The Perennial Problems of Racial and Religious Conflicts

For thousands of years racial and religious conflicts had been very much a part of human history. Over the centuries, their intensity and ferocity had escalated as mankind’s civilisation progressed and their fear, intolerance and prejudices towards others of  different ethnicity and religion manifested itself in diverse ways which brought out the ugliest side of human nature. Man’s inhumanity inflicted on his fellow man had resulted in countless wars, various forms of atrocities as well as social, economic and political discriminations against others around the globe and this has continued unabated into the present time.

This is despite the fact that all major religions, be it Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, without exception, preach love, compassion, charity and harmony in human relations. Unfortunately, some of their misguided  religious teachers and followers had, time and again, exploited or misinterpreted their own religion’s sacred tenet for their own ulterior motives or to justify their otherwise indefensible actions against their fellow human beings. Also guilty are unscrupulous politicians who would play up the race and religion card, as it were, to further their own political ambitions.

Two examples of their most inhuman deeds may bring home the point. The most chilling of them all was the cold blooded murders of some six million Jews in Europe during World War II by the infamous Hitler and his Nazi henchmen because of the dictator’s abnormal hatred for the Jewish people whom he unjustly blamed for the economic and other woes of Germany. He also regarded the Jews as inferior human beings and therefore felt no guilt in getting rid of them. These horrendous mass killings of the Jews are unprecedented in the history of mankind. My recent visit to Auschwitz, a sprawling German concentration camp in Poland, where more than one million innocent Jewish men, women and children were either gassed or tortured to death is a poignant reminder that such a barbaric and senseless act must never be allowed to happen again anywhere in the world. In the same war at the other end of the globe, hundreds of thousands of civilian Chinese in Nanjing, including women and children, were mercilessly massacred by the victorious Japanese Imperial Army because they too regarded the Chinese as inferior human beings. Some of their soldiers were encouraged to shoot the victims for target practices.

Even at this moment in time and in the recent past, racial and religious conflicts have been flaring up in different regions of the world with no end in sight. The deeply-entrenched decades long enmity between the Israelis and the Arabs have ramifications and serious spill over effects elsewhere, especially in the Western world. The two opposing sides had already fought several wars in which numerous lives on both sides had been lost.  In the Bosnian civil war in central Europe tens of thousands of civilian Muslims were brutally slaughtered by their own Serb Christian countrymen. The war was abruptly ended before more ethnic mayhem occurred through the belated armed intervention of the United Nations forces. Closer to Singapore, the  civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and  the Tamil minority ended only in May this year after 26 year of warfare and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and untold sufferings inflicted on the public. In the civil war in Rwanda in the heartland of Africa, both the government and rival political forces resorted to ethnic cleansing which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people of different ethnic groups and foreign residents being butchered.

In many Western countries, racial and religious conflicts have become a growing problem and racial riots had, periodically, erupted arising from the strained relationships between the majority and the minority groups there. Take the United States as an example. More than 140 years had elapsed since the freeing of the black American slaves by President Lincoln after a devastating civil war, African-Americans are still being racially discriminated by the white Americans and  continue to suffer many social and economic disadvantages. It is widely believed that the election of President Obama, albeit a commendable historical milestone, is unlikely to improve significantly the social standing of the lot of his fellow African-Americans in the foreseeable future. In other countries including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany , Spain and  Australia, where there are sizable non white populations,  racial and religious disharmony is becoming more worrying and needs to be remedied before it gets worse . In Africa, ethnic conflicts continue unabated  in this poverty and disease stricken continent. In South Africa, until recent years, the undemocratic white minority government had ruled the black majority country for decades with the odious apartheid policy which denied the black South Africans an opportunity for self advancement. In the Asian region, multi-racial and multi-religious nations like China, India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia also have their fair share of similar conflicts which are of great concern to their respective national leaderships. Needless to say, all the above countries will have to handle these racial and religious problems with utmost care and formulate forward looking policies and strategies before they reach a point which will have irreversible adverse consequences on the country’s continuing stability. Even a homogeneous society like Japan, citizens and permanent residents of Korean descent still face perennial racial discriminations and many were compelled to conceal their true identity in order to survive in an otherwise hostile social environment. Those who refused to do so had, perforce, to pay dearly for their ethnic pride.

In my own native Singapore, whose citizens comprise of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and a host of others, both the Government and the people have learned a valuable lesson from past local racial disturbances and the racial and religious clashes in other countries as to how best to preserve racial and religious harmony for the benefit of the entire community. To begin with, religious freedom is enshrined in the country’s constitution. The Government enacted the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, under which it is an offence for anyone to engage in religious rabble-rousing under pains of fine or imprisonment, or both. In addition, Singapore law further prohibits incitement of racial hatred in the public interest. Of equal importance, the Government’s public housing policy aims at integrating its different racial groups in high rise apartments with communal facilities and amenities which will facilitate greater social interaction among the residents. To top it all, the Government has wisely and successfully promoted equal opportunity in education and employment for all, based solely on merit. Since then, Singaporeans have lived and worked peacefully and harmoniously alongside others of different racial and religious backgrounds without serious problems arising, with give and take attitudes on all sides. Inter-racial marriages have become more common here, compared with a generation ago, and this is beneficial to the successful creation of a multi-racial society.

Most overseas visitors, including foreign political and community leaders, coming to Singapore are invariably favourably impressed by the racial and religious harmony that obviously prevails in Singapore for all to see.  This is not always the case in other multi-racial and multi-religious communities elsewhere. Some countries have even used Singapore as a role model to promote better ethnic relations in their own multi-racial societies. The latest to endorse the Singapore success in this regard is a well-known American academic, Professor Tom Davenport, Chair of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, who recently wrote an article “Not perfect, but still a role model”, which was published in the prestigious Harvard Business Review, in which he spoke glowingly of Singapore’s  multi-racial society. He believed that its Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act could inspire other countries to enact a version of it to suit their own needs.

Despite foreign admiration and envy of Singapore’s success in creating a harmonious plural society with diverse religions, Singapore’s political and community leaders, to their credit, are not basking in their laurels and are constantly reminding the citizenry not to take this success for granted because once complacency sets in and one community tries to impose their way of life on the other groups, then the danger of racial and religious frictions can easily arise and this will destroy the decades of nurturing the different communities to live happily together as one big united family and Singapore will be ruined.

To guard against such a situation arising, the court, in two recent cases, had deemed it necessary to impose custodial sentences for offences under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. In one case a misguided young man, who had personal grudges against Muslims, posted in his blog statements which were highly hurtful to those of Islamic faith. In the other case an over-zealous Christian couple publicly distributed Christian tracts which were offensive to those of different faiths and also to Catholics.  The court hoped that these sentences would deter others from committing similar wrongful acts in future.

The vital need to preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore can be seen from the Prime Minister’s 2009 National Day Rally address to the nation, which is the equivalent to the US President’s annual State of the Union speech, when he devoted a good part of his more than two hours speech in Malay, Chinese and English on this subject. Once again, he reiterated  that this is crucial to its long-term survival and prosperity. He disclosed that he and his ministers had discussed the political fault lines facing the country – between the rich and the poor, between citizens and new immigrants – but the consensus was that the most visceral and dangerous fault line is definitely race and religion. The main points of the Prime Minister’s address on this issue are as follows:

  1. All Singaporeans must continue to live peacefully and harmoniously together as one united community. To do so, we need good sense and tolerance on all sides, and a willingness to give and take.
  2. We have made a lot of progress over the past 40 years in building and maintaining our harmony and cohesion. We have integrated our people, we have enabled all communities to move ahead, and we have built a stronger sense of Singaporean identity.
  3. All religious groups have contributed a great deal to the above progress. Their leaders have guided their flocks wisely. They have helped to set a wholesome and moral tone to our society. They do a lot of good works, not just for their own followers, but for all groups. They have accommodated one another, made practical compromises so that all can live harmoniously together in a uniquely Singaporean way.
  4. He noted that all over the world there has been a trend of rising religiosity, and Singapore is part of this trend.  Groups have become more organised, more active. The followers are now more fervent in their faiths. This is true of all faiths, all over the world. However, stronger religious fervours can have side effects which have to be managed carefully, especially in a multi-racial and multi-religious society. What are some of the risks? He cited aggressive preaching – proselytisation, intolerance and exclusiveness, which can provoke others and bring about serious social consequences.
  5. He emphasised that Singaporeans must never take their racial and religious harmony for granted because all have been well. To safeguard this, we must observe some basic principles to keep it the way it is. First, all groups must exercise tolerance and restraint in their interface with one another. Secondly, we have to keep religion separate from politics. Religion in Singapore cannot be the same in America, or religion in an Islamic country. Thirdly, the Government has to remain secular. Its authority comes from the people, not from a sacred book. Finally, for all Singaporeans to live peacefully together, we must maintain our common space that all Singaporeans share. It has to be neutral and secular because that’s the only way all of us can feel at home in Singapore and at ease.
  6. The Prime Minister assures Singaporeans that if we stay cohesive, then we can overcome our economic challenges and continue to grow. This is how we together have transformed Singapore over the last half century– solving problems together, growing together and improving our lives.

After listening to the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally address, my confidence in Singapore’s future well-being, especially in the light of continuing racial and religious conflicts that have been going on relentlessly and fearfully in many of the developed and developing countries with no solution in sight yet, has been further boosted.

The Prime Minister’s inspiring speech reminds me of an article I wrote eight years ago, also on the subject of promoting racial and religious harmony in Singapore, which was published in the Bilingual Commentary Column of Singapore’s national Chinese language daily, Lianhe ZaoBao, and I would like to share it with my readers. It is reproduced immediately after this posting.

Lam Pin Foo
18.9.2009

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6 thoughts on “The Perennial Problems of Racial and Religious Conflicts

  1. I know its been almost 2 years since you wrote this article, but i just want to say that i found it very well written and that it raised multiple salient points. Your grasp of facts is simply appluadable. Keep up the great work!

  2. Portrait Of The 1985 Handsworth Riots, UK- Pogus Caesar – BBC1 TV . Inside Out.

    Broadcast 25 Oct 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey7ijaXv6UQ

    Black History UK: In 1985 racial tension and community discontentment escalated into the historical Handsworth riots that rocked Birmingham, England between 9th – 11th September 1985.

    Birmingham film maker and photographer Pogus Caesar knows Handsworth well. He found himself in the centre of the riots and spent two days capturing a series of startling images. Caesar kept them hidden for 20 years. Why? And how does he see Handsworth now?.

    The stark black and white photographs featured in the film provide a rare, valuable and historical record of the raw emotion, heartbreak and violence that unfolded during those dark and fateful days in September 1985.

  3. Thanks for your interesting blog. But I beg to differ. Your summary of racial conflicts in the West is simply misleading. Take the United States. You’ve a short pleasant experience yourself, as described in your blog on your California visit. Did you see what you painted in this blog? I think not. One can always find racial descriminatio if one digs deep enough, to support your statements – just as one can see racial descrimination in Singapore if you care to open your eyes. What you’ve painted is simply misleading. The danger is that, if repeated often enough to Singaporeans, it is taken as being true. This is a dis-service to Singaporeans. And poor journalistic responsibilty.

    As for religous freedom being enshrined in the constitution – I wouldn’t take it to be worth much. Freedom of speech is enshrined too. But does the government take this seriously? In Singapore laws are enacted to control, including political control, not to protect. This is no mere opinion – the Singapore government has a 50 year record track record on this.

    I’d say, Singporeans live relatively harmoniously, but not because of the various laws and the enshrinement of religion in the constitution.

    Kim Siak

    • Thank you for your comments.

      I have weighed your strongly-worded response to my comments on racism in some western countries and on the Singapore laws and the government’s role in the maintenance of racial and religious harmony here. I stand by what I have said, which I believe to be fair and objective comments. On the issue of racism, you are no doubt aware that, only in the past weeks, racial riots had broken out between a group of extremist whites and Asian immigrants in two major cities in Australia and Britain. In the United States, none other than Jimmy Carter, a former president of that country, had condemned the recent emotional outburst by an opposition congressman against President Obama as racially motivated. I can give you numerous other examples of racial discrimination in some western countries as reported in both the foreign and local press over the years, but there is no need to belabour this point.

      I have never said that racial discrimination does not exist in Singapore. This would be against human nature. However, it is not unfair to say, not that I condone such acts, that when these do occur they generally take a much milder or subtler form than those prevailing in some western countries. The fact that Singaporeans enjoy both racial and religious harmony is largely attributable to the strict laws and the vigilance of the government and the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans who want to keep it that way, hopefully at all times. You will recall that Singaporeans had experienced two racial riots in the 1960s, and another one during the colonial time, but this was before the Maintenance of Racial and Religious Harmony Act came into effect.

      I will not trade Singapore and its good and effective government, all warts and moles included, that we are fortunate to have for a more liberal country with a less effective government.

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