Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Teck Ghee IRCC Racial Harmony Day Celebration (English)

21 July 2012

Good afternoon everybody!

Mr Pragash Kulasagar
Chairman, Teck Ghee IRCC

Ladies and gentlemen,

Friends and residents

Happy to celebrate Racial Harmony Day with all of you today!

I’m glad that we are all enjoying ourselves. The children are dancing, having fun singing and laughing. But I think we should not forget why we are celebrating Racial Harmony Day. And it is because almost 50 years ago in 1964, we had two race riots happen here and more than 30 people were killed and 500 injured. You can’t imagine it today, but it happened. And it shows how much Singapore has changed since that happened.

Now we are a harmonious multi-racial and multi-religious society. But how did we go from riots and people getting killed and injured to where we are, happily mingling and enjoying ourselves, being friends with one another? Not by chance, but because of the way we developed our politics, so that we chose integration and harmony. Because we gave equal opportunities to all Singaporeans, and because we set up institutions like the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, in order to protect the minority communities here. And in our housing board estates, we make sure in our schools, our homes, our HDB blocks, everybody mingles with one another, and we get comfortable with one another.

This is how we have got here, and I think this is how we have to keep on strengthening our racial harmony all the time every year, year after year. So that in normal times, we get along well together. But when there’s a crisis, for example if there is a terrorist attack, then even though we are under pressure, we stay together and we don’t pull apart. And this is so, not just physically together, but also psychologically to be comfortable with one another and to know how to give and take with one another. And we can see many examples of this, big and small, in our lives. I give you one example which happened:

On the void decks of our HDB flats, we all use our void decks for weddings, for funerals, for parties, for birthdays, and we all must get along and share this. There was one case where there were two families needing to use the void deck: A Malay family having a birthday celebration and a Chinese family having a funeral at the same time. So the Malay family was singing karaoke for their birthday, but the Chinese family had the funeral wake going on and from time to time they had to do worship, and prayer and ceremonies. So they made a compromise – the Chinese family said, “It’s ok, carry on, enjoy your birthday and your music, but every hour for 15 minutes, please lower your music, so that we can have our prayers, after our prayers, continue with your celebration”. And so they did! Both sides were happy, you give a little bit, I give a little bit, we get along well together. And that’s how we have built racial harmony in Singapore, and that’s how we’ve made the accommodation and the adjustments amongst our different races and religions.

Of course besides race and religion, we also must make sure we build harmony between different groups in Singapore. And pay attention to new fault lines, for example between old citizens and new citizens. We may be racially the same, we may be both Chinese, may be both Indians, may be both Malay stock, but I think we’ve got, between the old citizens and the new arrivals, different norms, different habits, different customs. And it can cause social frictions especially online where people are less restrained, and they speak, sometimes they offend others, and this can cause a problem.

So we have to work together to make sure that this doesn’t affect our social harmony, and on both sides, as I’ve said before, we must have that adjustment – the new arrivals to embrace the Singapore values and norms and try and fit in as Singaporeans; and the Singaporeans to encourage the new ones, and help the new ones to fit in. This is how it is to be a harmonious, multi-racial society. And that’s why every year, we organise activities, have Racial Harmony Day and remind ourselves how we must live together. Ethnic dress competition, songs and dances, drumming on different drums, and I think each one of these makes a little contribution. So I thank Pragash and the IRCC for all his good work, and let’s keep on working at this.

Today of course is the first day of Ramadan, and we wish our Muslim friends a happy fasting month. And I hope you will accept your Muslim friends’ invitations to visit them during the month of Ramadan, if they invite you to break fast with them. And take the opportunity to invite them back for dinner the next time when you can! So that bit-by-bit we strengthen our harmony, we strengthen our understanding with one another.

So, Happy Racial Harmony Day! I look forward to celebrating many more harmonious anniversaries with you in the years to come! Thank you very much!

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