SINGAPORE - Racial and religious integration is an ongoing challenge, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Oct 4), as he stressed that the harmony which Singapore enjoys today is not natural, but an act of will that has been sustained through the decades.
No matter the progress over the last 50 years, it is "complacent and dangerous" to be lulled into a false sense of safety that race and religion matters are no longer divisive.
These remain "difficult and sensitive" issues for any society, he said, adding there is room for open discussion, but it would be unwise to assume there is no need to be careful when dealing with such issues.
Mr Lee was addressing community and religious leaders at a forum held by OnePeople.sg, which is a national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony.
He said that from the start, Singapore's pioneer leaders had strongly believed in the ideal of a multiracial society where all are treated equal. This caused tension when Singapore was still a part of Malaysia and was the fundamental reason why both sides separated in 1965, he added.
Recalling the period of unrest in Singapore's early years of independence, he said then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had spoken out forcefully against Chinese chauvinists 50 years ago this week.
The language agitators had been pushing for a constitutional guarantee of the status of the Chinese language, despite assurance that the four major languages are official and equal. However, the elder Mr Lee rebuffed them, and reaffirmed the commitment to build a model society that would be "an example for everybody else to follow", said Mr Lee.
Singaporeans had supported many hard decisions along the way, he added, describing the harmonious state of affairs here as one of Singapore's "most remarkable achievements".
Yet, in some ways, racial and religious matters are more complicated today than they were 50 years ago, as evident from the occasional "prickly issues and incidents with a racial tinge", said Mr Lee.
Some examples include racist posts on social media, as well as decisions over religious rites for births in mixed marriages.
He credited community and religious groups for dealing with them "quietly, cooperatively and maturely" before they blow up.
But as Singapore preserves its harmony within borders, it still must be vigilant over external threats such as jihadist terrorism, said Mr Lee.
He said, in the event of a terror attack: "We must be very, very, very careful that we don't let it pull our fabric apart."
So, Singapore must continuously nurture racial ties and build trust and confidence among races, he said, which is why national groups like OnePeople.sg are so crucial.
Citing a study two years ago, Mr Lee noted that while most Singaporeans subscribe to racial and religious harmony, less than half had at least one close friend of another race. He said: "In principle, we have made a lot of progress. In practice, we need to do more."
Still, there is cause for cheer in Singapore's Golden Jubilee year, from the "little signals" of things that have been going right.
For one thing, the various religious groups had extended invitations to members of other religious bodies for their SG50 celebrations. And in Sembawang, there is a church that opens its carpark to the Muslim congregation from a neighbouring mosque every Friday, he noted.
For today's youth who did not experience racial strife, Mr Lee said: "We have to constantly remind them how precious this harmony is, how unusual and rare it is."
He recalled a school visit several years ago on Racial Harmony Day, which falls on July 21, when a student asked if he, too, had celebrated the occasion as a student. Mr Lee said no, and explained that on that very day one year, there was a riot.
Choking up as he related this story, he said: "I think he understood me but, in a way, he was not there. You don't want that generation ever to be there. Yet, you want (them) to understand what is it which is precious... which we have got to safeguard... so that SG50 is fine, and we make sure SG100 will be all right."
This article was first published on October 5, 2015.
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