“Regardless of race, language or religion”

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Tng Ying Hui

I love this phrase of the pledge, for all the virtues it embodies. Peace, understanding, tolerance and love. Wars and riots caused by issues of race, language and religion are replete throughout history.

For multiracial Singapore, these are important lessons to learn from. More importantly, to achieve and maintain the peace we now enjoy would be  more than an ineffable ideal; it is a process of which,  despite being long and arduous, the end would be long lasting and peaceful.

We are on our way there, we have to be. When we are there, our  nation will  flourish. As a nation we are not there yet, as Lee Kuan Yew reminded us recently.

A nation accepting and tolerant, which integrates seamlessly, is one impervious to disintegration within. In South East Asia, we have seen too many  countries ripped apart by internal conflicts. The ethnic Karens are in constant battle with the Burmese in Burma; in Thailand, the Muslim south never sees eye to eye with the Buddhist Thais. Singapore too had once been susceptible to riots. The government  has since constantly reminded us of our fragility and of going against the laws they have set in place to govern this peace.

But we are not there yet. Our peace sometimes feels like it could shatter anytime. What is the basis of our peace?

The shadowy presence of the Internal Security Act (ISA) is not forgotten by Singaporeans.    Memories of Operation Cold Store and Operation Spectrum  remind us of a government which will not hesitate to throw dissenters into jail – without trial. Then, there is also the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA). Implicit in the MRHA is the understanding that it is the role of the state to police ‘religion’ so as to maintain “religious harmony”. While the application of this law has not been as brutal compared to the ISA, the law in itself prevents any honest and open discussions of religions.

Our laws should not be used to forcefully bring about peace. Instead, they  should foster the blossoming of each culture and religion. But have they  done so?

In 2002, when four 6–year-old girls wore the tudung to school, the government stuck by its principle that schools represent a precious common space, where all young Singaporeans wear school uniform, as a  daily reminder of the need to stand together as citizens, regardless of race, religion and social status. As the parents of the children persisted in their belief that faith is as important as education, the girls continued to wear their headscarves. The authorities had to ask them to leave. So instead of students learning about the importance of headscarves to the Muslims, they instead learn that wearing the ‘tudung is wrong’. Ironically, the Sikh boys are allowed to wear turban to schools.

Besides the laws, the government all too often preaches that our highly acclaimed economic progress could be destroyed by inter-racial conflict. This is something deeply embedded in our minds. It is definitely true, but the question is: Is our peace so fragile that we have to view race and religion as OB markers? Academics, social and religious activists all tread carefully when broaching the topic. I see a ‘nation’ of peace built on sand.

Religious activists alike have a pertinent role to play in our secular society. Stoking unsound religious fervour should be avoided at all costs and to point fingers and blame the different religions/ races for anything is repulsive. The basis for  inter-religious peace is understanding.

When the Aware saga unfolded, the government took a hands-off approach but it  made its point clear – Singapore remains a secular society. Mr Wong Kan Seng, Minister for Home Affairs, said, “Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement.” (ST: 15 May 2009) I believe, this is a way forward until the edifice of our peace has anchored.

I have to agree that we are increasingly colour blind, but not completely. It saddens me to still hear some Chinese parents threatening to give away their misbehaving young children to the ‘Ah nehs’, a derogatory term used to describe Indian Singaporeans here. It is also sad to hear the Prime Minister say, in November 2008, that he feels Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister. ““Who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person… these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time,” he said, “even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.” (China Post)

This is an echo of what then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in the 80s: “’It is make-believe to pretend that race and language do not affect voter preference.” (Asiaone)

Does this not show the that ideology of multiracialism (and meritocracy, by the way) which we hold dear  to be nothing but a façade – even after 44 years of “nation building”?

Open and honest discussions of contradictory topics of religion and culture are often shunned. I would agree that these topics are undeniably and potentially volatile and are possible causes for conflict. This however, should never be the reason to avoid talking about them. There have been inter-religious dialogues in Singapore and a recent participant of such a dialogue mentioned  the need for ‘constructive disharmony’.

Despite all religions propounding the same moral rules, what we must achieve is to first understand the differences and second, to accept fellow Singaporeans in spite of their beliefs.

That is why racial and religious harmony is not just built upon tough laws and strict OB markers, but also on the active desire to engage people of other races and faiths.


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