SINGAPORE: The Republic has come a long way in building a nation where everyone is equal, but the country is not colour-blind.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave this assessment in an exclusive one-hour interview with Channel NewsAsia, which was broadcast on Sunday (Sep 4).
“I think we have come a long way. It’s not a Chinese or Malay or an Indian nation. Everybody has his place, everybody is equal. Treated equally, equal standing, equal rights and status,” Mr Lee said.
In the interview, the Prime Minister cited a landmark survey into Singaporeans’ attitudes towards race which was carried out by Channel NewsAsia in conjunction with the Institute of Policy Studies. He said that the survey showed that people believe in the ideal of a multiracial nation where everyone is equal.
“They don’t think that people should be treated favourably, they don’t believe that they are being treated favourably and they believe that anybody who works hard will be able to do well - which is what it should be. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that we have become colour-blind because we are different races, different languages, different religions and those factors are still important to us and will be for a very long time to come.”
The survey also examined the strong preference among Chinese, Malays and Indians for people of their own race marrying into their family compared with those from other races, which saw a lower acceptance level.
The Prime Minister said he was not surprised by this: “I’m not surprised. When it comes to personal decisions, you look for whom to marry, whom to be very good friends with, whom to do business with, whom to consult if you have a personal problem. You look for somebody who is like yourself and so when you are looking for a possible partner or spouse or son-in-law or daughter-in-law, if it’s the same race as you … well, that’s one hurdle less.”
PRESIDENT REPRESENTS NOT JUST THE STATE BUT ALL SINGAPOREANS
Mr Lee pointed out that such attitudes also matter in Singapore’s politics.
The survey of 2,000 Singaporeans showed that people are much more likely to accept a candidate for President who comes from the same race.
“For most people, if you ask them, they will say I will choose a candidate, I don’t care what race he is. But if you ask them the question in a survey and it’s anonymous, well, they’ll tell you race does make a difference and a significant number will prefer somebody who’s their own race and what it means in Singapore is that if a minority stands for an election as President, a Malay or an Indian, he will be at a disadvantage,” said Mr Lee.
“Not everybody will rule him out, but some will find the hurdle higher and so he starts off at a disadvantage and in a close election that will make a big difference.”
Citing the example of how Mr Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States, Mr Lee noted: “The whites, only 43 per cent voted for Obama, less than half. The Hispanics, two-thirds voted for Obama. The blacks overwhelmingly … (95 per cent) so what does it show? It shows that a black man can now win but it shows that race is still a big factor in American elections.”
Similarly in Singapore, race is also a factor.
“It’s something which is not quite natural, something which we have to accept and something which we have to take into account and decide what we’re going to do about,” Mr Lee said.
Elaborating on the theme, which he had first spoken about during his recent National Day Rally, he added: “If we want a minority to be a President from time to time, which I think is very important in Singapore, because the President represents all Singaporeans, he is the figure representing not just a state but the nation, all of us; then we must have a minority President from time to time, non-Chinese, a Malay one, an Indian or other minority, and then people see that 'Yes, this is my country. Someone like me can become the head of state, can represent the country.'”
Part of the challenge of making sure someone from a minority race becomes President is having a big enough pool of qualified candidates.
“The pool is still not as big as it is for the Chinese candidates ... but I think over time it will grow, and you can see as the communities have progressed - the Malays, the Indians - more and more of them are in the professional ranks and will rise up in the system,” he said.