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Holding Singapore’s common space together amid a global tide of populism

Amid a growing uproar over new immigration policies in the United States, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addressed the question of how Singapore can resist the global tide of populism and xenophobia. This is an edited transcript of his speech on Wednesday (Feb 01) at the third Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies symposium.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addressed the question of how Singapore can resist the global tide of populism and xenophobia at the third Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies symposium on Feb 1, 2017. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addressed the question of how Singapore can resist the global tide of populism and xenophobia at the third Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies symposium on Feb 1, 2017. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

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Amid a growing uproar over new immigration policies in the United States, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam addressed the question of how Singapore can resist the global tide of populism and xenophobia. This is an edited transcript of his speech on Wednesday (Feb 01) at the third Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies symposium.


It is now a cliché to say that 2016 was a year of shocks, surprises, and unexpected turns. You have had Brexit, the Italy referendum and the US election results.

There has been a scramble to predict the policies of the new Trump administration and what it means for the world.

In the last seven to 10 days, we have had a preview of what might happen. Within a week, the United States left 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.


In imposing the travel ban, President Trump validated the feelings of a significant section of his electorate. Those feelings are sweeping across the Western world.

Anti-Islam feelings are feeding the far right in France, Netherlands, Germany, and gaining significant support. In the past, one could simply dismiss it, but I think we can no longer simply dismiss it.

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-Muslims and 15 per cent Muslims. The potential for sharp cleavages exists.

Why do we have this wave around the Western world? When I say Western world, I think one can, in this context, possibly exclude Australia and New Zealand.

Based on my own views, there are many causes for such sentiments. One of them 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.

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; the social forces at work. Others may well disagree.

I see it as a reaction to the feelings and perceptions amongst host populations - that law and order has gone down, that welfare systems are being abused and that their rice bowls are threatened.

In fact, that their entire way of life, culture, conventions, are all being threatened. Politicians who advocate tolerance are seen as out of touch and weak. There is, therefore, a fascination with leaders who promise strength.

You see such reactions everywhere. In Switzerland recently, there was a legal challenge on compulsory co-ed swimming classes for boys and girls. A Muslim couple did not want their two daughters, aged 7 and 9, to attend swimming classes with boys.

They challenged the school officials in court. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of the school.

In France, you had the ban on Burkini at the beaches of some French cities. Women in Burkinis were fined, asked to leave or even asked to remove their Burkinis.

So leaders are now saying to immigrants: “Behave normally or go away.”

These sort of sentiments, “behave or go away”, would have been seen as not quite in keeping with the European values of tolerance and acceptance. But as I said earlier, leaders have had to adjust to populists and populist sentiments.

There is a serious risk. If this is not addressed, this reaction to popular sentiments can go too far. If they go too far, it will legitimise Islamophobia. It strengthens extremists on both sides and helps them feed off each other.

We have so far avoided getting into this vicious cycle, but this is a risk that the world faces. The reaction is gaining ground in many countries, and might become mainstream, which is basically to say, “If you don’t like it go”, or “It’s just too bad for you” or “This is what the majority wants”.

What we are seeing is a set of policies on refugees, on treatment of minorities, on the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims not quite succeeding for a whole host of reasons. And there is a backlash against these policies from the host populations.

You can say that one of the causes is a lack of integration between the communities. There are, of course, several reasons why this has happened.

For us in Singapore, it is extremely important to understand why this has happened. We need to understand so that we don’t repeat those mistakes. Time, however, does not allow me to go into them.

We have so far avoided a 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.


Our approach over 50 years has been centered on three core principles.

First, equality and equality of opportunities.

Second, 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 third, while there is considerable ethnic, religious diversity, let’s also work actively to keep as large a common space as possible in our interactions.

And there is no point just talking about them, you have to actually work at them. You see many Government policies in the context of these three principles. Some of them were criticised but with hindsight we can see they make sense.

The Government’s approach is activist. It is anything but laissez-faire. And 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.

Some examples you can see in Singapore. The ethnic integration policy – the Government intervenes on where people live and makes sure that no ethnic enclaves develop. People have to live together.

In schools, we have standard uniforms for everyone. Common identity in schools, with majority of schools compulsory racially mixed, compulsory education and so our young children have to interact with each other, learn to get on with each other, learn to respect and value each other.

The self-help groups are subject to some criticisms but the basic point is this: accept that there are Indians, Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, and other races.

You get more Chinese volunteers coming forward to help the less well-off in the Chinese community. We have more Indian volunteers coming to help the less well-off in the Indian community. We have more Malays volunteers coming to help the less well-off in the Malay community. So let the Government come together with the self-help groups, organised along racial lines.

We have a tough framework of laws, touching on what you can and cannot say about race and religion.

In Singapore, you cannot burn the Quran or the Bible on the basis of the freedom of speech. If you did, you will be behind bars.

We have our share of religious leaders who make offensive remarks about other religions. The Internal Security Department will talk to them.

We had a pastor on YouTube who said Buddhism is a superstitious religion and he went on to make other remarks. We talked to him, he apologised, and no more such remarks (were made by the pastor). Everybody understands and everybody accepts this.

Another example: Some newly converted Christians felt that they needed to enlighten Muslims on the faults of the Prophet.

They had received various tracts from the United States which sets out all the things that the Prophet was supposed to have done wrong and they decided they would mail the tracts to Muslims whose names they found in the telephone book. They were arrested, they were charged in court and they went to jail.

Again, the message was sent and everybody understands. There is a certain balance that we keep. So, tough laws and a willingness to enforce the laws are necessary. But laws alone do not work. You need the community to work together.

We have had well-meaning, highly-educated Singaporeans who look at these things – self-help groups, ethnic integration policy and so on – and say: “Why do we need it? We are all Singaporeans. Do we really need it? In fact, why does our identity card talk about our race? Why does it say that we are Chinese, Malay or Indian?”

But I think if the government had not intervened, if I remove the ethnic identity from the IC, do we all become the same, the day after?

Without active State intervention, after a while, you will get segregated communities, you will get segregated schools and you will have a lessening of the common space and a reduction of opportunities for minorities.

In such a situation, if there is State intervention to help the minorities, through more welfare, quotas and so on, you 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.

The Government would have gotten credit from some if we had removed, for example, ethnic identity from ICs.

These sort of gestures play well to the gallery. Some governments may do so to give the appearance of activity, decisiveness, openness and so on. But the realities of governance are different from theatrics.

Good governance requires us to eschew theatrics, and do what is good for society as a whole. And what we did was the right thing to do.


But we should not assume that Singapore is going to be immune from this wave of populism that is sweeping the West, which has let loose xenophobic tendencies, racism, and tribalism.

And in our case, let us not forget the racial mathematics which are quite stark. It starts with one statistic: 74 per cent of our population are Chinese.

Our system of elections means ‘majoritarianism’ could have easily taken hold and can easily take hold in future.

Many aspects of our society as we see it today are not normal, or usual. Malays are 15 per cent of the population, Tamils 5 per cent of the population. And yet we have both as our official languages. That does not happen in a normal place.

And English as the official language of business. When the government was formed in 1965, senior Chinese leaders went to see Mr Lee Kuan Yew to say Chinese should become the language of official business. He was able to say no, but that was again not normal.

Equal opportunities for everyone. In government and private sectors. We guarantee religious freedom, and impose strict protection against hate speech. As a result, any Singaporean, regardless of Malay, Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, can walk in public with a sense of being yourself, comfortable in your own skin, as an equal citizen. That is the lived reality of a Singaporean.

That was only possible because Mr Lee and his team managed to get the majority Chinese to agree to this. Let’s not forget that, and that is not easy.

Whoever forms the government in Singapore must continue to be committed to maintaining those values and protecting the minorities and not engage in racial politics.

We also need the majority of the community, which means the majority of the Chinese population, to support this. 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 the majority of the population accept and want.

There are a number of trends that can affect this dynamic.

First, 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. We have managed to keep that under control so far. If, however, the reaction takes a populist tone, then we will be in trouble.

Second, there are regional trends which are disconcerting. Just to give one example, you have had the Mufti of Pahang say those who oppose Islamic law in Malaysia are ‘kafir harbi’. Kafir are infidels. Kafir harbi are infidels who should be destroyed. That, I presume, also means the majority of Chinese and Indians who oppose Islamic law. Malaysia is a moderate Islamic country but you are getting an increasing amount of such rhetoric.

In Indonesia, we have seen recent large scale demonstrations with somewhat religious undertones.

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.

That also presents an opportunity for unscrupulous people in the region who then might try and champion the rights, or what they perceive to be the rights, of specific minorities within Singapore.

The third risk is polarisation. You get people targeting specific racial groups, and making more demands. Targeting Malays, Targeting Chinese, targeting Indians. And targeting groups based on other interests.

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.

We as a Government try very hard to keep that common space, keep the centre holding, and keep a set of values together for all Singaporeans. But this cannot be done by the Government alone.

Leaders of religions, and leaders of the different ethnic communities have a huge role. They can no longer see themselves simply as leaders of their religion or of their community.

They have to really understand the context of what is happening around the world. 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.

This is critical. This has to be the effort of the entire community. And it is the leaders of the community who have to take on this role. They have to push back against polarisation.

We have to do all of these to preserve what we have achieved in Singapore.

What’s happening in the US can also impact the 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, and deep rifts within Congress. Some people might say that’s not new. But it’s all happening at the same time.

There are many consequences; for the perception of the United States, for what it means, for the perception of its leadership role in the world, and so on. There are also implications as to what the rule of law means, and how valued it is in the United States.

One of the consequences is that it could lead to some Muslims around the world becoming more anti-American, and 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.


In the face of all of this, the Government has to convey a clear message.

First, we are all Singaporeans.

Two, we guarantee the safety, security, freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community.

Three, we, as a community and not just the Government, must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobia and ‘majoritarianism’ to overrun the protection and guarantee of equality, particularly for minorities.

And four, the Government can only do this if the community supports this. For this to work, the majority will have to support it.

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.



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