If Heng Swee Keat is correct that some Singaporeans have racial prejudices, is the PAP at least partly to blame?

by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Singapore’s politicians proved yesterday that they do indeed, contrary to popular belief, have a wicked sense of humour. Among other delights released on April Fool’s Day were the revelations that Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga are some of the primary purveyors of offensive speech in the world today. (Related to a new bill that will give them sweeping powers to regulate speech.)

There is much to trawl through here, but I’d like to focus on one chunk of text dripping with irony.

K Shanmugam, Singapore’s law minister, says offensive speech is even more insidious than hate speech, because “you are being drip-fed the notion that the out-group is stupid, ignorant, immoral, sinful…subconsciously the brain won’t feel empathy for them…how can we be one united people when every day it is accepted that one race, one religion or another, can be publicly insulted, ridiculed, and attacked?”

I completely agree that this drip-feeding of a particular group’s otherness is insidious and, as Shanmugam says, “over time, the effect will be felt in every aspect of life…the environment will be conducive for discrimination.”

So let me present here what I consider to be some harmful drip-feeding of prejudices in post-1965 Singapore:

  1. “Three women were brought to the Singapore General Hospital, each in the same condition and each needing a blood transfusion. The first, a Southeast Asian was given the transfusion but died a few hours later. The second, a South Asian was also given a transfusion but died a few days later. The third, an East Asian, was given a transfusion and survived. That is the X factor in development.” – Lee Kuan Yew1, 1967 
  2. “I have said this on many a previous occasion; that had the mix in Singapore been different, had it been 75 per cent Indians, 15 per cent Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked. Because they believe in the politics of contention, of opposition.” – Lee Kuan Yew2, 1985
  3. n 1989, Lee3 said that the lower Chinese birth rate justified the government’s programme of encouraging Chinese immigration from Hong Kong. According to him, the Chinese majority must be maintained, “or there will be a shift in the economy, both the economic performance and the political backdrop which makes that economic performance possible.” This requirement to maintain the ethnic Chinese supermajority is the most racist policy anywhere in the developed world. Its implicit messaging: if Singapore has too many Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others (proportionally), it will not perform as well.
  4. Singapore’s skepticism about the loyalties of Singapore’s Muslims means that they are excluded from many high security branches of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There was not a single Muslim soldier, for instance, in the armoured regiment where I served. The implication to all of us was clear: when it comes to securing Singapore, Muslims cannot be trusted as much as others.It is ridiculous that a new Chinese immigrant has higher security clearances than a Malay Muslim whose family has been in Singapore for generations.
  5. In a 2005 meeting with Hilary Clinton, Lee portrayed Islam as a “venomous religion”, according to Wikileaks. (He later denied saying that.)
  6. The 2017 reserved presidential election sent the most awful message to Singaporeans about the Malay community. First, without government assistance, it will not be able to produce a credible presidential candidate. Second, even after having reserved the election for Malays, there is only one Malay in the entire country who is qualified to contest. In order to fulfil a political objective, the PAP uncorked some of the worst anti-Malay sentiment I have witnessed in my forty-odd years of living here.

1. Lee Kuan Yew, in a meeting at the University of Singapore on 27 December 1967, as recorded by Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist. Michael D. Barr, “Lee Kuan Yew: Race, culture and genes”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 29 (2) (1999): 145–166. 2. President’s Address, Debate on President’s Address, Parliament of Singapore (March 01, 1985) 3. 1989 National Day Rally speech, quoted in The Straits Times, August 21st, 1989, p. 17 5. Wikileaks

If indeed Heng Swee Keat is correct in asserting that some Singaporeans have racial prejudices, the obvious response: is the PAP at least partly to blame?

It is all well and good for Shanmugam to point fingers at the Watains and Lady Gagas and Amy Cheongs of the world (the person who cussed at Malay weddings in void decks), but I suspect that words and policies coming from the very top have had a far greater impact on peoples’ mindsets.

A few caveats are in order: To his credit, Lee Kuan Yew built a meritocracy (of sorts) that strives to be race-neutral. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to sugar-coat his legacy by ignoring his racially-divisive words and policies.

I would never classify any of the above as “hate speech” or even “offensive speech”, simply because I do not believe the PAP or Lee had ill intentions of sowing discord. Quite the contrary. However it is important to focus as well on outcomes. The PAP’s good intentions may have had negative outcomes in terms of fomenting prejudice towards “out-groups”.

I wish Shanmugam and the PAP would have the humility to at least occasionally acknowledge that they may have made mistakes in this regard. If they did, I would have a lot more confidence in everything they are trying to do now to tackle the very real scourges of hate speech and falsehoods.

Shanmugam and fellow ministers are, in some ways, about to become the most powerful humans on the planet. No other single person I know has the power to determine for society what is true or false. They each will. In fact, Ariana, they might even become stronger than your female God.

This was first published on Mr Vadaketh’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission


1 – In a meeting at the University of Singapore on 27 December 1967, as recorded by Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist.
2 – (1999): 145–166. 2. President’s Address, Debate on President’s Address, Parliament of Singapore (March 01, 1985)
3- 1989 National Day Rally speech, quoted in The Straits Times, August 21st, 1989, p. 17

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