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Recent incidents show racial, religious issues highly emotive, don't mean that S’pore’s approach is failing: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — The recent spate of racist incidents illustrates how issues of race and religion will always be highly emotive, but it is not a sign that Singapore’s approach towards race relations is failing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Aug 8).

  • Covid-19 has strained fault lines in society and brought up difficult issues, said Mr Lee
  • Singapore needs to manage race and religion issues carefully, he added, while lower wage workers will need more sustained support
  • The Govt will have to adjust its policies to address S’poreans’ anxieties and problems with foreign workers


SINGAPORE — The recent spate of racist incidents illustrates how issues of race and religion will always be highly emotive, but it is not a sign that Singapore’s approach towards race relations is failing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Aug 8).

While such incidents are worrying, they are not the norm, he stressed.

“Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral. The negative incidents do not mean that our approach is failing,” Mr Lee said in his National Day message.

There have been several high profile racist incidents over the last few months.

In May, a 30-year-old Chinese man was arrested for allegedly assaulting and hurling racial slurs at a 55-year-old Indian woman who was walking along Choa Chu Kang Drive.

It prompted Mr Lee to express disappointment that a racist attack could happen in Singapore, adding that stress from Covid-19 did not justify racist attitudes and actions, much less physical abuse and assault due to someone’s race.

The following month, a former lecturer from Ngee Ann Polytechnic made the news for confronting an inter-racial couple.

Subsequently, at a forum hosted by the Institute of Policy Studies, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong stressed the need to tackle racism wherever it exists in society.

He added that it was crucial for the majority Chinese community to acknowledge the difficulties faced by minorities in their daily lives, as he urged the majority community to make minorities feel comfortable.

In his National Day message on Sunday, Mr Lee said issues of race and religion must be managed carefully and that it is also helpful to air and acknowledge sensitive issues of race and religion candidly and respectfully.

He pointed out that it took several generations of sustained effort to bring the different races and religions together.

“This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights. It was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties — the majority as well as the minorities.”

Mr Lee said that Singapore must not “lightly give up” this balance among the different communities, and it must continually adjust this balance to maintain social harmony.

He added: “It is the Government’s duty to manage these issues on behalf of all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion. To do this, we will need your co-operation, support and trust.”

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The issue of race and religion was one of three “difficult issues” that Mr Lee highlighted in his National Day message as examples of how Covid-19 has strained fault lines in Singapore.

He also raised the issue of support for lower wage workers, who have felt the impact of Covid-19 most acutely.

While they have access to good and affordable healthcare, housing and education like other Singaporeans, Mr Lee noted that it is harder for them to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses as they have less savings.

With Singapore moving towards an increasingly skills-based economy, Mr Lee said that lower wage workers will need more sustained support.

“A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals to improve their lives and prospects. These will build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost their incomes and create new opportunities for upskilling and job progression,” said Mr Lee.


Mr Lee also touched on the anxiety that Singaporeans face over the large number of foreign work pass holders in Singapore.

He noted that while Singaporeans understand that they need to welcome foreign talent and expertise to boost the economy, they “naturally” worry about competition for jobs when the number of work pass holders is large.

The uncertainties of Covid-19 have worsened these anxieties, said Mr Lee.

While work pass holders reinforce a company’s staff pool, they may also compete directly with local colleagues.

“Sometimes the locals feel unfairly treated, for instance when they miss out on being hired or promoted,” he added.

There may also be social frictions outside of work as some work pass holders and their families have not fully adapted to social norms in Singapore, said Mr Lee.

“I understand these anxieties and problems. The Government is addressing them. We have to adjust our policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore.

“If we do this well, we can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants, as we must.”

Turning inwards would damage Singapore’s global standing, cost the economy and go against the country’s value of openness, warned Mr Lee.

Concluding his message, the Prime Minister said that the strains that Singapore is facing are not unique or completely new to the country.

New crises will test Singapore’s resolve and unity, but the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that Singaporeans face them with grit and determination, added Mr Lee.

“As this year’s National Day Parade theme song goes, ‘We did it before, and we’ll do it again!’” Mr Lee said.

“I am confident that Singapore can keep on building a more harmonious society, a more prosperous economy, and a more successful nation for generations to come.”

Related topics

National Day Lee Hsien Loong race religion low wage workers foreign workers

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