The racial and religious harmony that Singapore enjoys is a result of give-and-take between the different communities in the country, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
“This is something which we have to always continue to work upon, because it is not something which will ever become a solved problem,” Mr Lee said in an interview with Russian news agency TASS at the Istana on Saturday (May 14).
“All the major religions of the world are in Singapore. There are three major races, but many other communities in Singapore. We speak very different languages. Tamil is Dravidian, Chinese is totally different from English and we have to get on together.”
This give-and-take between the different communities is a matter of constant effort, social policy and integration, PM Lee said.
In his comments responding to a question on how Singapore maintains a harmonious balance between different ethnic groups and religions, Mr Lee added that this policy of integration sees Singaporeans of different races and religions come together in schools, housing estates, workplaces and during National Service and learning to work and live together in a multi-racial context.
“If you are in Singapore as a Christian, you do not treat this as a Christian country. If you are in Singapore as a Buddhist, this is not a Buddhist country, even though the Buddhist may be one of the biggest religious groups in Singapore. If you are a Muslim in Singapore, you can practice your faith, you can fast, you have mosques, but you understand that this is a multi-racial society and you are working and living within a multi-racial context.
“It is this give and take, and trust that has been built up over a very long period of time, which we think makes for the nature of our society, which makes for what is gradually emerging as a Singapore identity.”
RUSSIA CONTRIBUTES TO REGION’S STABILITY: PM LEE
During the interview, which was held ahead of Mr Lee’s visit to Russia to attend the Russia-ASEAN summit, he also touched on the relationship between Russia and ASEAN, describing bilateral relations as “very good”.
Singapore appreciates Russia’s participation in regional affairs and its contribution to ensuring stability and peace in South-east Asia, PM Lee added.
“Russia is an important power and economy in the world. The economic ties between ASEAN countries and Russia have been growing, but (do) not really commensurate with the importance of Russia in the world.”
This is gradually changing, Mr Lee noted. For example, Singapore is planning to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union.
“In this way, by strengthening the ties between Russia and individual ASEAN countries, we can strengthen the ties between Russia and Southeast Asia, and ASEAN region as a whole,” he said.
50 YEARS OF DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS
Russia and Singapore will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations this year – a “major milestone”, Mr Lee said.
“Fifty years ago, Singapore was newly independent, and the world was completely different, and Russia was still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Today, Singapore has celebrated its 50th anniversary of statehood and the world has completely changed,” he said.
Plans to build a Russian Cultural Centre in Singapore are at an advanced stage, Mr Lee said, adding that a site at a “good location” has been found.
In terms of economic ties, major Russian companies like Lukoil and Gazprom are in Singapore while Singapore companies like Olam are in Russia and Changi Airports International is co-managing several airports in Russia, he noted.
The two countries also cooperate in the educational, scientific and cultural fields. Singapore’s universities have cooperation partnerships with Russian institutions, and Singapore is also a popular destination for Russian tourists, he said.
Still, more can be done in terms of trade between the two countries, Mr Lee said. “Our trade is not in proportion to the potential. It has risen rapidly in the last 10 years – has about quadrupled – but still Russia is just our 21st largest trading partner. It should not be like that.
“With my trip to Moscow, I hope to meet some Russian business people and executives and get them interested in Singapore a bit. We hope something will grow from there.”