Finance Minister Lawrence Wong did not mince his words. Citing the four specific incidents of racism in Singapore, even identifying the race of the perpetrators and the victims, he pronounced: “These racist acts are unacceptable. I feel the hurt caused.”
He also acknowledged some hard truths: “Racism still exists in Singapore. It is among us – in our streets, our neighbourhoods and workplaces.”
In a speech lasting more than 30 minutes and in a subsequent dialogue with Senior Fellow & Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Dr Shashi Jayakumar, on 25 June, Wong addressed a range of issues relating to race relations in Singapore.
Acknowledging that social media has helped to create greater awareness of racism in Singapore, Wong said: “This has made us, especially the majority, look closely at the mirror and reflect deeper about who we are and who we want to be. And we clearly cannot leave things as they are. We are better than this.”
He encouraged Singaporeans to call out racism if it happens: “We should be upfront and honest about the racialised experiences that various groups feel. And deal squarely with them.”
However, he cautioned against rushing to judgement in all instances and cited former national sprinter C Kunalan’s appeals for understanding and forgiveness in dealing with race issues: “In addressing this sort of incidents, which we must, we should, but let’s do it carefully, let’s not assume the worst of people immediately, let’s be ready to forgive, if the other side asks for forgiveness…”
He also highlighted the potential for things to get out of hand, if any group was to be too aggressive on any slight or injustice: “Because when one group jostles aggressively to assert its rights and identity to others, it will not take long before other groups feel put upon and start to jostle back… when one side uses identity politics to push their cause, it invariably emboldens another to up the ante and make greater demands. We will end up fuelling our worst tendencies, our tribalism, hostility and vengefulness.”
While reinforcing the PAP government’s commitment to working on racial harmony, he also used the opportunity to defend some policies relating to race, such as the electoral Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, the CMIO model, the HDB ethnic integration policy, SAP schools and others.
“I respect the view of Singaporeans who believe we are ready to move beyond race, and who think we no longer need the GRC system – believe me, nobody will be more pleased than the PAP leadership,” he said.
He also emphasised that Singapore’s philosophy was one of integration: “We did not set out to achieve racial harmony by creating a monolithic society. Our multiracialism does not require any community to give up its heritage or traditions. Ours is not the French way, insisting on assimilation into one master language and culture.”
To the contrary, Wong underscored the importance of maintaining Singaporeans’ racial identities, “to preserve, protect and celebrate our diversity. Hence, we encourage each community to take pride in its own cultures and traditions.”
Citing Chinese, Malay and Indian cultural organisations, such as Chinese orchestras, the Malay Heritage Centre and the Indian Fine Arts Society, he asked: “Should all these be done away with on the grounds that they perpetuate racial consciousness and are not inclusive of other races, other languages, other cultures, other traditions? Obviously not. Because that is not what we mean when we pledge ourselves to become one united people regardless of race, language or religion.”
“Will our society be better off if our standards of our spoken and written vernacular languages were to fall and Singaporean Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures were to whither and dissipate?” he followed up.
A Minority PM?
It is no secret that for the past decade or so, Singaporeans have been speculating on who the next Prime Minister (PM) will be. One popular name which has been consistently thrown up is that of current Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
To a pointed question by Jayakumar on why the next PM can’t be a member of the minority, Wong said: “The IPS (Institute of Policy Studies) surveys do show that a significant proportion of Singaporeans are more comfortable with a PM of their own race. This cuts across Singaporeans of all different ethnic groups.”
“I wish it were not so,” he added. “But the survey results are as they are. So, a minority who wants to be PM should be aware of these attitudes. It doesn’t mean that he or for that matter she, can’t be a PM, but these are the realities on the ground. I should also say it doesn’t mean that we should just accept these attitudes as they are and fine, so be it. We shouldn’t accept these attitudes. We should instead work very hard to change them.”
“And I certainly look forward to the day when Singapore has a minority PM. I would welcome that,” he said.
The event was organised by the IPS and the RSIS.
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