewpoints which reflect the lived realities of Singaporeans. The question then, as posed by this seminar, is “What more should be done?” I would like to contribute three ideas towards that discourse. 
11.    First, as a society, we must take a clear stand against racist behaviour – wherever, whenever. We are better than the insensitive acts of individuals borne out of ignorance or prejudice. Ultimately, our values as a society must manifest in our words and our actions.  
12.    Second, we must not let the intemperate actions of the few, taint the good work of the many, nor let them lead us to the extreme. We have come this far because each community has exercised moderation, and refrained from asserting its rights at all costs.  We have recognised that our society is a precious commons that should be nurtured and shared with mutual respect and accommodation. 
13.    Third, we should foster candid and constructive dialogue with the aim of strengthening mutual trust, respect and accommodation. 
a.     We must continue to build understanding across different ethnicities and faiths. And in this regard, community leaders and organisations must show the way by building relationships that foster mutual understanding among diverse groups, that can withstand the stresses and strains that may occur time to time.
b.     Such dialogue also needs to take place across the generations. There is much to be gained, from the wisdom and experience of older Singaporeans and the idealism and energy of younger Singaporeans, to build an ever more just and equal Singapore. If we do this with mutual respect and an open mind, such mutual sharing can enrich our common ground, and bring our society forward. 
14.    Organisations like Jamiyah play an important role in nurturing a society that ever leans towards collaboration and cohesion. It is not just through your everyday activities and community efforts, but also the positive example you set, of and for the different communities in Singapore, that we can enlarge the common space and lay the ground for constructive, honest, and candid dialogue and engagement.
15.    I would like to conclude by sharing with you a memory from the 1960s, when I was a young kid. It is that of a $10 note bearing the image of four arms of four different hues linked together in solidarity. I think some of the older participants may remember it. I had few opportunities then to behold such a currency, let alone use it. But it certainly left a vivid imprint in my mind of our multi-racial society.
16.    It brought home the lesson that racial harmony is a whole-of-society project to which we each have a duty and responsibility. Like our founding generation, let us and all future generations of Singaporeans dedicate ourselves anew to the ceaseless endeavour of building a more just, equal, and harmonious multi-racial Singapore. 
17.    Thank you for inviting me.