Multiculturalism – Speech by Leon Perera

(Delivered in Parliament on 3 October 2017)


Mr Speaker sir, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion and I thank the honourable member Mr Christopher D’Souza for moving this timely and important motion.

Singapore has not faced a terrorist attack in recent times. Will it happen one day? Probably yes. How will it affect Singaporeans? How will it affect Singapore, the idea of our nation? Peering at the future from today, we cannot see clearly because the future is always moving, always buffeted by the choices we make today.

I was born in a 3-room flat: Blk 74 Commonwealth Drive, even though we later moved to a flat in Telok Blangah. I still remember a few things incredible clearly. We had a common corridor. The kids who lived on that corridor – and in those days there were lots of kids around – would play on that corridor together. We would run into one another’s flats and spend time there playing and then come out and run into someone else’s flat. One neighbour – who happened to be Chinese – was good at cutting hair. She would cut people’s hair for a small fee, but she would cut our hair for free. I still remember going to her house to cut my hair – I have such a clear memory of this because once there was an Ultra-man TV show playing on the TV while she did it. Another memory was all the kids running around downstairs playing with lanterns in our pyjamas during the Mid-Autumn festival. Back then children wore pyjamas and did not shy from wearing them outside the house. I also remember enjoying lots of good Malay food at Hari Raya.

Do children still play in the common corridors these days and mix among different races? I have two children. They still do sometimes. They play football with our neighbours’ son and sometimes they play on their scooters. But in truth not as much as I did back in the 1970s.

As I grew up in Singapore, my experience was not much different from other members of this house. I was very fortunate to rarely experience anything like a sense that I was excluded. I know that not everyone is as fortunate. In the workplace over the decades there were times when race issues emerged. But these times were extremely rare. Once, early on in my career, I wanted to hire someone of a particular race and a colleague told me that they had had bad experiences with employees of that race. I went ahead to hire this person anyway. That employee turned out to be outstanding and got promoted twice. But such incidents were extremely rare.

Terrorists of the kind we most fear seek to turn races, religions, cultures against one another. When we fight, they win. This we all know.

Multi-racialism is the surest defence against terror. It is the ultimate goalkeeper.

Multi racialism is part of the Singapore Pledge which we take as school-children – to be united REGARDLESS of race, language or religion.  This is one of the most important parts of the Pledge. I feel this because when I talk to residents on house visits and outreach, when I look at postings on the internet, many, many people use the language of the Pledge many, many times to express that urge, that aspiration to go beyond race.  REGARDLESS OF RACE. At one market outreach last week a resident recited these words several times, emotionally, his voice rising each time.

Regardless of race then. Can we set race, religion, culture aside completely? Are we perfectly unconscious of race? No. The rising number of inter-ethnic marriages may be a sign of progress but that should not make us complacent. There is no complete race blindness just as there is no complete equality of opportunity for all citizens. Not in Singapore. Not anywhere.  And there will always be a minority of people for whom attachment to their identity crosses that line into a close-minded mistrust of others. Such minorities exist in every country.

But do the majority aspire towards a Singapore regardless of race? In my experience, the answer to that question is a resounding yes today. But we must entertain the possibility that it may not be a resounding yes tomorrow. And the question is – how can we nurture, cherish, grow, entrench our multi-racial society?

Let’s start from where we are.

Our schools, workplaces, army camps, playgrounds are the crucibles and also the testing grounds of race relations. Multi-racialism succeeds or fails in these places. Multi-racialism in the common corridors is just as important as multi-racialism in the corridors of power.

The topsoil of multi-racialism has many colours. Our Singlish. Our shared festivals. Our shared food culture and love of one another’s ethnic foods – and this is very important in Singapore. Our coffee shops and hawker centres where these things come into play.  That’s the top-soil.

The bed-rock underneath that top-soil is beliefs and attitudes. Our willingness to see one another as equal human beings deserving of the same respect we seek for ourselves. Our willingness to give and take, to negotiate differences and not to escalate and amplify every single thing.

Many Singaporeans ask if this structure is as strong today as it was when I played in the common corridor in the 1970s. But rather than dwell on that, I want to focus on the future tense.

How can we strengthen multi-racialism going forward? We have talked about aspects of policy.  That is important. In concluding my speech, I would like to talk about some principles that I feel we should hold onto tightly when we formulate, debate, review, replace, evolve policies, projects and approaches to multi-racialism.

  1. Firstly, we should focus on real issues. Not that symbols are not important, But I would like to humbly and respectfully offer the opinion that real, everyday issues that affect the day-to-day lives of Singaporeans are more important. For example, in school and at work we all do not start running the race from the same starting line. And the labour market is not 100 per cent free of prejudice of any kind. That is as it always has been, in every country. But what we do about that is our choice. What we do to level up, correct for the inequities of birth and in so doing harness all the talent we have – those are deliberate choices we make as a society. What’s at stake is victory or defeat against the divisions of class and race, which intersect in complex ways. Let us focus on fighting the real battles which are more important than the cosmetic ones.
  2. Secondly, what public figures say matters. We don’t want to be complacent about race relations. But implying at every turn that there is a deep, seething primordial tribalism waiting to break out at any time goes too far. It risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such speech legitimises the thoughts of the minority who are inclined towards bigotry, a minority that exists in every society and among all races. “See, how I feel is the natural state of human beings,” they may say. And then the minority may influence the majority, one day replacing it. In speaking of the dangers latent in getting race relations wrong let us not go too far and fall into the trap of legitimising and empowering that which we fear.
  3. Thirdly, yes, we should not permit irresponsible racist speech and acts. Civilization depends on the existence of some boundaries. But we should never draw these boundaries so tightly that responsible discussion of race issues cannot take place in any public platform. If that happens, people will be cut off from information. They will not be able to form an educated opinion. This will make them more not less vulnerable to ignorant and divisive views on the internet or in the coffee shops. Between the extremes of barring all public discussion of race except behind closed doors and allowing any kind of speech about race however irresponsible and hateful, there lies a middle ground – the middle ground of responsible, rule-bound public speech about issues of race. Let’s embrace that middle ground.
  4. Fourthly, let us not use the very real danger of racial strife to reach for authoritarian, heavy handed solutions at every turn. In Yugoslavia under Tito and Iraq under Saddam Hussein there was little of the sectarian strife that broke out after those leaders were gone. But at what price was that peace achieved? We can repress racial tension with the weapons of an authoritarian state. But in going too far, we compromise other values in our Pledge. We are a people regardless of race, language and religion to build a democratic society. Let’s remember that. Let’s strike a balance.
  5. Lastly as we go forward, as future Parliaments consider new policies towards multi-racialism in decades to come, let us always remember the physician’s oath set down by Hippocrates of ancient Greece – first do no harm. Whatever we do in the multi-racialism arena should make things better. Not make things worse. Our cures must never be worse than the disease.

We have more work to do. But we must do the right work, do it well and do it as one people.

The day may come when we are tested. And if that day comes, I am confident that that test will call forth the strength and unity of Singaporeans. That strength, that steel that was forged in our hawker centres, our schools, our army camps, our workplace pantries, our void decks and yes our common corridors – that steel will prove stronger than any attacker.  We will defend our democratic society regardless of race language and religion. And we will give the gift of multi-racialism to future generations of Singaporeans yet unborn.  Mr Speaker, I support the motion.