Print     Close

June 23, 2010

MFA Press Statement: Visit of Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed to Austria, 21 to 25 June 2010

While in Austria to participate in a programme on managing social, cultural and religious diversity organised by the Austrian Foreign Ministry on 21-24 June 2010, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed called on Dr Michael Spindelegger, the Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs on 21 June. During the meeting, they exchanged views on regional and international developments in Europe and Asia. They also affirmed the good bilateral relationship between Singapore and Austria, and agreed to explore further collaboration in the area of interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue.

On 22 June, SMS Zainul delivered a speech on "Managing social, cultural and religious pluralism and diversity - the Singapore experience" at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on 22 June 2010. During the speech, SMS Zainul emphasised that building and maintaining social harmony would always remain a work-in-progress. Noting that there was no one-size-fits-all approach towards managing diversity in different societies, SMS Zainul also stressed the importance of dialogue between countries to learn from one another and share best practices.

On 23 June, SMS met with Ms Alev Korun, Head of the Human Rights Commission in the Austrian Parliament. Ms Korun is the first member of the Austrian Parliament with migrant, as well as Muslim, background. During the meeting, both sides exchanged views on the different challenges faced by Singapore and Austria in managing diversity in their respective societies.

. . . . .

23 JUNE 2010


Public Lecture on "Managing social, cultural and religious pluralism and diversity - the Singapore experience" by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Zainul Abidin Rasheed at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, Austria, 22 June 2010

Ms Elisabeth Bertagnoli, Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna

Ambassador Bernhard Zimburg, Head of Department for Asia and Oceania, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to be invited to speak with you this evening. I would first like to thank the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the Austrian Foreign Ministry for organising this session, and giving me the opportunity to share some of Singapore's experiences in managing social pluralism and diversity.

2 After September 11, we have witnessed a widening of racial and religious fault-lines, and a narrowing of the common space for interaction. Maintaining social harmony is therefore even more of a major challenge for many Governments, particularly for countries with multi-racial and multi-religious populations.

The Singapore Experience

3 Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society - this stems from our rich history of being an entrepot, located along the sea routes between China and India. All who came brought not only their trade goods but also their cultures, languages, religions, and technologies for exchange in the bazaars of this great crossroads. A wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities from places as far as Arabia migrated to Singapore.

4 Today, we are an exotic mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Caucasian descent. It is also common to see people of mixed racial heritage. The vast majority of Singaporeans subscribe to a religion - Buddhists and Taoists make up 51% of our population; Christians and Muslims are roughly equal in size, about 15% each; and Hindus constitute about 4%. The rest either have other religions or subscribe to none. We also have a significant conflation of race and religion in Singapore - almost all Buddhists and Taoists are Chinese; about 80% of Muslims are Malays; and all Hindus are Indians.

5 Singapore's current level of harmony is not a natural state. We have also experienced bloody riots on our streets, where lives were lost in the name of race and religion. This is something we wanted to avoid at all cost, and since independence, our leaders - be they political, community, ethnic or religious leaders - have been working hard to build mutual trust and understanding between Singaporeans of different races and faiths. I say 'working" because it is always a work-in-progress to sensitise our new cohorts of young and the increasing number of new immigrants who are setting up home in Singapore, on the importance of maintaining our social harmony.

"Overlapping circles"; common space

6 Singapore believes that the most practical approach in building a harmonious multi-racial and multi-religious society is integrating all races within a national framework. We do not adopt the melting-pot or salad bowl approaches commonly associated with integration of different groups. Instead, we have adopted an 'overlapping circles' approach.

7 Each community, be it by race, religion or language, can be thought of as a circle and the area where the circles overlap one another is where all Singaporeans, whatever their race, religion or language, work and play together. Outside the common area, each community has its own space where they have the freedom to express and practice their own religion and culture. There is a conscious effort to maximise the common space. Today, our surveys have consistently shown that more than 9 in 10 Singaporeans are satisfied with the state of racial and religious group relations in Singapore. A similar proportion of Singaporeans are also optimistic of such relations in future. This augurs well for our social harmony.

Core principles - meritocracy, secularism and multiracialism

8 I will share briefly on the core principles of meritocracy, secularism and multi-racialism, which are the basis for organising Singapore society. The racial riots of 1950s and 1960s highlighted how communal tensions could easily erupt into violence. Our founding vision is therefore one of a fair and just society, where there is progress and opportunities for all. This vision was prescient because poverty and injustice make for a potent inflammatory cocktail.

9 Meritocracy ensures that Singaporeans from all communities can progress and be rewarded according to individual merit, and no one is discriminated against or disadvantaged on the basis of race, language or religion. Meritocracy also creates a positive competitive environment, inspiring individuals to continuously improve themselves, ensuring continual progress and growth.

10 Secularism refers to the approach of separating Government policy decisions from racial or religious priorities, within the context of a secular state. The Government does not regulate religious activities, but works with religious organisations to deliver programmes that benefit society in general. For example, the Government partners the welfare arms of religious organisations in providing family and social services. Similarly, the cloak of religion is not permitted to enter politics or Government.

11 Multi-racialism is a key feature of our national identity. It recognises the uniqueness and diversity of our society, where all ethnic communities enjoy equal status and each community is free to preserve and promote its cultural heritage, and to practice its customs and beliefs, all without compromising national interests or infringing on the rights and sensitivities of others.

Key Levers in Promoting Integration and Social Cohesion

12 In Singapore, there are constitutional and legal provisions to protect the rights of minorities. Key institutions / legislative measures include the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) which scrutinises every piece of legislation passed by the Parliament to ensure that minority rights are not infringed. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) was introduced to give the Government powers to issue restraining orders and to take stern measures against individuals who stir up hatred between our ethnic and religious communities. We have a zero tolerance for extremism: if you threaten the common good, we do not hesitate to arrest or prosecute.

13 Our electoral system, specifically the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) scheme was established in 1988 to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Under this scheme, political parties contesting for the GRC seats in Parliament are required to field at least one candidate from the minority communities in each group of 3-6 candidates. This ensures sufficient minority representation in Parliament. It also forces political parties to practise multi-racial politics rather than to take political advantage based on race or religion.

14 Policy measures and social institutions are key levers through which we promote social cohesion and integrate our communities. Through a system of housing quotas, we have ensured that each public housing estate mirrors the ethnic profile of the national population. With more than 80% of Singaporean living in public housing, this prevents ethnic enclaves from forming. Our national school system is yet another social institution that provides a common platform for children of all races and faith to study and play together, regardless of their background. At the workplace, we have the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices which has introduced a set of guidelines to ensure that employers hire on merit - regardless of age, race, gender, religion, family status or disability.

15 We believe that a top-down approach of promoting racial and religious harmony must be complemented by working in partnership with the different communities towards commons goals and benefits. It is therefore crucial to provide platforms and opportunities for different community groups to interact and work with each other; so as to widen the common space, build relationships, mutual trust and understanding among each other.

16 At the national level, the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) is an initiative introduced for community, ethnic, business, religious and grassroots leaders to network and build understanding across groups. One achievement of the CEP is the establishment of a National Steering Committee (NSC) on Racial and Religious Harmony comprising the apex leaders of all major ethnic, religious and political leaders. The Steering Committee serves as a national platform for apex leaders of ethnic and religious organisations, together with key community leaders, to strengthen engagement across racial and religious communities.

17 This network is replicated at the grassroots level, with similar networks known as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) established in every constituency. This creates a multiplier effect in promoting dialogue at the people-to-people level. Today, 89% of all religious organisations in Singapore are part of these networks, which have proven crucial not only in building bridges, but also in mediating occasional unhappiness over differences in religious practices among groups. In addition, the People's Association, the umbrella grassroots organisation, works closely with the Community Development Councils and its vast network of grassroots organisations to promote interaction across different ethnic backgrounds through social and recreational activities involving local residents at the neighbourhoods.

18 In Singapore, the persistent threat of terrorism and radicalization, despite the many arrests and plots that have been foiled in Singapore and its surrounding region, remains a concern. Singapore's own experience with the discovery of a plot by members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to launch several attacks against key installations in the country in 2001 validated this concern. Although the JI's regional network has been disrupted, the network still exists, albeit in a decentralized form. In addition to the threat posed by terrorist groups, we have observed growing cases of self-radicalised individuals, a phenomenon that is unlikely to die out anytime soon.

19 Fortunately, for Singapore, our Muslim community has been very proactive in its efforts to educate those who may be vulnerable, against radical ideology. At the forefront of these efforts is the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), a volunteer network of local religious scholars and teachers acting in their individual capacities to provide religious counselling for detained members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to wean them away from radical ideology. The religious counselling programme implemented by the RRG has been welcomed by the detainees and their families, and the results have been encouraging. Consequently, a good number of them have been released and none have strayed back into terrorism so far.

20 In addition, the RRG have actively conducted public forums to educate Singaporean Muslims and non-Muslims alike on the dangers of radical rhetoric. To further correct the misinterpretation and misuse of religious concepts, the RRG have given numerous media interviews and contributed articles to the local media as part of efforts to dispel misconceptions on Islam. Recognising that the young, Internet-savvy generation is a critical audience for them to reach out to, the RRG launched a website ( to provide another avenue for the correct messages to be disseminated to the masses.

21 As one in three people you meet in Singapore is likely to be a foreigner, and some of the challenges to social harmony are posed by increasing immigration, a National Integration Council (NIC) was set up in April 2009 to foster social integration efforts across the people-private-public (3P) sectors. The NIC aims to create more opportunities for newcomers and locals to interact with each other. After all, integration is a two-way process whereby Singaporeans need to accept new immigrants while immigrants need to make an effort to become part of the Singapore community.


22 Globalisation has created an increasingly integrated world through common inlets of rising business and migrant inflows across the globe and technological changes. Societies in a globalised world - interconnected by satellite, television, internet and travel - will influence and affect each other. The reality is that it is not normal for multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious societies to live in relative harmony, but we have been quite an exception thus far. We acknowledge that diversity brings with it inevitable tension and flashpoints - political grievances, social injustice and economic deprivation can be contributory factors. As Singapore continues to attract foreigners from all parts of the world, it is also unavoidable that there will be greater social, cultural and religious pluralism and diversity.

23 Confronted with constant flows of people, and being subject to a myriad of different influences due to globalisation, we are cognisant that building a stable and peaceful society will always remain a work-in-progress. While Singapore's efforts to develop social harmony have been successful so far, we should not forget that it is always easier to destroy than to create, especially when it comes to the hard-won trust that has been built up among the people of Singapore over the years. Vigilance must be our watchword; our hearts and minds must be kept open; and we must nurture a common space to which everyone, regardless of ethnicity and religion, has equal opportunity to contribute.

Thank you.

. . . . .