Why did Singapore turn out the way we are today? Why do we have certain laws and policies that focus on race although we are supposed to be one united nation regardless of race?
The median age of Singaporeans is 42 years old (or born in 1978). This means the majority of us would not have lived through Singapore’s independence, the racial riots nor the Konfrontasi of the 1960s.
To the younger generations of Singaporeans who take our multiracial harmony for granted, and naively prioritise freedom of speech over all else, lest we forget, racial issues are a perennial circumstance of Singapore’s position in South-East Asia.
To understand more, The Singapore Conscience looked at the book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” for an account of what our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, said about Singapore regarding race issues, our Singapore identity and the larger geopolitical environment we exist in.
Here are some excerpts from this book.
Singapore, a multiracial meritocracy
From the start, Lee’s vision for Singapore was of a multiracial meritocracy, “not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation” but a place where “everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion”.
That was the pledge he gave citizens on 9 August 1965, the day Singapore became independent.
Yet he also regarded race, language and religion as deep fault lines that would continue to divide for decades. His approach was for the government to manage those divisions as best it could, and he faced down strong opposition to enforce tough policies aimed at containing those differences.
Policies to encourage racial integration
At independence, interaction among the races was limited as many chose to live in their own enclaves, went to their own vernacular schools and even controlled certain jobs. The PAP government made English the main language of instruction in schools, for business and administration to spur economic development, as well as ensure that “no race would have an advantage”.
Later, it introduced racial quotas for public housing estates, where more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live, to prevent the formation of racial enclaves. It went on to change the electoral system to safeguard multiracial representation in Parliament.
These policies reshaped the lives of Singaporeans on a day-to-day basis. Over time, they grew accustomed to living next door to neighbours of a different race. Indians, Chinese, Malays and Eurasians worked alongside each other. Their children attended school with one another. As the use of English became more widespread, they could also converse easily with one another.
Lee always maintained that the true test of whether people were race blind would come in a crisis, when one’s life and the survival of one’s own family were at stake.
Immigrants and racial mix
Lee Kuan Yew said:
“Look at the immigrants. We can’t get Malays or Indonesians to come, or very few of them, because they look at us as an un-Islamic nation. Also, the don’t get special privileges. So we’re trying to get Arabs but the Arabs are prosperous. A few marry Malay wives who are brought up here and come here, but they are so very few.
So as a result the Indian population is creeping up to the Malay level, from 7 per cent they are now 9 per cent. The Malays are 14 to 15 per cent.
Geopolitically I think we want to keep a significant Malay population to remind ourselves that this is an important component of our lives and it is an important component of the region.
We want PMET, people of higher education, but the good ones, even the fair ones, are given scholarships or benefits in Malaysia. They don’t want to come, unless they marry a Singaporean Malay. We welcome immigrants from the region who can contribute to Singapore, but we don’t want those who will add to our problems.
The difficulty will be to find the equivalent number of Malays or Muslims to get those numbers up because the number of Muslims from Malaysia and Indonesia who come here are far and few between. Of course if you let in the labourers, we will be flooded. For the well-educated professionals, they have less competition and more privileges in Malaysia and Indonesia. Why should they come here?”
On the Singapore identity
“In Singapore, what will identify a Singaporean with the changing circumstances? An acceptance of multiracialism, a tolerance of people of different races, languages, cultures, religions, and an equal basis for competition. That’s what will stand out against all our neighbours.
My definition of a Singaporean, which will make us different from any others, is that we accept that whoever joins us is part of us. And that’s an American concept. You can keep your name, Brzezinski, Berlusconi, whatever it is, you have come, join me, you are American. We need talent, we accept them. That must be our defining attribute.
If we are at odds with each other, we won’t survive.”
Threats from neighbouring countries
“My abiding concern for Singapore arises from my belief that the younger generation, especially those below 35, had never seen the harsh economic conditions. They therefore do not know the threats we face from neighbouring countries.
For example, on our National Day, 9 August 1991, the Malaysian and Indonesian armed forces held joint exercises at Kota Tinggi with parachute drops. Hence we mobilised our forces, in addition to forces parading for the National Day celebrations.
I did not believe they wanted to invade us, but they wanted to intimidate and con us, so that we know our place at the bottom of the pecking order in the region. We need a sturdy, strong and capable SAF, not only to defend Singapore but return blow for blow when necessary.
If we do not have this strong SAF, we are vulnerable to all kinds of pressures, from both Malaysia and Indonesia.”
On Singapore’s vulnerability: “We’ve got friendly neighbours? Grow up.”
“Now, are we not vulnerable? If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 to 6 per cent of GDP year after year on defence? Are we mad? This is a frugal government, you know that well.
We dug a deep tunnel for the sewers at the cost of $3.65 billion in order to use the sewage water for NEWater, to be independent.
We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You’ll be dead. Your sea lanes are cut off and your business comes to a halt. What is our reply? Security Council, plus defence capabilities of our own, plus the Security Framework Agreement with the Americans.
They (Malaysia) stopped sand. Why? To conscribe us. As Mahathir says, ‘Even at their present size they are trouble, you let them grow some more they will be more trouble.’ We’ve got friendly neighbours? Grow up.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s greatest fear for Singapore
“I think a leadership and a people that have forgotten, that have lost their bearings and do not understand the constraints that we face.
Small base, highly organised, very competent people, complete international confidence, an ability to engage big countries. We lose that, we’re down. And we can go down very rapidly.”