Multiculturalism and social resilience in Singapore


  • A terrorist strike against multicultural states may test societal bonds
  • Such states need to consider building social resilience to counter terrorism
  • What is also necessary for building true social resilience is an understanding of who 'we' are as a society and what 'we' have in common.

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, South East Asia and especially the Malay Archipelago has been referred to as the 'second front' in the war on terrorism.

Singapore was made acutely aware of its position within this possible second front when Singaporean members of the regional terrorist organisation, the Jemaah Islamiyya (JI), were detained in December 2001. The detainees were accused of planning to employ several truck bombs full of ammonium nitrate to attack UK, US, Australian and Israeli embassies, Singaporean military facilities, US naval vessels at Singapore's Changi Naval base and a local metro station frequently used by US military service personnel. Since the initial arrests in 2001, 36 people are currently imprisoned under the Internal Security Act while 19 others are under restriction orders. Singaporean participation in the alleged bombing plot has left an indelible impression on the Singapore government. Literature produced by the government to educate its public about the terrorist threat, maintains the country is "high on the list of targets for terrorist action" and it is a matter of when, rather than if, a terrorist strike will take place. The government accepts that "more than just counter-terrorist emergency planning" is required when such a strike occurs, as, beyond physical harm, terrorist attacks may "create suspicion, tension and strife between the different racial and religious groups in Singapore". Moreover, the arrests of Singaporean JI members has led the government to believe the terrorist threat cannot be understood solely as an external threat, since it may spring from within Singapore's multiracial fabric.

Managing multiculturalism

In dealing with the challenge of countering terrorism, Singapore's multiculturalism or, the manner in which the state understands and manages sub-group differences has become increasingly viewed as a vital complementary component in support of more 'hard' security measures, such as increased surveillance and countering terrorist financing.

The logic propelling the incorporation of Singapore's policy of multiculturalism to countering terrorism operates as follows. A terrorist strike in Singapore may have an adverse effect on the social fabric. As such, a cohesive and inclusive society or a socially resilient society confident in who it is can shield the populace against the potential communal cleavages created by such a strike.

Although the logic of the exercise appears sound, based on the Singaporean experience, societies may have to begin to ask more probing questions of themselves if they are to successfully deploy social policy as a defensive weapon in their counter-terrorism armory. It is a case of moving from issues of 'how do we get along' to the more difficult introspective issues such as who 'we' are as a society and what 'we' have in common.

Unlike states where a more laissez-faire approach is adopted to manage cultural, ethnic and religious differences, the Singapore state, since independence, has continually applied a more rigorous form of multiculturalism. Since its founding in 1965, the state has limited ethnic sub-group differences to the nomenclature of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) through administrative diktat. To preserve the boundaries of the CMIO categories, the state enforces a strict bureaucratic separation between the groups by determining a citizen's race by paternal line. This ascribed racial category is recorded on birth certificates and identity cards and the possibility of altering it is limited.

Maintaining social cohesion

To maintain harmony, government multicultural policy has extended into public spheres. For example, government housing policy avoids the creation of racial enclaves. In a country where around 83 per cent of the population live in government-built housing estates, racial quotas for apartment sales within each block have impinged upon the housing market since 1989.

In 1988, the desire to maintain social cohesion spilled over into the political arena. Singapore practises a variant of British parliamentary democracy and in order to ensure that the non-Chinese minorities in Singapore have parliamentary representation, some constituencies have become Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Within a GRC, a team of politicians represents a constituency and the members of the team have to include at least one non-Chinese candidate.

In response to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 and the alleged JI plot, some elements of Singapore's multiculturalism policy have been reinvigorated while new measures have also been introduced. All these policies have been imbued with the desire to increase community interaction to achieve greater understanding between Singapore's different racial groups.

An example of a reinvigorated policy is the new impetus given to the National Education programme, tasked with teaching schoolchildren Singaporean values. The first of National Education's six key messages proclaims: "Singapore is our homeland. This is where we belong. We want to keep our heritage and way of life." The second says: "We must preserve racial and religious harmony. Though many races, religions, languages and cultures, we pursue one destiny."

Confidence and harmony

In 2002, inter-racial confidence circles and harmony circles were established to promote inter-communal harmony alongside the policy of multiracialism, by aiming to increase greater understanding between the different racial groups. Government officials hope that the inter-racial confidence circles and harmony circles will permit religious and community leaders to build greater confidence, facilitating the development of a mutual rapport that could ease -racial and religious problems on the ground.

The most recent measure put in place to build social resilience and community cohesion is the Community Engagement Programme (CEP), which aims to "forge unity" and "build resilience". To "build networks of trust" and "strengthen bonds", the CEP is divided into five clusters that will encourage interaction within and between diverse segments of society. They are: religious groups, clan associations and voluntary welfare organisations; educational institutions; media and the arts; business and unions; and grassroots organisations.

Correct assumptions?

The extensive network put in place to encourage interaction is commendable and commensurate with the government's desire to build social cohesion and resilience as counter-terrorism tools. However, it may be argued Singapore's approach is founded on two assumptions that may unwittingly hamper its goals. First, that those who participate in the established networks represent the community at large, and second, the debateable presumption that greater interaction leads to greater unity.

Using the CEP's five clusters as a reference point with regard to the first assumption, it is questionable if business leaders, educational institutions, members of the media and the arts, grassroots organisations and the leaders of certain religious groups truly represent their communities as many are non-elected representatives. The complication stemming from this is obvious greater interaction between such individuals may give government and society a false sense of unity. As for the second assumption, it is debatable that greater interaction will lead to greater unity. More often than not, individuals can talk till they are blue in the face with no movement made towards resolving areas of disagreement, let alone a shared feeling of community.

It will be difficult to resolve the underlying issues derived from the two problematic assumptions but a clear understanding of who the 'we' in society are and what 'we' have in common may help. To achieve this, questions such as 'does the concept of Singaporean society include permanent residents, immigrant workers, religious fundamentalists and unwed mothers?' and if so, 'what values does such a diverse community share?' have to be answered.

Universally agreeable statements such as 'to stay united as a nation in a crisis' will not suffice. For a state to be truly resilient - and be able to restore its original state after suffering a shock requires deeper introspection. Only by knowing who we are in the first place can we restore ourselves post-trauma.

There needs to be a greater appreciation for the processual nature of the project as well as an understanding that success will be difficult to measure. It also requires more debate on the threat posed by terrorism, a discussion on what is threatened, a dialogue on who we are and a debate on what we want to become. Failure to alter mindsets and answer tough questions may leave any project intent on developing social resilience both rudderless and vacuous.

Dr Norman Vasu is co-ordinator of the social resilience programme at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.




Explore our related content