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Community events key to racial harmony: Shanmugam

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Solving racism requires more than just what Govt does: Shanmugam

There is no silver bullet for solving racism, but Singapore has had a fair amount of success over the years, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"But we have not arrived at a post-race nirvana either," he said, noting that other countries have shown how quickly things could go south.

Speaking to 170 participants at a dialogue on race relations, Mr Shanmugam stressed that achieving true racial harmony requires more than just government efforts.

Ground-up initiatives by youth and interfaith groups, non-governmental organisations and others, are crucial in building bonds and trust between people of different races and religions, he said.

Surveys show that relations between people of different races are improving, he noted.

But the fault lines that exist in society will not disappear in the coming decades, he said, citing what first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had said: "If we are aware of it, it is like living with an earthquake fault. We can build buildings which may be able to stand the shocks."

Mr Shanmugam said that processes must be fair for the public to have trust and confidence in institutions and in the system.

The Regardless Of Race dialogue was organised by - the national body promoting racial harmony - and media channel CNA at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Topics raised included workplace discrimination and race in politics.

Mr Shanmugam noted some people were unhappy when PAP leaders said Singapore was not ready for an Indian prime minister and cited a 2016 survey by CNA and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) that showed most respondents prefer a prime minister of the same race.


The Government has taken steps to remove race as a factor from election rally rhetoric, like GRCs, he said.

There are also clear rules that bar political parties from practising race-based politics to win votes.

Mr Shanmugam also spoke about striking a balance between individual freedoms and the power of the state. To ensure stability, the Government in the early years put in place frameworks and processes to secure racial harmony through "a fairly tough set of laws that structured how people dealt with race and religion".

These have had some success, he noted, pointing to a survey by IPS and done last year.

It found more Singaporeans now have close friends of another race compared with five years ago and are also more trusting of those from different races or religions.

But the same survey also found a slight rise in minorities perceiving workplace discrimination, such as when applying for jobs or seeking a promotion.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that more work had to be done in this area, and issues around racial discrimination had to be discussed.

But in a multiracial society, "free and open discourse is not magically going to lead to enlightenment and truth", he said, adding it is often more likely to increase tensions.

"There will be racism in all multiracial societies," he said.

"Is there a silver bullet out there for solving racism? If there is, I do not know about it and you can tell me. I think the answer is recognising it and working hard at it."