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Shanmugam: Xenophobia must not override protection

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Minister says rising anti-Islam sentiment and growing polarisation could affect Singapore

Singapore must remain committed to protecting its minorities as the world sees rising anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment, and as the region sees growing polarisation along religious lines, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"In the face of all this, our Government must convey a clear message: We are all Singaporeans. We guarantee the safety, security and freedom of religion to all, including the Muslim community," he said.

"And as a community, we must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism to override the protection and guarantee of equality to minorities."

He was speaking at a symposium on religion, conflict and peace-building organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.

US President Donald Trump has moved to ban refugees and temporarily keep the citizens of seven Muslim-dominated countries out of the US.

The situation in the US could lead Muslims around the world to turn against it, believing it has become more Islamophobic, he noted.

With its 15 per cent Muslim and 85 per cent non-Muslim population, Singapore can easily face a similar situation.

The Government must steer clear of engaging in racial politics. But it can do this only with support from the community.

While the majority has to back these efforts, the minorities must also play their part and not be increasingly exclusive.

Good governance in our case requires us to eschew theatrics, and do what is good for society as a whole... Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam

Mr Shanmugam said: "Both the majority and the minority work together to increase common space, and work with the Government that is determined to hold the common space together.

"That is the only way we can resist the tide of populism that is sweeping the rest of the world. We keep to our way of life."

The racial mathematics in Singapore are stark: 74 per cent are Chinese, which means majoritarianism could easily take hold, he noted.

But it has ensured equal opportunities regardless of race or religion, guaranteed religious freedom and clamped down severely on hate speech.

Then there are the ethnic-based self-help groups and the laws on speech touching on race and religion.

"These and other policies have been criticised. Well-meaning, educated people ask: 'Why do we need all these? Remove them. We are all Singaporeans'," he said.

But without active state intervention, the consequences would have been different.

"After a while, you will get segregated communities, segregated schools, the lessening of common space and a reduction of opportunities for minorities."

He said: "We would have gotten a round of applause. Governments engage in them to give the appearance of activity, decisiveness, openness and so on.

"But the realities of government are different from theatrics.

"Good governance in our case requires us to eschew theatrics, and do what is good for society as a whole...

"We should not assume that Singapore would be immune from this wave of populism that is sweeping the West, which has let loose xenophobic tendencies, racism and tribalism."

There is also rising religious extremism on all sides - even close to home.

Mr Shanmugam cited recent demonstrations in Indonesia along religious lines, and the Mufti of Pahang in neighbouring Malaysia, who branded those opposing Islamic laws as infidels.

He said: "If these trends continue in the region, and if racial and religious rhetoric increases, that can impact Singapore quite severely."

Racial and religious leaders here must move beyond only promoting their respective faiths, he added.

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