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Building Bridges, Celebrating Differences: The Story of Racial Harmony in Singapore

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Ah, Singapore! The land of hawker centres, the Merlion, and one of the world’s most Instagrammed hotel – Marina Bay Sands. But there’s more to Singapore than just its vibrant tourism industry. The country’s success is attributed to its multicultural population living in harmony with one another. How is this possible, you ask? Well, of course, Singapore’s Racial Harmony! It is part of our community, our architecture, our history and even our National Pledge.


A section of Singapore’s National Pledge
Photo Credit: Hiu Li Yeng on thirst.sg

However, this little country didn’t always have such a united population, with many disputes amongst the various races occurring over the years. In this blog, we’ll take a look at how racial harmony started in Singapore, the challenges they faced, and the efforts being put in place to maintain Racial Harmony.


The History of How Racial Harmony Started in Singapore


Singapore’s ethnic and cultural diversity can be traced back to its early days as a trading port. The city-state’s strategic location made it a hub for trade, attracting immigrants from all over the world. In the early 1800s, Chinese immigrants started coming in droves, followed by Indian and Malay immigrants in the late 1800s.


Singapore in the 1800s
Photo Credit: visitsingapore.com

Over time, these immigrants established their own communities in Singapore, each with its own language, religion, and customs. The Chinese, for example, built their own shophouses and temples, while the Malays established kampongs (villages) and mosques. This diversity helped shape the unique multicultural identity of Singapore today.


Despite Singapore’s diversity, tensions between different ethnic groups were not uncommon. In 1964, tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities boiled over into the infamous race riots. Over four days, rioters set fire to buildings and clashed with police, resulting in 23 deaths and hundreds of injuries.


1964 Racial Riot in SIngapore
Photo Credit: National Archives Singapore

The riots served as a wake-up call for Singapore’s leaders, who realised that they needed to take action to manage ethnic and cultural tensions. How did they respond to these challenges? By implementing various policies and initiatives to promote racial harmony. One may view Singapore as a land full of laws, policies, and restrictions (yes, there’s a lot, even I don’t remember all of them) but they are essential in guiding the citizens into a more peaceful, united society.


Government’s Efforts in Ensuring Racial Harmony


One of the most notable policies is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MHRA), which was introduced in 1990. The MHRA aims to prevent the use of religion to incite disharmony or promoted political aims. It provides the government with legal tools to deal with any acts that threaten Singapore’s religious harmony. This act ensures that all religious groups in Singapore can worship freely, without fear of any discrimination or hostility. This policy applies to all citizens, politicians and even the President.


With the internet and social media being integrated to our daily lives, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had to update the MHRA in 2019 to ensure that religious harmony would be protected and practiced even online. There are many foreign influences online that may spread malicious rumours regarding a particular faith or race that can influence Singaporeans’ mindsets and trigger a racial dispute amongst one another. The changes made in MHRA enables MHA to respond more effectively and strengthen their safeguard against foreign malicious influence.


Have you ever heard of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP)? It is another policy that was introduced in 1989 to promote racial integration in public housing estates. This policy ensures that there is a balanced racial mix in HDB estates, ensuring that no ethnic group is concentrated in one area. The EIP has played a significant role in preventing racial enclaves in Singapore, promoting racial harmony, and encouraging interaction between different groups.


Back then, each ethnic group preferred staying at certain areas of Singapore. The Chinese preferred staying in Hougang and Ang Mo Kio, the Malays preferred Bedok and Tampines while the Indians preferred Naval Base and Serangoon Road. Even though the Government was able to separate the racial enclaves in 1960s and 1970s due to a massive resettlement and public housing programme, they noticed that such programmes would no longer be feasible for housing that we already developed. And hence, the EIP was implemented. (Ta-da!) This is the main reason why each neighbourhood would have a clear mix of races, encouraging people from all walks of life to intermingle.


Infographic of Applicants to New Housing Estates
Photo Credit: The Straits Times

The government has also set up institutions to promote inter-racial understanding and harmony. For example, the Institute of Policy Studies has conducted research on inter-ethic relations in Singapore, highlighting issues that need to be addressed to promote racial harmony. The Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) have also been set up across the island to encourage inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue


People from various backgrounds joining IRCCs
Photo Credit: mccy.gov.sg

Today, Singaporeans take pride in their multicultural identity and the racial harmony that exists in the country. But how did Singapore achieve this? The answer lies in a combination of government policies and grassroots initiatives. In addition to the EIP, the government has also implemented a range of measures to promote intercultural understanding and harmony. These include the annual Racial Harmony Day, which is celebrated in schools and workplaces, and the Community Engagement Programme, which encourages Singaporeans to volunteer in their local communities.


At the grassroots level, there are countless initiatives aimed at promoting racial harmony. These include community events, interfaith dialogues, and cultural exchange programmes. One example is the Harmony Circle, a grassroots movement that brings together individuals from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to build friendships and promote mutual understanding.


Food Distribution Programme ran by Punggol West Harmony Circle
Photo Credit: Harmony Circle Website

The impact of these policies and initiatives has been significant. Singapore has managed to maintain racial harmony, and its citizens have a strong sense of national identity. The EIP has ensured that public housing estates are racially integrated, preventing the formation of racial enclaves. The MHRA has ensured that all religious groups can worship freely without fear of discrimination or hostility. The IRCCs have encouraged inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue, fostering mutual understanding and respect. Overall, these policies and initiatives have helped Singapore become a multi-cultural society that celebrates diversity and promotes racial harmony.


The Various Festivals of Each Culture


Now that the more political part of this blog is done, let’s talk about how Singapore embraces each culture! Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, with a diverse population compromising Chinese, Malay, Indian and other ethnic groups. This diversity is celebrated and showcased through various cultural festivals and celebrations that take place throughout the year. These festivals not only provide an opportunity for people to come together and enjoy the rich traditions and heritage of different communities but also contribute to the country’s racial harmony.


One of the most prominent festivals in Singapore is Chinese New Year, which is celebrated with much fanfare and excitement. The streets are decorated with vibrant red lanterns and banners, and families gather to enjoy sumptuous meals, exchange ang baos (red packets filled with money) and participated in lion dance performances. The festivities are not just limited to the Chinese community, and people from different backgrounds come together to join in the celebrations. Be prepared to also see red being a prominent colour during Chinese New Year as red symbolises power, celebration, fertility, prosperity, and repelling evil.


Light Display at Chinatown in lieu of Chinese New Year
Photo Credit: The Honeycombers Website

Similarly, Deepavali or the Festival of Lights, is an important festival for the Indian community in Singapore. It is a time for families to decorate their homes with lights and rangolis, exchange sweets, and enjoy traditional Indian cuisine. They would also decorate the entrance of their houses with rangoli, intended to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good luck. The streets of Little India come alive with colorful decorations, and people from different backgrounds join in the festivities, lighting lamps and participating cultural performances. Purple would be the prominent colour during Deepavali, as it represents wealth and grandeur according to Indian beliefs.


Light Display at Little India in lieu of Deepavali
Photo Credit: @stanley_chee on Instagram

Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Eid al-Fitr, is a festival celebrated by the Malay community in Singapore. It marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and is a time for feasting and visiting family and friends. The Malay community opens their homes to welcome guests of all races, and everyone joins in the celebrations, enjoying traditional Malay cuisine and cultural performances. Throughout Ramadan, many Bazaars would be opened at various locations, selling halal street food, various house decors and clothes for the Malay to prep for Hari Raya Puasa itself. Similar to the other festivals, green would be the prominent colour, as it is a symbol of bliss, life, fertility, and beauty, according to Islamic beliefs.


Photo Credit: visitsingapore.com
Lights Display at Geylang Bahru in lieu of Hari Raya Puasa

Apart from these major festivals, there are many other cultural celebrations in Singapore that showcase the country’s multiculturalism. For instance, the Pongal Festival is celebrated by the Tamil community, and the Thaipusam Festival is a time for devotees to offer prayers and make offerings at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. The Hungry Ghost Festival is also a significant event for the Chinese Community, where they pay respect to their ancestors and perform rituals to appease the spirits. Meanwhile, the Hari Raya Haji is also celebrated by the Malay community, commemorating Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) complete faith and trust in God.


What about the other common Western celebrations, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, New Years? Of course, we celebrate them too! Singapore embraces all cultures and religions, respecting every culture’s belief to their best abilities. The streets of each of their heritage districts would be decorated with beautiful lights respectively, music from each culture would be played in shopping malls, supermarkets and more depending on the festivals and more.


Christmas Display at ION Orchard
Photo Credit: The Smart Local

What is unique about these celebrations is that they are not limited to the respective communities, and people from different backgrounds participate in them, sharing the joy and festivity. Singaporeans are proud of their diverse heritage and culture, and this is reflected in the way they come together to celebrate each other’s festivals and traditions. They showcase the richness and diversity of Singapore’s cultural heritage and contribute to the country’s reputation as a harmonious and inclusive society. So, let’s come together and celebrate the beauty of our differences!


Educating & Promoting Racial Harmony


Policies and festivities aside, what are other ways Singapore promotes racial harmony towards its citizens? That would be through education and media! Today, both education and media play a major role in educating and influencing people- both young and old. With education being readily available for each Singaporean, it is important to promote and instil a strong sense of racial harmony in each student.


Singapore’s education system emphasises multiculturalism and teaches students to respects and appreciate different cultures. Schools in Singapore celebrate the various cultural events by allowing students to dress up in their tradition costumes, performing the traditional dances and even playing traditional games during their free time. This allows each student to have a first-hand experience in learning about the traditions, history, and values of different cultures. The schools also celebrate Racial Harmony Day, which falls on 21st July of each year. In addition, schools also organise cultural exchange programs with either local or international schools where students can interact and learn from one another.


Students celebrating Racial Harmony Day in School
Photo Credit: Andrew Teow from Montford Junior School

But education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Media, too, plays a crucial role in promoting racial harmony. Singapore’s media industry is highly regulated and promotes positive images of different cultures. For example, MediaCorp, Singapore’s largest media company, produces television shows and dramas that depict the diversity of Singapore’s population. Channels specifically dedicated to each ethnic groups are also available: “Channel 8” for the Chinese, “Vasantham” for the Indians and “Suria” for the Malays. Despite being dedicated to the various groups, the shows and dramas still feature actors and actresses form different ethnic backgrounds, highlighting the richness of Singapore’s multiculturalism.


The first multilingual Singaporean TV Drama
Photo Credit: meWATCH

Furthermore, the media in Singapore also promotes the celebration of multicultural events. For instance, Singapore’s National Day Parade feature performances from different ethnic groups showcasing their unique cultures. The parade also features traditional costumes and music, highlighting the diversity of Singapore’s population. Overall, education and media have been effective tools in promoting racial harmony in Singapore. Through the education system and media industry, Singaporeans are exposed to different cultures and learn to appreciate and respect them. With its strong emphasis on multiculturalism, Singapore is a shining example of a country where diversity is celebrated and embraces.


What Worked for Singapore & Some Challenges


With all the efforts done to promote racial harmony, not all has been successful. There are still many challenges for Singapore to tackle, both in present day and in the future. But first, let’s talk about the successes. Like aforementioned, Singapore is a unique melting pot of cultures with Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian communities coexisting in relative harmony. This has been achieved in part through government policies that emphasise racial harmony, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, which ensures that neighbourhoods remain racially balanced. Together with the current education system and media channels, these efforts have established a harmonious living within races, while also educating each citizen about the various cultures.


However, despite these successes, there have been challenges. Singapore has had to confront issues such as xenophobia, which can be exacerbated by economic anxiety and competition for jobs. There have also been incidents of racial and religious tension, such as the 2013 Little India Riot.


But fear not, because Singaporeans are committed to maintaining and improving racial harmony in their country. For example, the government recently launched a national conversation on race, inviting Singaporeans to share their experiences and ideas on how to strengthen social cohesion. There are also grassroots efforts such as the #BetterTogetherSG movement, which aims to foster empathy and understanding between different communities.


In Conclusion…


Hence, what can we learn from Singapore’s approach to promoting racial harmony? First and foremost, it takes a concerted effort from all members of society, from the government to individuals. It also requires ongoing dialogue and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths and issues. But ultimately, the benefits of a harmonious and diverse society are immeasurable, from the richness of a cultural exchange to the strength of social cohesion.


So, let’s keep the conversation going, Singapore! Together, we can continue to build a society that celebrates diversity and fosters understanding and empathy.


Want to Know More?


If you’d like to learn more about the various cultures and their respective cultural landmarks, do join our Learning Journeys for an in-depth dive into the cultures or participate in our Interactive Adventure Trails, where you get to learn history while completing various tasks/missions along the way! Do check out our previous blog articles as well if you are interested!

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