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On upholding equality in Singapore (54th Appeal of Conscience Foundation Awards Dinner)

For over half a century, Singapore has worked hard to uphold the principle of equality among our different races and religions. It was over this fundamental principle that we separated from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent country. Indeed, on the very day that we became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew declared that in Singapore “Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”. And our National Pledge, which students recite every morning in school, declares that as citizens of Singapore, “we … pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion … to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation”. At the time we created the pledge, this was a dream and an aspiration. But over half a century in substantial measure, we have made it come through and we continue to strive towards this ideal. This founding philosophy has enabled us to grow into a diverse but harmonious society. We are racially and religiously diverse: 5.7 million Chinese (the majority), Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others living together on an island slightly smaller than New York City. All the great religions are represented in Singapore – Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jews, and also Zoroastrians, the Parsis. The Pew Research Centre ranks us as the most religiously diverse country in the world. And today, it is a harmonious society. We did not become so because Singaporeans are a uniquely virtuous people. In the Federalist Papers No 51, the author (who was probably James Madison) wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Singapore’s approach to race and religion is based on a similar insight. We created structures – constitutional, political, social – that discouraged intolerance, curbed chauvinism, and nudged social behaviour in positive ways, long before nudging became intellectually fashionable. Constitutionally, our state is strictly secular, but not anti-religion. Our religious communities trust the authorities to treat all faiths completely impartially. Laws are based on national interest, and not on religious commandments. One of the first constitutional measures we passed after independence was to create a Presidential Council for Minority Rights. This Council scrutinises all legislation to ensure that they do not discriminate against any race or religious community. We also created a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which empowers the government to act against religious leaders or groups who cause feelings of enmity, hatred or hostility between religious groups, or who use religion to promote their political cause. Fortunately, we have never had occasion to use the Act in 30 years of its existence, but its very existence has been of considerable deterrent value. We designed electoral rules to encourage multi-racial politics, instead of the politics of race and religion. In Parliamentary elections, political parties are required to present multi-racial slates to contest multi-member seats. You put up a team of 4, 5 or 6 – one member of the team must belong to the minority race designated for that constituency and you compete against another team – team against team, and the better team wins. The point of this is to discourage political parties from championing particular racial or religious groups, and dividing our society along primordial fault lines. Because if you do that, you are undermining the minority members of your community and if you champion on minority rights, you alienate the majority members of your team and you alienate the majority of members in your constituency, all of which are racially mixed. This prevents us from being divided along primordial fault lines and it also guarantees that our Parliament will always have a minimum number of legislators from the minority communities, so that minorities do not feel shut out. Recently we took this further. We amended the Constitution to ensure that our President, who is a directly-elected Head of State – we ensure that he or she will come from one of the minority races, if no President from that race has been elected for some time. So it is a fail-safe position, you have a free election, but if after 5 elections you have not had a President from a particular race, the next election is a reserved one for candidates of that race. And so we have made multi-racialism not just a political aspiration, but a structural feature of our political system. This is reinforced by our public policies. For example, in our public housing estates, where public housing is sold to people and after some years they can then freely transact and resell the houses, we have ensured that every township, every precinct, every residential block, we have an ethnically mixed population. Since over 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing, we have no racial enclaves, we have no ghettoes. Every part of Singapore looks something like every other part – diverse and multi-racial. And every Member of Parliament looks after a multiracial constituency, he does not represent a constituency whose boundaries have been drawn to include only a particular group. Had we not done this and intervened in the housing market, our population would have become racially segregated, as has happened in many other countries, with very serious social consequences. In our schools, students of all races and religions study together. This is also a result of having mixed constituencies because they live in in mixed residential areas and therefore they go to schools which are also mixed without being bussed. They are all taught a secular national curriculum, even in schools affiliated to religious groups. And in our media, we do not allow blasphemous cartoons, songs or other offensive materials that denigrate or disparage other races or faiths, whether this is done in the name of entertainment or freedom of speech. Within this constitutional, legal and policy framework, Singaporeans have learnt to live peacefully together. Mosques, temples, churches, and synagogues, are often within walking distance of each other, and sometimes even hold events together. I went to a Catholic school – there is a church in the school grounds and across the road from us, there was a synagogue – one of two in Singapore catering to a very small Jewish community, a few hundred people, but part of the diverse and the freedom of religion and the harmony of the faiths which we have generated in Singapore. Religious groups make compromises and adjustments in their practices, mindful of the sensitivities of other faiths. For example, mosques tone down their loudspeakers that carry the prayer call, the azan, and to make up for this, we broadcast the azan on national radio. On their part, Christians exercise restraint proselytising to people of other faiths. Because to you, it is the gospel – the good news – but to people of other faiths, if it is not done sensitively, it can be taken amiss and can cause offense. So we have made our adjustments, we have learned to live harmoniously together and we have made this accommodation of the faiths not just through our policies and edicts, but in our daily lives. We are also fortunate that religious leaders in Singapore understand the multiracial and religious context, and guide our flocks responsibly. They have worked together to promote mutual understanding, and strengthen ties between the groups, for example through interfaith dialogues. We have an organisation in Singapore called the Inter-Religious Organisation and almost all the faiths are there and they have existed for 70 years – I just celebrated their 70th birthday with them, and they are probably the oldest such organisation in the world. The different leaders have cooperated quietly with one another to resolve sensitive issues which inevitably arise from time to time, and prevent them from flaring up and causing wider misunderstandings.

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