The Core of Singapore’s National Morality: Racial & Religious Harmony

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Tara Moore | Getty Images

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question
‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

– Alasdair MacIntyre

Our narratives are the stories that we tell.

Every religion, culture, society or other human group or institution has its own narratives. These stories inform identity and provide belonging by answering questions of origin, meaning and purpose. They also provide a framework for morality, values, rights and duties.

Singapore has its own narrative, which was called into question very recently when a senior lecturer from Ngee Ann Polytechnic was caught on camera confronting a mixed-race couple in public and asserting that it was racist to be dating someone of another race. He accused the man, Dave Parkash, of “preying on a Chinese girl”. 

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam commented on the video, saying: “I used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony. Based on recent events, I am not so sure anymore.”

The Minister’s comments certainly reflect a linear view of Singapore’s history, as progressing in a particular direction on issues of race.

It is worthwhile to revisit the question of the Singaporean narrative around race, through this linear inspection of history.

Singapore’s Narrative 

The Singaporean narrative on race, in a nutshell, is one of moving society against its natural tendencies, from tribalistic segregation to an integrationist model for the sake of undisrupted coexistence.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 heralding colonial rule. Back then, the different races and religions congregated along communal lines. Few efforts were made by the British to integrate them, and these circumstances for the most part remained status quo through the Japanese occupation.

Fast forward to two decades after the Japanese occupation, the British granted Malaya independence before Singapore. In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya, along with Sabah and Sarawak, to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, different visions of race and religion were held between the Singapore and Malaysian governments. While the Singapore government wanted a “Malaysian Malaysia”, the Malaysian government wanted to safeguard Malay special rights. The political tensions along communal lines led to violent racial riots in 1964. 

As such, when Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965, one of its core tenets was a commitment to racial and religious harmony, and to integrate the whole of society into a common Singaporean identity. 

Under the Proclamation of Singapore on 9 August 1965, Singapore was declared to be “forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society”. The word “more” was perhaps a not-too-subtle comment on issues of race and religion during those years of merger with Malaysia, framing the Malaysian system as an anti-model that Singapore would distinguish itself from. 

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared at a press conference shortly after Singapore’s Independence, that Singapore would be a multi-racial nation: “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”

More than 50 years later, in September 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoed his father’s words, at the swearing-in of President Halimah Yacob in a reaffirmation of the pledge that his father made.

In his speech, Prime Minister Lee recounted the narrative in these terms:

When Mr Lee made this pledge, we had a Malay Head of State. President Yusof symbolised, visibly, that though we had been forced out of Malaysia primarily because we were a Chinese-majority city, independent Singapore would never in turn suppress its own non-Chinese minorities. We chose the nobler dream: A multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore.

This was expressed poetically in the lyrics of the song “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”: 

We've built a nation with our hands
The toil of people from a dozen lands
Strangers when we first began, now we're Singaporean
Let's reach out for Singapore, join our hands forevermore

The lyrics of the chorus contain the lines “Every creed and every race, has its role and has its place / One people, one nation, one Singapore”.

Racial and Religious Harmony as Ethos

In light of the overarching narrative of race and religion in Singapore, racial and religious harmony has thus become part of Singapore’s foundational national identity and ethos.

The 1991 White Paper on Shared Values defines “racial and religious harmony” as one of the shared values in Singapore, forming part of its national ideology, anchoring its identity, and incorporating the attitudes and values “which have helped us to survive and succeed as a nation”.

The importance of racial and religious harmony as part of Singapore’s foundational moral code, is underscored by a slew of laws addressing racial and religious harmony. For example, it is an offence to deliberately wound the religious or racial feelings of any person (Section 298 of the Penal Code). Promoting disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups is an offence under Section 298A of the Penal Code. 

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act empowers the Government to take a host of measures to preserve and protect religious harmony while The Sedition Act criminalises acts which promote “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”.

In a 2005 case involving two individuals who were found guilty under the Sedition Act for posting anti-Malay and anti-Muslim remarks online, Senior District Judge Richard Magnus justified sentencing the individuals to jail, citing “the especial sensitivity of racial and religious issues in our multi-cultural society, particularly given our history of the Maria Hertogh incident in the 1950s and the July and September 1964 race riots” among various reasons.

The Judge added: 

Young Singaporeans, like the accused persons before this Court, may have short memories that race and religion are sensitive issues. They must realize that callous and reckless remarks on racial or religious subjects have the potential to cause social disorder, in whatever medium or forum they are expressed. In this case, it is the medium of the Internet and with it, its ubiquitous reach.

For years, the PAP government has constantly re-affirmed its promise that religious harmony was part of the “fundamental assurance one gets in Singapore”. For instance, in 2019 Minister Shanmugam said in parliament that, “It does not matter who you are, what religion you believe in, you are free to believe in any religion, including not to believe. You and members of your faith will be protected from hate speech, unacceptable offensive speech. The state will strive in every way possible to achieve racial, religious harmony.”

Why Guard Speech So Tightly?

At first blush, efforts to link racially or religiously offensive remarks to violence or sedition seem several logical steps apart. 

Short of incitement to violence, why would saying words that offend racial or religious feelings be a threat to public order? Where is the harm here?

The principle behind racial and religious harmony in Singapore and the role of the law in enforcing the national morality cannot be understood according to liberal notions of “harm”, which has been normally defined to mean direct, physical harm. 

There is something deeper at play here.

In a 1959 speech on “The Enforcement of Morals”, Sir Patrick Devlin explained the importance of moral norms to the cohesion of any society: 

What makes a society of any sort is a community of ideas, not only political ideas but also ideas about the way its members should behave and govern their lives; these latter ideas are its morals… the structure of every society is made up both of politics and morals.

He added, “without shared ideas on politics, morals, and ethics no society can exist.”

Racial and religious harmony is therefore properly defined as part of Singapore’s national morality and core identity as a nation, without which it cannot exist (at least in its current form). 

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in his book, After Virtue: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Racial and religious harmony is therefore properly defined as part of Singapore’s national morality and core identity as a nation

Seen in this light, racially or religiously offensive remarks are condemned by the law, as well as the wider society, not because they cause harm to lives or property, but because they are contrary to national morality. They run counter to what it means to be a Singaporean, and the “fundamental assurance” that is guaranteed to anyone living in Singapore. The wider national narrative then requires that acts such as these be dealt with according to the law, in order for the nation to preserve its character. 

Of course, none of the above is meant to suggest that the national narrative, morality and laws are immutable, or that these are flawless as they are. Indeed, the Shared Values White Paper stated that identifying shared values is an “open-ended exercise” and it was not possible to “prescribe and freeze for all time the desirable attributes Singaporeans should have”. 

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