Unity among Singaporeans was one of President-Elect Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s key election rallying cries during the recent hustings. During his campaign trail, he repeatedly vowed to foster deeper interactions between the different faiths and cultures and to deepen multicultural identity. “There is always common ground to be found,” Mr Tharman, who is expected to assume the office of the presidency on 14 September, 2023, reportedly said.
During a visit to Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre where he launched Singapore Tamils 200 Volume 2 in July 2023, he made an observation on how Singaporeans at large only attended cultural events of their own ethnicity: “Be it dance or music or other cultural events, the audience is largely mono ethnic… even at the highest standards.”
“This shouldn’t be the case,” Mr Tharman added. I think we can evolve in Singapore a tradition of participating in each other’s cultures and appreciating each other’s cultures.”
Bring back Aneka Ragam Rakyat?
Mr Tharman recounted about the Aneka Ragam Rakyat programme, organised from 1959 to the early 1960s by the then Ministry of Culture, which were a series of free, open-air concerts featuring performances of the major ethnic groups of Singapore. The objective was to foster unity by promoting a better understanding and appreciation of the arts and culture of each ethnic group.
However, he emphasised that fostering unity and cross-cultural understanding should not be in a “formulaic way” by just holding those performances. “We should just attend each other’s performances because they are of such an exceptional standard. We are lucky in Singapore, where our culture is still being performed at a very high level.”
Mr Tharman also believes that it is not the role of political or community leaders primarily to preserve and shape culture. “While history is made by political leaders and leading actors in the union or community leaders, culture is made by a multitude of people,” he said.
We are lucky in Singapore, where our culture is still being performed at a very high level.”
With regards to the preservation and maintenance of the Tamil language, he acknowledged that it was especially difficult because Tamils are a “very small community.”
In comments to SG:Indian, Mr Tharman elaborated: “I think the main challenge is while students learn Tamil in school and take it seriously, they have little opportunity to use it outside. And that’s why we are trying to create more activities, where amongst themselves we can keep the language alive.”
And the most useful activities are those that they enjoy,” he added. “So, combining language with culture is usually the best way. If it’s just language alone, after a while, it withers out.”
“We have to keep it alive and find ways in which even if the language is not being used by other communities, the culture can be appreciated by other communities,” Mr. Tharman said.
While students learn Tamil in school and take it seriously, they have little opportunity to use it outside. And that’s why we are trying to create more activities, where amongst themselves we can keep the language alive.”
Business connections with Tamil Nadu and India
On forging stronger connections with the state of Tamil Nadu, and taking advantage of business opportunities, Mr Tharman said: “Tamil Nadu has historically been a state where there has been so many criss-crossing. There’s been a somewhat stronger cultural connection particularly with the Tamils in Singapore, so, the business links have tended to be stronger. But our orientation in Singapore is towards looking at India as a whole and looking for opportunities in India.”
He reiterated his message on unity: “Continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other communities, in contributing not just to our own community, but contributing to Singapore.
He also acknowledged the past contributions of the Tamils: “Tamils have made major contributions to Singapore, in medicine, law, government, in the security services and in the professions generally. And you just have to ensure that that remains the case. So, it’s a community that stands tall.”
“We have to keep it alive and find ways in which even if the language is not being used by other communities, the culture can be appreciated by other communities.”
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