Preserving common space about ‘goodwill, give and take’

MINISTER of State Sim Ann yesterday said preserving the common space in a diverse society like Singapore’s can be an “untidy business”, characterised more by goodwill and give and take than rules of consistency and logic. 

On the Government’s role in protecting this space, she said she had been asked if there was indeed a “pushback” from other groups whenever one community asked for special accommodation.

While the junior minister in the ministries for Education and Communications and Information did not mention the tudung, her remarks at yesterday’s IPS seminar come three days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s closed-door dialogue with Malay-Muslim community leaders on the issue.

Ms Sim compared the common space shared by Singaporeans of difference races and religions, to a village square ringed by houses.

Each family may make small changes or extensions to their houses that jut into the square. Each change in and of itself does not hurt their neighbours, she said, but as more families make similar requests, “the village decides to regularise the practice for fairness”.

“After a vigorous and exhausting debate, the village comes up with a complex set of rules on how much of the square each family is entitled to. Eventually there is no square left,” she said.

During the discussion that followed, former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed said he was concerned about how well the Chinese here understand Malays and their religion, Islam, and how well the rest understand the changing profile of the Chinese and their religions, and “emerging Christians”.

He also wondered about people’s understanding of Malaysia’s race relations issues and how that might impact Singapore.

Ms Sim said Mr Zainul’s question underscored the difficulty in truly understanding any other group, “but we must try”. 

In a separate discussion later, National University of Singapore professor Chua Beng Huat spoke about the problems he faced as a sociologist in understanding what the Malay community really feels when their sentiments are “mediated by community leaders that are already hand-picked”.

On last Saturday’s closed-door dialogue on the tudung issue between PM Lee and a group of Malay-Muslim community leaders, he said: “How are we expected to understand how the Malays feel if we are not part of that closed door?”

He said that if the issue of the tudung or Islamic headscarf was a national issue, “it is not just up to the Malay community to resolve, but for all of us to resolve, and to do that we need to learn to handle differences publicly”.

Ms Sim also responded to Nominated MP Janice Koh who said the arts space was fast becoming an “empty space” due to the Government’s over-regulation.

Ms Sim said no government would want to over-regulate this particular sector. But she added that “the sentiments and the emotions are... so fraught, potentially sometimes highly charged... that it takes a lot of serious thought and a lot of application of empathy in order to be able create... that particular safe space”.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.