Speaking at the Third Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Symposium on religion, conflict and peacebuilding, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam stressed that all Singaporeans regardless their race and religion should guarantee the safety, security, freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community and to be covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobism and majoritarianism to overrun the protection and guarantee of equality, particularly to minorities.
The Minister said that post US election, there has been a scramble to predict the policies of the new administration and what it means for the world.
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.
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 percent Muslim. The potential for sharp cleavages exists," he said.
He then said that one of the reasons is a reaction to a perception that minority communities and immigrants have been taking advantage of the existing systems, taking advantage of hardworking citizens. And that political correctness and weak leadership have been too accommodating.
However, he noted, "I am not saying whether any of this is right or wrong. I am simply seeking to set out what I think I see and observe is happening."
As a reaction to the feelings and perceptions amongst host populations, law and order has gone down, that welfare systems are being abused and that their rice bowls are threatened, noting that the 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," he said.
The Minister said that the reaction to popular sentiments can go too far if it is not addressed.
"If they go 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," he said.
As there is a set of policies on treatment of minorities, it can be said that one of the causes is a lack of intergration between the communities.
Therefore, Mr Shanmugam said that it is extremely important for Singaporeans to understand why this has happened.
"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," he said.
The Minister stated that the approach over 50 years has been centred around three core principles, which are equality and equality of opportunities, 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 while there is considerable ethnic, religious diversity, Singaporeans work actively to keep as large a common space as possible in our interactions.
He said that the Government's approach is activist, noting that it is anything but laissez-faire.
"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," he said.
Some examples of approaches in Singapore are:
- The ethnic integration policy – the Government intervenes on where people live and makes sure that no ethnic enclaves develop.
- Schools – standard uniforms for everyone.
- Self-help groups – subject to some criticism but the basic point is, accept that there are Indians, Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, others.
- Laws - a tough framework of laws, touching on what you can and cannot say about race and religion.
The Minister then asked, "Why does our identity card talk about our race? Why does it say that we are Chinese, Malay or Indian?"
He said that the Government still need to do so because if there is State intervention, in such a situation to help the minorities, through more welfare, quotas and so on, the country risk a backlash from the majority who might then see it as accommodating the minorities too much.
"Then you will get a vicious cycle, and it will be too late," he said.
The Minister then stated that 74 per cent of the country's population is Chinese. Therefore, the system of elections means majoritaranism could have easily taken hold and can in future, easily take hold.
He also noted that Malays are 15 per cent of the population and Tamils are five percent of the population. However, Singaporeans have both as our official languages. English is used as the official language of business, because our former Prime Minister wanted equal opportunities for everyone
Therefore, he asks the majority of the community, the Chinese community, to support this, saying, "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 majority of the population accept and want."
However, The Minister said that there are a number of trends that can affect this dynamic.
First is the 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," he said.
The second is that there are regional trends which are disconcerting. For example, 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. And also recent large scale demonstrations, with somewhat religious undertones, in Indonesia.
"If these trends continue in the region, and if racial-religious rhetoric increases, that can impact on Singapore quite severely and there will be a reaction obviously from the majority Chinese community," Mr Shanmugam said.
He then said that the third risk is polarisation.
"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 on race, it could be on religion, different kinds of formulations. And if everyone pushes, the centre collapses, that will be bad for Singapore," he said.
The Minister then said that leaders of religions, leaders of the different ethnic communities have a huge role, stating 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.
"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," he stressed.
He then warned that what happens in the US can also impact on 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," he said.
He then said that one of the consequences of everything that is happening, including the debate and the characterizations, and sometimes the caricatures, 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," he added.
Therefore, he ended his speech by saying, in the face of all of this, that the Government has to convey a clear message, that we are all Singaporeans and that the country guarantee the safety, security, freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community.
He added that as a community, it is not just the Government, but as a community, Singaporeans must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobism and majoritarianism to overrun the protection and guarantee of equality, particularly to minorities.
He stated that the Government can only do this, if the community supports this 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," he ended.