Multiracialism key to cutting terrorism from its base
Amid a growing terrorism threat, it is incumbent on Singaporeans to reach across racial lines to build stronger ties with one another as that is the only way to cut terrorism from its base, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Tuesday. Doing so would require Singaporeans to ask ourselves in the heart of hearts whether we accept minority races and religions as equals and show sincerity in wanting to build deep links with one another. Below is an excerpt of Mr Shanmugam’s speech during the debate on a private member’s motion filed by four Members of Parliament on fortifying Singapore against the terrorism threat.
Several Members of Parliament have made this point: a united community is a key factor in defeating terrorism.
If you look at other countries, as recent experience shows, once there is a terrorist attack, then there is heightened suspicion amongst communities. In the current climate, that almost inevitably means Islamophobia.
London Police collected data after the London Bridge attack this year. They noted a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks. I think if you try to strengthen trust after an attack, it is too late.
We need to strengthen cohesiveness and our unity now, and do what we have been doing and add on to it. As MPs have emphasised, this means going back to one of the fundamental principles of our society, which is multi-racialism.
Let me spend a little bit of time on this, because this is in some ways the essence of what I am going to say.
Let’s recall what Mr Lee Kuan Yew said at independence, and I quote, “We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”
It was moving, inspiring, determined. That was the Singapore we worked for. That is the Singapore we want and that is the Singapore we must work for.
Mr Lee in Singapore in 1965 spoke in determined tones as to what Singapore would be. It was a vision for which we were thrown out of the Federation.
Fifty years later, it has become more of a reality. It is a reality we have worked for these 50 years. It is not a perfect reality, but we are on the right path.
It is worth recalling this history as we note the troubled race relations across the world. We don’t have in Singapore movements titled “Black Lives Matter” or counter movements “Blue Lives Matter” because to us, all lives matter.
Terrorism, radicalisation, extremism. These challenges have to be met with the same dedication and resolve, by us affirming the fundamental principle of multi-racialism.
How far can we go in this direction? We often hear the suggestion “why do we even need to talk about race? Can’t we just say we are all Singaporeans?” Or as the late Mr S Rajaratnam said, “let’s have a homogenous Singaporean race.”
I will make three points in this context. First, what is behind the ideal, the desire to do away with racial identity and create a single identity? Can that be achieved? Second, what is the reality of racial identities today? And third, how can we deal with them?
REALITY OF RACE RELATIONSHIPS TODAY
First, this idea of trying to do away with our individual racial identities. Can this be achieved? Many have thought this not possible. For example, du Bois, and I quote: “… he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.”
Mr Rajaratnam would of course have been aware of this when he formed his own views. And Mr Rajaratnam took a different view, a noble ideal.
Looking at current trends, the kind of centrifugal forces society is facing, including Singapore, on the many pulls and pushes, I think many will agree that it is going to be challenging to achieve a homogenous race of Singaporeans in the near term.
I think what we can realistically achieve is a strong national identity, a Singaporean identity, which will overlay our separate racial and religious identities and that framework can create a vibrant society.
Second, what’s the reality of race relationships today. Let me again in this context quote President Barack Obama, as to how he has seen it during his own journey. I quote: “The emotions between the races could never be pure… Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.”
I quote this to show that even in the country that is often held out as a model of democracy, how a successful African American, a future President, saw race relationships at one point in time.
For us in Singapore, I think it is safe to say we have generally moved quite far from seeing another race as “menacing, alien and apart.” That’s the measure of our success.
HOW CAN WE DEAL WITH RACIAL, RELIGIOUS FAULT LINES
We have never believed that a laissez faire approach in creating a national identity, a multi-racial society, will work. We were activists in this respect. We have had an activist policy of fostering inter-religious and inter-racial harmony.
There are many examples. The Ethnic Integration Policy – several MPs have spoken about it. HDB, when they design, they safeguard spaces where the communities can gather. New block designs, additional areas for interaction beyond the void deck, for example precinct pavilions, 3-generation playgrounds, roof-top gardens.
Dedicated spaces like community centres for people from different races to gather and bond. Our National schools system with English as the medium of instruction. National service.
In fact, we are often accused of being too interventionist and too focused on race. I don’t think one can be too interventionist in this context. And it is useful to see what is now being said in other parts of the world with regard to race relations and integration.
Let me quote United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May in June this year. I think some people will hold up Britain as a model of free speech, as a kind of country that perhaps achieved a balance between being too strict and being too lax, but this is what the Prime Minister had to say.
I quote “there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. Our country needs to come together to take out this extremism – and we need to live our lives, not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom.”
Has Britain gotten it right, the balance? Have we gotten it right? Are we repressive? In May 2017, she said, “There is … a role for government to help people and build up organisations in society to promote and defend Britain’s values, and stand up to the extremists who want to undermine our values and impose their twisted beliefs onto the rest of us.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said German attempts to create a multicultural society had, I quote, “utterly failed”. She was very frank. Since the 1960s, many Turkish families, citizens moved to Germany for work. They stayed in Germany, they started families.
The assumption was that the new immigrants settling in Germany would over time naturally assimilate themselves but what in fact happened was creation of parallel, isolated societies. The German government is now playing a more interventionist role.
We have been fortunate that 50 years ago our leaders had the foresight to deal with this problem without being clouded by ideology. They were practical, they were focused and their ideology was, we want everybody to be together, which was a noble ideology.
Other countries’ experience reminds us that we have to continue to build on the strong foundations that our country has had and we have to continue to be activist.
Ms Sun Xueling cited the Pew Research Centre study on religious diversity. Singapore is ranked top among 232 countries.
I will say this though. I am usually careful of such studies and reports that sometimes rank us at the top and sometimes rank us at the bottom. You need to check the methodology and the people who do these reports.
With that, I will say, we should be doing quite well in comparison with many other countries when it comes to religious diversity and guaranteeing religious minorities.
And really, you don’t need studies and reports. You look at our lived reality. What is the experience? Your experience, my experience, experience of our people. You know the answer.
We can agree on the whole that we are going in the right direction. But it is always work in progress.
How do we encourage greater integration? Many MPs, Ms Sun Xueling, Dr Tan Wu Meng, Mr Liang Eng Hwa and others spoke about the importance of each one of us as individuals doing our part.
Ms Sun’s call that all Singaporeans take one small step forward, so that the distance between races narrow, we need that.
Singaporeans need to come together, they need to understand one another better, not drift apart and withdraw into our own racial or religious communities.
It is important that every citizen feels part of Singaporean society and a strong sense of belonging.
We need to create common spaces, bring people together, facilitate interactions and build strong, meaningful relationships.
In this context, Dr Daniel Goh made some remarks on Self Help Groups (SHG).
Let me share some personal experiences. I served as President of SINDA, for a few years, about five or six years.
The idea was of course that SHGs should not exist, and that they should be race neutral. The reality? CDAC, Mendaki, SINDA, Eurasian Association, they are able to mobilise more volunteers from their respective individual communities and get more support that way.
As SINDA President, I told SINDA, let’s get more non-Indian volunteers. So we went out on a recruitment drive. At the end of the day, we did get more non-Indian volunteers but it was only 11 per cent. 89 per cent were still Indian.
It is a journey. We have some goals and ideals, but we also need to be realistic and practical, and mobilise the community along the different lines where mobilisation is possible.
And at the same time keep reminding ourselves that while we mobilise the community to help those who are less well performing, we also remind them that they are Singaporeans and they should help everybody else.
And then the SHGs moved, they provided tuition support for those of other races, they opened their doors after having helped their own. Of course, most of the load then goes to CDAC because they have the most centres.
So again this is something where we encourage the majority of the community to voluntarily take on a greater share of the burden. It is not easy to achieve in most places.
The Government encouraged all this. Ten years ago, the four SHGs came together with the CDACs, we had One People.sg. The name speaks for itself.
What Dr Goh spoke about, the approaches, are already happening. Basically the SHGs and communal bodies are not mutually exclusive to foster integration, if properly managed.
Mr Leon Pereira acknowledged that we are not a fully race-blind society. I think that is acknowledging the obvious.
CNA surveys showed this last year and this year and other surveys showed that. There is a line between the races. So we might as well acknowledge that and then try and build bonds and a common identity.
And he said repression is not an answer – exactly. I can assure him and everybody else, like he quoted, Saddam Hussein is not a model for this government. In Iraq, what you have is a minority suppressing the majority quite brutally. Now, what is being suggested is that the minorities are being oppressed. That is not a model for us.
Neither is Marshall Tito a model for us. Our model is the governance that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Rajaratnam and others provided.
That is the model that we have taken. That model, for example, allows a person from a minority community to go from a rental flat, playing with other races, which is a deliberate government policy, to top schools and then to Oxford. I believe the State paid for most of that.
So in a sense, Mr Pereira, you symbolise the success of Singapore’s multi-racial approach. So I agree with all the broad concepts and general points that you have made, but governance has to go beyond generalities.
You have to build the integrated communities in HDB estates, you have to make sure that schools are open for all races. You have the National Service system. The hallmark of our predecessors was to take the general ideas and then to successfully convert them into practical steps. And if we want to change any of that, let’s have a care.
Members said we need to focus on the day to day, yes we do. I believe I have explained that. At the same time, let us not forget that symbolism and seeds of power matter. For example, if every cabinet minister and every member of this House was from one race, I think it would be a very different matter, wouldn’t it?
And the member accepts that, because he accepted that multi-racialism is necessary in the corridors of power as well.
And as for the point that the cure must not be worse than the disease, again I accept that as a general statement. But also remember, there are some aspects of the disease that look pretty terrible, like Iraq, like the massacres in the former Yugoslavia, like Syria. So we share the same aspirations. We need to convert those aspirations into practical realities in a way which is doable in the context of Singapore.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam spoke about a Muslim-only launderette in Johor. Narrow-mindedness in the name of Islam drives a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. The owner was asked to stop that discriminatory practice or be shut down.
We would not want something like that in Singapore. The tendencies and the risks are there and we need to guard against them. I agree with some of the points made in this context by Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Faisal Manap. Mr Singh said neighbours should be willing to be open-minded, live and let live attitude precisely, that is what we need to encourage. And Mr Faizal Manap talked about open-mindedness in respect of the differences of people and national values, precisely.
RELIGIOUS TEACHINGS: WHAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE?
Next, let me move to religious teachings. It is also a problem if a religious teacher tells his followers that they cannot make friends with people of other faiths or employ them.
Speaker Sir, may I seek permission to show a video please?
[Video of what a preacher, Mufti Menk said]
This religious leader was in India, now in Zimbabwe, and used to come to Singapore regularly to preach. Two years ago, we banned him. There was some unhappiness but I think members will understand why.
He preached that it is the biggest sin and crime for a Muslim to wish a non-Muslim Merry Christmas or Happy Deepavali, and I suppose the same goes for Happy Chinese New Year. This is dangerous. Divisive. Our common spaces will shrink and different segments of the community will drift apart.
So we make no apologies for taking that approach, banning that, because we cannot allow this sort of preaching to take hold in Singapore and gain followers.
Taken to the extremes, such preachings can have very serious consequences. For example, in 2016, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow was stabbed by a fellow Muslim to death a day after he put out a Facebook posting wishing customers a Happy Easter. We need to be careful about foreign preachers who may not understand our context.
I agree with Mr Faisal Manap that religious teachings must be aligned with our national values. Our religious bodies do draw on religious thought and religious leadership from abroad. For example, MUIS has a Distinguished Visitors programme.
Many distinguished Islamic scholars come and share their experiences. Likewise, for other religions, and that is to be welcomed.
We do not say no to that but it is important to be clear on the practices which would not work here and we have to be careful that we do not import the religious conflicts from other countries, even as we sympathise and offer help where appropriate.
Mr Pritam Singh said our first loyalty should always be to Singapore, even if our common sense of humanity makes us feel for the plight of others in conflicts overseas. And I fully agree. We have to be careful not to import those religious conflicts here.
On the ground, Ms Rahayu shared that members of the Muslim community actively speak out against extremist preachings. That reaffirms that Singapore Muslims object to the misguided teachings of ISIS.
Our National Council of Churches has spoken out against undesirable practices of foreign Christian preachers. Mufti Menk whom you saw in the video was not the only preacher I banned.
A few weeks ago, we banned two Christian preachers who had made several Islamophobic comments. Those two preachers had been contacted by churches in Singapore - they were coming in to speak, but we said ‘No’. The National Council of Churches came out and told all churches to be careful who they invite. That is good. We do need to relook our practices. Do they promote tolerance, do they promote integration or do they tend to divide?
We need to draw a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. We have to develop our own style in the practice of religion, situated within the context of our multi-religious, multi-racial society. Mixing of religion and politics is another dangerous area. We need to guard against that, because it is happening quite a bit around the region.
Mr Speaker Sir, may I seek your permission to have another video shown, please?
[Video of Zakir Naik]
This is Dr Zakir Naik, who will not come to Singapore to preach but you can assume that Mufti Menk and Dr Naik are all around the region, preaching.
Their videos are available, many people buy them, including Singaporeans. They are feted and welcomed for their viewpoints. So you can imagine and have a sense of what is happening in this region.
A religious leader telling people they cannot vote for someone of another religion? I think Singaporeans will say that is not acceptable.
If we allow that kind of teaching in Singapore, we can easily imagine what else might be said by people. It will move to race. If you are one race, you should vote for a person of that race. It happens in other places.
This is a broad canvass of the kind of problems we face, the challenges, the approaches we take. In concrete terms, what are we looking at, in this context?
PLANS MOVING FORWARD
First, let me talk about restrictions on foreign preachers. Foreign preachers who do not share our values of religious harmony will not be allowed to preach in Singapore.
I spoke about their possible influence earlier. We cannot, as such an open society, avoid being influenced by external developments. But we have to try our best to insulate ourselves from overseas events and foreign doctrines which can do us serious harm. We are studying how we can tighten the process and ensure that such preachers do not come into Singapore to preach.
Second, hate speech. Social media emboldens. Some people say terrible and evil things. Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Desmond Choo said such comments have the potential to inflame emotions and they can go viral. There are laws today and we have used them. We are studying whether we need to move more quickly, and have more options to deal with this particular issue appropriately and decisively.
Third, prevention of radicalisation. Mr Murali Pillai and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar spoke on the importance of community actors - parents, spouses, teachers and youth - playing their part if someone close to them is showing signs of radicalisation. There were constructive suggestions on how we can support these people to help. We will study the suggestions and see how we can support them further.
Fourth, the Islamic College. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about this. The Singapore Islamic College, when set up, can train a new generation of religious teachers who understand our multi-religious and multi-racial context. We support what Dr Yaacob has said.
Fifth, dealing with segregationist teachings. Our religious groups and leaders are generally very supportive of our efforts to build and maintain religious harmony in Singapore. They know how important it is that our religions co-exist harmoniously, and why we need to maintain our common spaces.
Religion can, and has been, a source of strength for our society but we must also watch out for exclusivist, intolerant practices because these can deepen fault lines and weaken our entire society. I spoke earlier about this. So we are reviewing the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to see how we can best deal with this issue.
CUTTING TERRORISM FROM ITS BASE
Since 1965, we have come very far in terms of integration. But I think everyone would agree that we have not yet arrived, and one never knows whether there is ever such a thing as having arrived.
Singapore’s approach, as I have sketched out, is to build a Singapore identity that can accommodate diversity. And celebrate our different racial and religious identities whilst at the same time, creating a broad common space that we all share as Singaporeans, and builds our sense of solidarity, as one nation. That is an ongoing journey. It has to be continuously adjusted and refined as circumstances evolve both locally and internationally.
In that context, the stronger religiosity that we have been experiencing across all religions is source of strength, as long as we get the framework right. We have to pay close attention to this.
Almost 15 years ago, I spoke in this House, during the debate on the White Paper following the Jemaah Islamiyah arrests.
I shared my view that it is an ideological battle that has to be won, and it is incumbent on all of us, as Singaporeans, to reach across racial lines to build stronger ties across communities.
Ties that bind us more closely. That is the only way to cut terrorism from its base. We have to win the fight for hearts and minds.
I said, then, that each of us must take a deep and honest look at ourselves, examine our attitudes, mindsets towards our Muslim brothers and sisters, and ask in our heart of hearts, do we respect and value them as Singaporeans, and accept them as equals?
Or are we just being superficial and politically-correct?
Are we showing them, with sincerity, that we genuinely want to build deep links?
That is vital. That will define where our society is headed and that will determine whether we are able to come together as one people to celebrate the rich diversity amongst us and be stronger for it, or be divided by our differences and allow suspicion and negativity to tear our society apart.