SINGAPORE needs to remain an open, fair and inclusive society – whether it is about people with disabilities being included; differences on the basis of race, language or religion; differences between the wealthy and not so wealthy; differences between foreign sports talent and local sports talent, or foreign talent in general and local talent; and so on and so forth. If you agree with me that our survival depends on us maintaining an open and inclusive society, then I hope you would also agree with me that the key thing is to maintain integration – not assimilation, not uniformity, not selfish pride, but integrating all the different threads that make up Singapore society.
This is all about people and about relationships. Some sociologists call this ‘social capital’. The quality, strength and resilience of relationships in a network have value. Two weeks ago, I had dinner with Harvard University’s Professor Robert Putnam, who has written extensively on social capital in America. He is spending about a month and a half here because he finds us of particular interest. In our dinner discussion, he said there are two types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital.
Bonding social capital exists between people who are alike: same race, same language, same religion, same school, same political party. Bridging social capital refers to the relationships among people who are different: different languages, races, ideologies, needs, perspectives.
In Singapore, there is a special challenge for us to build bridging social capital. This has been so since independence, because even our independence was forced upon us because we sought a multiracial, fair and just society. And even now, 45 years later, this challenge still remains. We have adopted an approach based on multiple lanes. We have constitutional and legislative provisions. Our Constitution recognises the special position of the Malays. It also provides that all of us are equal before the law. We have provisions such as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. We also have the Ethnic Integration Policy to ensure that every HDB estate, every block is a microcosm of Singapore. There are no ghettos here.
But building a multiracial, multi-religious, harmonious and inclusive society is not just about the Constitution. It is also about mindsets, attitudes, norms of behaviour and relationships across the entire strata of society. And sometimes we take this for granted, and we don’t appreciate how extraordinary we are, how special and precious what we have is. I know of no other country in the world where you can get 89 per cent of every single mosque, church, temple represented at the local level in something like the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, or IRCCs. In many countries, attempts at inter-faith dialogue have been fraught with danger. Here we take it for granted. We have leaders, apex leaders at the top of the religious organisations, as well as religious leaders on the ground, meeting each other, organising joint activities, organising visits, expounding and explaining their different faiths to each other – and more important, behind the scenes, away from the glare of the media, resolving problems on the ground.
In Singapore, we have created common secular spaces while protecting more private religious, personal spaces. And we have to get this balance right: Give minorities the assurance that their identities, their cultures, their values, their religions are not under siege; that they are free to practise and to express themselves fully. But it is just as important for minorities and especially their leaders to resist a segregationist approach. In other words, even as we assert our rights to be different, to be distinct, to pursue our own way of life, we must never do so by segregating our communities from the mainstream. If minorities do that, it is not the majority that will lose but the minorities.
Fortunately for us, we have been very blessed to have had national leaders, founding fathers, who believed that a secular, fair system provided protection for religious people and provided a platform for all of us to pursue our dreams and achieve our best. At the same time, we have had religious leaders who have adopted a principled and pragmatic approach to life in a small, dense, highly heterogeneous society. But the foundational challenges and the foundational principles by which Singapore is constituted remain in play, and will face continued challenges in the future. It is worth our while as MPs, as community leaders, to bear in mind that even as we debate and argue and push for solutions to various problems, we don’t inadvertently shake these foundations.