The need for Singapore to remain committed to protecting its minorities was stressed by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday, as anti-Islamic and anti- immigrant sentiments jolt the world and the region grapples with growing polarisation along religious lines.
“In the face of all this, the Government has to convey a clear message: We are all Singaporeans. We guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community,” he said. “And as a community, we must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism to override the protection and guarantee of equality, particularly to minorities.”
With 74 per cent of the population being Chinese, “our system of elections means majoritarianism could have easily taken hold and can, in future, easily take hold”.
He credits Singapore’s founding leaders for laying the foundation that includes ensuring equal opportunities for the minorities.
Mr Shanmugam’s robust statement on Singapore’s core principle of equality for those of all races and religions follows the upheavals of the past week after US President Donald Trump’s order suspending refugee intake and temporarily keeping the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries out of the US.
At a seminar on religion, conflict and peacebuilding, he said the US changes, made suddenly, present a serious risk to Singapore. The travel curbs, he noted, reflect anti-Islamic feelings gaining ground in the United States and Europe. “It is a groundswell fuelled by fear and a substantial element of racism. Many otherwise reasonable people are also supporting such movements,” he said.
Singapore, with a 15 per cent Muslim population, could easily slide into a similar situation, he added. Hence, it is imperative that the Government steer clear of engaging in racial politics, Mr Shanmugam said.
But it can do this only with the community’s support, he added.
While the majority must back these efforts, the minorities must play their part, and not grow increasingly exclusive. Both sides need to “work together to increase common space, and work with the Government that is determined to hold the common space together”, he said.
“That is the only way we can resist the tide of populism that is sweeping the rest of the world. We keep to our way of life,” he added.
The two-day symposium is organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies under its Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.
In his address, Mr Shanmugam sketched his view on what has led to the anti-Islamic wave in the West, Singapore’s approach in avoiding the backlash elsewhere against minorities, and regional trends that could agitate Singapore’s minorities.
Pointing to the Chinese majority, he noted that Singapore has avoided majoritarianism by ensuring equal opportunities regardless of race or religion, guaranteeing religious freedom and clamping down strongly on hate speech.
“The result is, regardless of all else, you can walk with a sense of being yourself, comfortable in your own skin, as an equal citizen… That is the lived reality of a Singaporean,” Mr Shanmugam said.
But this takes work, he said, noting that the Government has not taken a laissez faire approach. Without active state intervention, he said, “you will get segregated communities, segregated schools, the lessening of common space and a reduction of opportunities for minorities”.
Urging racial and religious leaders to champion integration and interaction, he said: “This is critical… to preserve what we have in Singapore.”