SINGAPORE: Faced with issues such as growing Islamophobia and religious extremism, Singapore must never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism to override the protection and guarantee of equality - particularly to minorities, said Singapore Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Wednesday (Feb 1).
“We are all Singaporeans. We guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community,” he told a roundtable discussion at a symposium organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Mr Shanmugam opened his speech by revealing he had initially not been slated to speak. “But events around the world give cause for pause, for reflection,” he said, referring to the likes of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president.
“Post-US election, there has been a scramble, to predict the policies of the new Administration and what it means for the world," Mr Shanmugam said. "We now have had a preview of what might happen … The country whose actions possibly have the greatest importance on the world seeks to change course, and seeks to change course suddenly."
Pointing to the US exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries within a week of Mr Trump assuming office, he said: "When a superpower moves this fast, the rest of us have to avoid being caught in the slipstream."
He warned that events in the US could impact Singapore on a racial and religious front, specifically the "public disagreement" displayed by Mr Trump's firing of the acting Attorney-General for opposing his travel ban, protests on the streets and deep splits within Congress.
"There are many consequences to perceptions of the US, its leadership role in the world, and the role the Rule of Law plays and is valued in the US," said Mr Shanmugam. "One of the consequences ... is that it could lead some Muslims around the world to become anti-American, believing that the US has become more Islamophobic."
"This has serious risks for a lot of people including us."
He added: "In imposing the travel ban, President Trump validated feelings of a significant section of his voters. These feelings are sweeping across the western world ... The far right in France, Netherlands, Germany are gaining significant support, and one can no longer simply dismiss it.”
"It is a groundswell fuelled by fear and a substantial element of racism ... Anti-Islamic rhetoric is gaining ground."
MAJORITY VS MINORITY
Mr Shanmugam said he believed a possible cause for this was a reaction to the perception that minority communities and immigrants were taking advantage of existing systems and hardworking citizens, and that political correctness and weak leaders have been too accommodating.
"The feelings amongst host populations is that law and order has deteriorated, that welfare systems are being abused, that their rice bowls are threatened. In fact, that their entire way of life, culture, conventions, are all being threatened, uprooted," he described. "Politicians who advocate tolerance are seen as out of touch."
As a result, said Mr Shanmugam, leaders are saying to immigrants: “Behave normally or go away”.
“This reaction can go too far. If it goes too far, it becomes very unhelpful. It will legitimise Islamophobia. It’s not good for the world, it strengthens and empowers extremist forces on all sides, which will keep feeding off each other.”
"Such sentiments may quickly become mainstream. If you don’t like it - go! Or just too bad for you! This is what the majority want!"
The world is seeing policies on refugees, on treatment of minorities, on the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims - and a backlash against these policies from the host populations, he said, attributing this to a lack of integration between communities.
Mr Shanmugam identified three trends impacting the majority-minority dynamic in Singapore - rising religious extremism and the response to it; regional developments based on racial and religious rhetoric; and polarisation due to segments within minorities pushing for certain issues.
With its 15 per cent Muslim population, Singapore’s community could easily face "sharp cleavages", said Mr Shanmugam. But it has avoided such a situation over the last 50 years by adopting an approach centred on equality, accepting differences and managing considerable ethnic and religious diversity.
"These three core principles, you see many examples in Government policy … and an approach which was not laissez faire," he added, highlighting instances of intervention to prevent racial enclaves, implementing a standard school uniform and having racially-mixed schools.
Singapore also has laws specific to race and religion, said Mr Shanmugam, which do not permit the burning of the Quran or Bible, nor making offensive remarks on other beliefs, among others.
Nonetheless, it cannot be assumed that Singapore would be immune to the wave of populism sweeping the west, he cautioned.
"In our case, the racial maths is quite stark. Seventy-four per cent of our population is Chinese," he reiterated. "Our system of elections means majoritarianism can easily take hold. Remember, many aspects of our society are not normal."
These include having four official languages, a guarantee of religious freedom and strict protection against hate speech. The result, Mr Shanmugam said, is that "you can be yourself, comfortable in your skin, as an equal citizen, regardless of your race or religion".
"That is the lived reality of a Singaporean ... because Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) and his team managed to get the majority Chinese to agree. It was not an easy feat.”
GOOD GOVERNANCE NECESSARY
Still, people have criticised Singapore’s policies, with some asking for the removal of racial identification from identity cards (ICs). "But consequences would have been quite different without active state intervention," he explained. "After a while, you will get segregated communities, schools, lessening of common space, and reduction of opportunities for minorities."
"We can remove the ethnic classification from our ICs, but we will still look different. Our different ethnicities and ethnic identities will continue to influence society."
Said Mr Shanmugam: "These sorts of grand gestures play well to the gallery. Governments engage in them to give the appearance of activity, decisiveness, openness and so on."
"Good governance in our case requires us to eschew theatrics, and to do what is good for society as a whole."
He added: "Whoever forms the Government in Singapore must be committed to maintaining these values, protecting the minorities, and not play racial politics."
"Neither of this is a given. Ultimately, it depends on the people who are in Government, and what the majority of the population accept and want."
Moving forward, Singapore has to ensure that its racial and religious leaders move beyond only promoting their respective faiths, said Mr Shanmugam.
"They have to also advocate, work hard at enlarging the common space, push back against polarisation, champion the cause of integration and interaction, rather than create greater differences. This is critical.”
"We have to do that to preserve what we have in Singapore.”
“The Government can only do this if the community supports it,” concluded Mr Shanmugam. “Obviously, the majority will have to support it. The minority must also play their part - and not be increasingly exclusive. Both have to work together, to increase the common space.”