Ethnic peace an act of Singaporean will

The recent reminder from Singapore's leaders, to never treat the present state of racial and religious peace as a given, was worth repeating. They adopt a historical view of ethnic relations: neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. Ethnicity in Singapore has evolved from being a violent site of contest and conflict, just a few decades ago, into stable terrain on which no community today considers another to be an intruder or guest who ought to be grateful. This is an achievement to be proud of but not to be complacent about because ethnicity has jagged edges. To acknowledge the risks is the first step to securing the peace.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's observation, that the harmony which Singapore enjoys today is not natural but is an act of will, is a warning against complacency. Race and religion continue to be potentially divisive forces in many places. Examples abound of ethnic passions resurfacing in contemporary affairs. The violent rejection of immigrants in certain European circles speaks ingloriously of xenophobia masquerading as protection of national identity. The killing of blacks by the police threatens to recreate racial contours in an America that is celebrated for being a melting pot. The shooting of a Hong Kong Chinese man, working for the Australian police in Sydney, reveals the persistence of religious animosity in another country defined by its multiculturalism. Nearer home, the way political power struggles are affecting the multi-ethnic fabric of Malaysia reiterates the insidious workings of race and religion in the modern body politic.

Singapore could go the way of other countries if it loses the sustaining will to keep primordial passions at bay. That is why the state must continue to play a gatekeeper's role by coming down on egregious transgressions of ethnic harmony. However, severe damage could occur before the law clamps down on the wayward. Ethnic adventurers could use unguarded Internet territory to spew venom that leads to clashes. Dangerously irresponsible demagogues looking for vote banks could appeal to the basest ethnic instincts of the most impressionable citizens. And continuing detentions of religious extremists under the Internal Security Act attest to the extra-territorial allure of radicalism.

In these circumstances, Singaporeans need to fall back on the society that they have in common. Often, ethnic distrust is born of social ignorance. The less people know of other people, the more the chances of their believing the worst of others. Greater interaction in housing estates, at school, and at workplaces would go a long way towards reaffirming the sense of Singapore as a shared national space. Friendships nurtured there would go a long way towards containing, if not preventing, the infiltration of imported ideas of religious and racial exclusivity into Singapore.

This article was first published on October 13, 2015.
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