SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at Project Hallow 2023

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 8 April 2023

Remarks by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the 4th 'Project Hallow' @ Shaw Plaza on 8 April 2023.

Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, Mr Ong Keng Yong, Mr Mark Shaw, religious leaders and everyone who has come together this evening for this ‘Common Senses for Common Spaces’ event.

As some of us were walking in, we were talking about Jalan Ampas which is just around the corner. Most Singaporeans, and especially young Singaporeans, would not know of its significance. This was the centre of the Malay film industry in the old days. In fact, it was here in Singapore, in the Malay Film Studio at Jalan Ampas, where P. Ramlee was based and the Malay film industry flourished. An example of the richness of our heritage.

We are here today – as our MC Nur Qistina mentioned – during a sacred month. It is indeed a sacred month for so many of our faiths. We all know about Good Friday yesterday and Easter tomorrow. We all know that Hari Raya Puasa is coming. Some, I would say a fair number of Singaporeans, know that next Friday will be the new year for many Indian ethnic groups – from the Sikhs who celebrate Vaisakhi, to the Bengalis who celebrate Pohela Boishakh, to the Tamils celebrating Puthandu or Varusha Pirappu. But many of the smaller faiths in Singapore also have special observances or festivities in the month of April as we just heard. Passover for the Jews, and the Jains, the Bahais, the Zoroastrians and others have special observances in the month of April.

So it is a good time to come together and reflect on what is common amongst us.

That’s important, and it is an action that is part of why Singapore’s model of multiculturalism is distinctive. When I say a model, I do not mean that we believe that we have a model that the rest of the world should follow. But we are a distinctive model — a model that is not about passive multiculturalism, but active multiculturalism.

It is not simply live and let live. It is of course an achievement in any society to be able to at least live and let live - to be able to live and practise our faiths freely and in peace is an achievement. But it’s not enough. Our whole approach in Singapore is to practice active multiculturalism, not just practising our own faiths and allowing others to practise freely, but understanding what is common among the different faiths and, very importantly, through events like this and many others, creating common platforms for people of different religions and ethnicities to come together.

It does not happen naturally; we have got to create it. The role of religious leaders and community leaders is important, but at the end of the day, it has to become the social instinct amongst Singaporeans: getting together in school, at work, in the neighbourhood; getting together at each other’s festivities; and celebrating our common humanity.

But that active form of multiculturalism is always being developed, and is really up to all of us. It is not just the Government, it is not just the Pledge we take. It is really up to all of us to keep recreating that active form of multiculturalism.

It is what makes Singapore distinctive and it is what I think is going to be even more important in the years to come. Around the world, the forces of polarisation are unfortunately now ascendent — one would even say more pronounced than the force of common humanity. And we have to counter that.

Unfortunately, both polarisation and a sense of humanity come naturally to human society. So we have to work to make sure that that spirit of common humanity is strong, is always being recreated, and can counter the forces of polarisation. And it is entirely possible, as we have seen in Singapore.

It is creating these common platforms for us to get together, to be part of each other’s thinking and culture, not just leaving ourselves in separate wholes, but being part of each other’s thinking and cultures, that we have to do more of. It does not detract from each of our faiths and cultures; it enriches us. It enriches each of us individually, and it enriches Singapore as a society.

Each generation of course goes through its own experiences. The older generation was really thrown together and learnt to live together and understand each other. The younger generation, growing up in a much more organised Singapore, have to find their own experiences of being together and forming friendships and relationships together - which is much easier today, because we have a common education system, we have a workplace that is open to all, much more than it was before. Not perfect, but far better than it used to be in the old days. We have to find ways in which the younger generation does not take things as given, but themselves want to recreate this active multiculturalism, which is deeper than merely coexisting together.

It can be done. There are many examples, in fact in your own activities too. Toh Zhen Yi, a 14-year-old girl who spends time at the rental flats at Owen Road helping young people with their homework. And another example is Nur Qistina who has been very active in Humanity Matters, including in Project Hallow. I am sure there are many friends of yours who also feel that they are enriched by being part of this.

Each event in itself is not going to change the world, but when you put all these events together, all these opportunities for interaction and learning together, they make a difference. It keeps the Singapore model of multiculturalism distinctive, enriching and a force against polarisation.

Thank you very much for inviting me, thank you to those who brought this heavy rostrum into the room, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the programme.