Towards Interculturalism – Speech by Daniel Goh


(Delivered in Parliament on 3 October 2017)


The Three Phases of Multiracialism

Mr. Speaker Sir, this is an important motion that touches upon the state of the foundation of our nation. Multiracialism is the bedrock of our nation. When we were trying to get out of the colonial mess of divide and rule using race to split the people in Malaya, our founding patriots in the 1950s pledged an unconditional multiracialism to bring peace and security to our land. The image of “merdeka” that is burned into my mind is the image of the four main races linking arms in solidarity and marching forward.

More than anyone else, the late S. Rajaratnam had been the one who defined our foundational multiracialism in the 1960’s. He saw the four main races of our nation as four independent circles brought together by history, now overlapping in terms of social bonds, cultural practices and political and economic interests, creating a common space in the middle of the overlap that could be called truly and uniquely Singaporean. The task of our multiracial nation-building was to keep working at enlarging that common space.

In the 1980’s, because society was becoming very individualistic and uneven competition was leading to some groups being left behind in education and employment, the emphasis shifted to bolstering community bonds and identities. Self-help groups, namely Yayasan Mendaki, CDAC and Sinda, and later the Eurasian Association, were founded. Cultural preservation became a key thrust. The consciousness and appreciation of our cultural heritage was promoted.

Then in the 2000’s, there was another shift. One speech that I like to quote in my academic papers is then Minister of Community Development and Sports Yaacob Ibrahim’s speech at the Wee Kim Wee Seminar on Cross-cultural understanding. In that speech, he mapped out what he saw as the third phase of the evolution of our multiracialism. He called this phase, multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is about mutual respect and understanding. It is also more than mutual respect. Multiculturalism is also about us Singaporeans adopting and modifying cultural values and practices from each other so that we become more like each other and yet still diverse.

Minister Yaacob used food examples, of course. He said, “When a Malay colleague of mine invited me to his home to have a steamboat dinner, my understanding of what it means to be Malay in Singapore had to be updated. When I visit Komala Vilas with my family and tuck into the vegetarian food, the crowd there is truly varied and Singaporean.”


Don’t Weaponize Multiracialism

This 2003 speech on multiculturalism is important given the historical context. It came in the wake of the 9-11 attacks in New York and the arrests of Jemaah Islamiyah members in Singapore. Multiculturalism signaled to Singaporeans and the world we would not adopt reactionary approaches that could lead to backlash, we would not stigmatize any particular community and turn neighbours on neighbours with suspicion and phobia. Instead, we would fortify our multiracialism foundations to promote inclusivity, harmony and cross-cultural dialogue. The Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles was founded then as a significant innovation to build trust across communities, to invest in social capital development through dialogue and friendship, so as to be ready for any adverse event threatening our cohesion.

The situation is not too different today, except that terror is now cellular and social mediatized, harder to detect and more unpredictable. It is tempting to turn the institutions and social capital Singaporeans have built up into security instruments to counter terrorism. But I would like to sound a warning. We should not weaponize multiracialism. Multiracialism is our foundation and we do not rip up our foundation to build defensive walls. Multiracialism gives us the firm ground for us to stand and fight extremist threats to our nation; we do not tear up our ground to use as stones.

A weaponized multiracialism is a double-edged sword. It will heighten racial thinking and we risk unintended consequences. A weaponized multiracialism will not only hold back progress to our post-racial aspiration, it can also turn xenophobic and be used against the many migrant communities and cultures that have come to our shores. A weaponized multiracialism can cause race consciousness to feed on itself, leading people to judge each other on the basis of race, making us ask each other and ourselves, what makes a Chinese-Singaporean Chinese, whether a Malay-Singaporean is Malay enough, when an Indian-Singaporean is acceptable as family and leader.

Indeed, we need to strengthen our foundation and invest in multiracialism, but how? There is much to learn from the past, even as we celebrate the present and prepare for the future. Returning to the 2003 speech by Minister Yaacob, we should start to think about the next phase of evolution of our multiracialism. We need to build on the inclusive multiculturalism that was adopted in 2000’s, to deepen it. As Minister Yaacob said in 2003, the evolution did not happen by design but by choice. We have to be careful not to over-engineer the evolution, or we cause multiracialism to become irrelevant, or worse, cause people to lose faith in multiracialism. We have to look at the choices we have now, on the ground.


Towards Interculturalism

So, what choices do we have on ground? What choices are being made by our grassroots multiracial institutions on the ground?  There are three examples I would like to highlight. The first is the growth in the number of collaborative tuition centres operated by the four Self-Help Groups to help students of all races, which is an acceleration of the collaborative tuition programme started in 2002. The second is the Ministry of Education’s strategic partnership with the four Self-Help Groups to operate 30 Student Care Centres for students of all races, which was announced in August 2015. The third is the recent initiative by the four groups to set up the pilot Self-Help Group Centre in January next year to run race-neutral workshops and enrichment programmes to cater to everyone.

The name Self-Help Group Centre is actually an oxymoron. The Centre will become a mutual support centre, where Singaporeans of different races seek to help each other to overcome their difficulties in life. It is no longer communal self-help as we know it. It is mutual support. The Self-Help Groups are fast becoming Mutual Help Groups. This captures the movement on the ground, the choices that Singaporeans originally caught up in their orientation towards their own community are making. Singaporeans are choosing to forge trans-racial ties – that is, creating social bonds that transcend racial identities. Singaporeans are choosing to engage in inter-cultural exchange – that is, doing cultural practices across ethnic lines. Multiculturalism is becoming interculturalism.

In this respect, I would like to suggest the Government could help to catalyze these trans-racial, inter-cultural collaborations by providing three things: one, space, funds and administrative support; two, special cohesion grants; and three, synergies in the public education sector.

First, space, funds and administrative support. When I read about the Self-Help Group Centres in the news recently, I was thrilled. This initiative converges with the Workers’ Party GE2015 Manifesto proposal to set up Multicultural Help Centres to house the race-based Self-Help Groups, so as to provide mutual help and educational support to all underprivileged children in every town. The setting up of Multicultural Help Centres in all Community Hubs would be more beneficial to the Singaporeans needing help than to rent out public grassroots spaces to private tuition centres.

Our proposal also goes further to call for the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles to be enhanced to operate as programme providers at the Multicultural Help Centres. We also proposed a coordinating secretariat be set up within MCCY to help oversee the work of the Centres. This coordinating secretariat could transform Community Development Councils into regional offices for multicultural programme resources and services. This would greatly extend the impact and reach of the inclusive and collaborative multiculturalism being pioneered by the Self-Help Groups.

Second, special cohesion grants. One of the problems that groups promoting collaborative multiculturalism is the lack of knowledge of innovative methodologies for cross-cultural exchanges. Another problem is the lack of knowledge of content materials, such as best practices and case studies of successful cross-cultural collaborations to solve community problems, that could be used for the workshops and enrichment programmes. Cultural studies is an important field of study that would increase the capacity of the Self-Help Groups to collaborate with each other, but cultural studies is still an under-developed academic field in Singapore. The Government could step in to provide special cohesion grants to fund collaborative mutual learning trips and cultural studies research projects involving collaboration between the universities and the social sector.

Third, synergies in the public education sector. One of the reasons for the success of multiculturalism in diverse, migrant societies is the emphasis on multicultural practices and pedagogy in schools. Teachers are the frontline officers in this effort. They could inspire students to multicultural values or cause cynicism reinforcing racial thinking. National education programmes can only do so much with its content-rich approach. Teachers are the real-life role models for students. Teachers should receive special training in multicultural pedagogy so that they can better engage students from different backgrounds and bring together for effective cross-cultural interactions. Schools can also work closely with Self-Help Groups in their Multicultural Help Centres, so that multicultural practices would not be limited to performances and food, but involve real-time collaboration to tackle real-life issues.

Mr. Speaker Sir, 15 years ago, the Government recognized the evolution of multiracialism to multiculturalism, the third phase in our march forward to become a strong and united nation. We have built up important institutions and a rich cache of social capital since. Today as we confront extremism, as we have always, I hope the Government will resist the temptation to weaponize multiracialism as instruments to counter terror. Multiracialism is only effective for countering extremism when it is not treated as measure and means to counter extremism, but respected as an end in itself, the good that defines the essence of who we are as Singaporeans. We need to look to the ground to see the features of the next phase of evolution of our multiracialism. Interculturalism appears to be the coming fourth phase and the Government would do well to facilitate its development. Deepen the trans-racial collaboration and inter-cultural interactions, and we would be one step closer to our post-racial aspirations.