This article first appeared in Singapore Zaobao’s commentary page in 2004 in English with translation in Chinese.
Like numerous Singaporeans, I too watched the grand final of the Singapore Idol show on television, more out of curiosity than idol worshipping, in order to experience the frenzy it had whipped up especially among the younger Singaporeans.
The two finalists, one Chinese and the other Malay, sang their hearts out, as it were, cheered on feverishly by their multitudes of mesmerised supporters. The Malay contestant, Taufik Batisah, a 23-year old national serviceman, defeated his formidable Chinese opponent Sylvester Sim, a 21-year old graphics designer, by garnering overwhelming majority votes from the public at large.
What does this verdict tell us, and what bearing it has on the future development of Singapore, which had just celebrated its 39 years of nationhood?
First and foremost, by general consensus, the winner won on merit alone. To their credit, Singaporeans chose not to vote on racial lines. Had this happened, Chinese Singaporeans, who constitute some 75% of the country’s population, would have returned Sylvester comfortably.
Second, our community is maturing and that meritocracy and pluralism, which have always been held up as cornerstones for Singapore to move forward, are working here after years of persistent nurturing. This augurs well for the ultimate creation of a distinctive Singaporean identity through the passage of time. Yet things had not always been as promising as they are now. I remember vividly that when our national football team played against a Chinese national side at the Jalan Besar stadium in the 1960s, numerous Chinese Singaporean spectators were rooting for the visitors instead of for their own team, without realising the implications of their actions. While this did create quite a stir then and resulted in acrimonious public debates, these Singaporeans seemed oblivious of their unedifying public behaviour as the sense of nationhood was probably still quite fuzzy to them and they allowed kinship ties to rule their emotions. It is gratifying to note that the same spectacle did not repeat itself when another Chinese national football team played against our national team a few years ago.
Third, the relentless pursuit of racial harmony is certainly bearing fruits. Although inter-race relations among Singaporeans compare favourably with other multi-ethnic communities, there is still room for improvement. I am glad that more concerted efforts are currently being made to help bring it about.
Fourth, the emergence of a distinctive Singaporean identity cannot be rushed and must be given ample time to evolve through education, family influence and pride of belonging to a multi-racial and progressive nation which will become a shinning example in an increasingly turbulent world, torn apart by racial conflict, ethnic pride and religious hatreds. Long established countries like United States and Australia are good examples. Like Singapore, they were founded by immigrants who came to their shores in search of a better life for themselves and their descendents. These countries took many generations to reach their present stage of development, warts and moles included. Even today, ethnicity still plagues many parts of United States, Europe and elsewhere. At the other end of the world, numerous Australians still feel a strong sense of loyalty to Britain, the land of their ancestors; strong enough to defeat a recent national referendum to rid the country of the British monarchy.
Finally, the attainment of the Singaporean identity rests with younger Singaporeans and their children. While all Singaporeans will always remain immensely proud of their respective racial and cultural heritages, it is already quite evident that ethnicity and traditions weigh less with the younger generation than with their elders. One tangible proof is the steadily growing number of mixed marriages here, compared with a generation ago, I am quietly optimistic that a truly distinctive Singaporean identity will materialise in the fullness of time. What form and shape it will take, no one can yet be sure. However, to be distinctive, it must reflect unique Singaporean values and assimilate the best that the East and West can offer.
Following is a brief update on promoting racial and religious harmony with the ultimate goal of strengthening Singapore’s social cohesion and enhancing inter-racial and religious relationships:
Since the enactment of the Maintenance of the Racial and Religious Act in 1990, racial and religious harmony has been making great strides forward and transform Singapore into a beacon of light for the so troubled countries to emulate.
Not withstanding that, with the widespread popularity of social media on Internet like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram, some offensive and untrue allegations had been made against the Singapore Government, its leaders, public figures, religious institutions and other established organisations. If this trend is left unchecked, it can influence public sentiments and threaten the existing good racial and religious harmony carefully built up in our island State.
Consequently this Act was amended for the first time recently by enabling the Government to issue a restraining order against the offenders with immediate effect, whereas previously a 14-day prior notice must first be given. To further strengthen this Act, Section 74 of the Penal Code will also be amended with enhanced penalties for racially or religiously aggravated offences.
In order to maintain racial and religious harmony in Singapore, which has one of the most diverse religions worldwide, all Singaporeans, especially the younger generation are being reminded not to deviate from this important national objective at daily school assemblies, and on other formal occasions like the National Day celebrations.
Hence, all Singaporeans must always remember the national pledge:
We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
On top of this, the present Government’s declared aim is to create a more equal and inclusive society worthy of admiration and emulation by others.
In conclusion, the various ethnic bodies and the inter-religious councils together with the public at large, especially the youth among us, must continue to play their vital roles to uphold racial and religious harmony in Singapore at all times.
Lam Pin Foo