SINGAPORE – Singapore has taken three significant steps in the space of race and religious relations, with each seeking to address delicate issues not often discussed openly.
A move to introduce a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act, the enshrining of anti-discrimination guidelines in the workplace into law, and a decision to allow Muslim nurses in the public healthcare sector to wear the tudung if they wish were announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 29).
They chart a path towards potentially more harmonious, inclusive interracial and interfaith relations, although there is much more to be done, and progress on this journey will require constant, tireless effort from national down to individual levels.
The upcoming Racial Harmony Act will be modelled on the existing Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which was enacted in 1990 on the back of rising religious fervour and heightened tensions both between and within faith groups in Singapore.
Today, the context for managing race and religion in Singapore is no less urgent, and perhaps even more challenging.
PM Lee pointed to generational shifts in worldviews as well as exposure to global developments like the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
This borderless flow of ideas includes extremist ideologies, leading to self-radicalisation and terror plots to attack followers of other religions here.
Elsewhere, debates over immigration and foreign workforce issues continue to be reduced, at times, to displays of ethnic prejudice.
Throw in a pandemic megaphone for these tensions, and one could argue that Singapore has never been more vulnerable to fragmentation and polarisation along racial and religious fault lines.
Against this backdrop, PM Lee’s speech sends the right signals in stressing the importance of keeping Singapore’s multicultural harmony and social fabric intact.
Legislative deterrents, however, should not be viewed as encouraging Singaporeans to respond to social tensions by filing police reports at the first instance. While laws can nudge people to behave better, the real solution is to change social attitudes, said PM Lee.
The key is to show empathy, respect and understanding, qualities which others like President Halimah Yacob and the fourth-generation (4G) leadership have also spoken about in recent months.
The Government can lead by example here. It has, for several years now, facilitated no shortage of community-based intercultural interactions. But it can also shape mindsets through its policies.
For all the scrutiny that its race-based schemes – such as the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other model of ethnic classification and Ethnic Integration Policy for housing – have come under, the Government has taken pains to emphasise that its policies are not static and are constantly up for review.
The decision to allow nurses to wear the tudung, for one, can be traced back to 2014, when PM Lee told Muslim leaders that government policy was “not set in stone”.
“From time to time, we must adjust our policies on race and religion,” he said on Sunday. “We should do so with caution, because race and religion will always be highly sensitive issues. We have to take the time to discuss respectfully, make sure everybody understands, and build a consensus before we make any move.”
This will require a balancing act between being cautious and acting to ensure racial and religious tensions are not allowed to fester. The difficulty lies in ensuring that more open debates on this thorny issue throw up more light and less heat, and do not give rise to concerns about whether the country is moving in the right direction.
Read next: 7 highlights from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally