This is the first National Day that I wasn’t in Singapore. The National Day song for this year didn’t really catch my attention but this article in the Straits Times did. It spoke to me because I am proud of how much Singapore has achieved it the 44 short years that we’ve been an independent nation, and I’m particularly aware that the racial harmony we enjoy in Singapore today did not come easy.
IN A rare intervention in Parliament, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew rose yesterday to ‘bring the House back to earth’ on the issue of racial equality in Singapore.
Spelling out the Government’s approach to the treatment of different races, he pointed out that the Constitution of Singapore itself enjoins the Government to give Malays a ‘special position’, rather than to ‘treat everybody as equal’.
He rebutted as ‘false and flawed’ the arguments by Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan calling for equal treatment for all races.
On Tuesday, Mr Viswa had tabled a motion for the House to reaffirm its commitment to principles in the National Pledge when debating national policies.
A total of 14 MPs spoke on the motion over the past two days. The wide-ranging and vigorous debate ended with Parliament accepting an amended version of Mr Viswa’s motion proposed by People’s Action Party MP Zainudin Nordin, and modified slightly by MM Lee.
Mr Zainudin’s amendment was to acknowledge the progress Singapore has made in nation building, while Mr Lee’s was to highlight the principles in the Pledge as aspirations.
While present at almost every Parliament sitting, the last time Mr Lee rose to speak was in April 2007 during a furore over ministerial pay increases.
He told the House yesterday that he had not planned to weigh in on the debate over the Pledge, but was moved to do so by Mr Viswa’s remarks on the hot-button issue of race.
In a lengthy speech on Tuesday, the NMP had expressed pride in Singapore’s inter-racial harmony and principle of equal opportunity for all races.
However, he questioned if the Government was sending out mixed signals by emphasising racial categories, for example, through ethnic self-help groups.
MM Lee declared that the assumption of equal treatment for all races is ‘false and flawed’, and ‘completely untrue’.
To ‘remind everybody what our starting point is’, he pointed to the racially tense period of the 1960s, the circumstances in which the Pledge had been written.
Singapore had just been thrown out of Malaysia. The Malays in Singapore were feeling particularly vulnerable, unsure if the Chinese majority here would treat them the way the Malay majority in Malaysia had treated the Chinese minority there.
Because of such a backdrop, the Pledge crafted by then Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam took pains to emphasise principles that would be ‘regardless of race, language and religion’.
Mr Lee also drew the House’s attention to Article 152 of the Constitution, which makes it the Government’s responsibility to ‘constantly care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore’.
In particular, it states that the Government must recognise the special position of the Malays, ‘the indigenous people of Singapore’, and safeguard their political, economic and educational interests.
Mr Lee contrasted Singapore’s approach with that of the United States, where despite a 1776 declaration that ‘all men are created equal’, blacks did not get the right to vote until a century later, and racial segregation continued well into the 20th century.
For Singapore to reach a point where all races could be treated equally ‘is going to take decades, if not centuries’, he said bluntly.
For this reason, he sees the Pledge not as an ‘ideology’, as Mr Viswa put it, but as an ‘aspiration’.
Mr Viswa had also wondered if Singapore had got the balance right between prosperity and the happiness of its citizens, and if it had done enough to strengthen its democratic fundamentals.
Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, who spoke after MM Lee, provided a detailed response, spelling out how the Government’s record over the past 50 years had been entirely in the spirit of the Pledge.
‘Far from compromising these ideals in the pursuit of economic gro-wth, we have been defenders of these ideals in building a nation,’ he said.
Policies are debated openly in Parliament, and the Government is accountable to the people at every election, he said.
He noted that Mr Viswa’s model of a multi-party democracy, more opinionated media and politically active universities was drawn from other democratic models in the West.
In Asia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand have elements of these models too.
But he questioned if those places had done better than Singapore, and said it was not self-evident that their models would work here.
More important than high-flown rhetoric in pledges and anthems was the reality on the ground, in the lives that citizens led, he maintained.
He agreed with the NMP that Singapore must move with the times.
However, Dr Ng said: ‘We must not do so unthinkingly, but consider carefully each step forward, carving our own path towards a better society and a more vigorous economy.’