The racial integration behind Singapore’s economic miracle

By Anuki Premchandra

We have been here before. We have lived through innocent lives been taken away in the name of war. A decade of recovery later, we are back here again – riddled with fear, plagued with misinformation, and blinded with confusion.

The Easter attacks were unfamiliar. It was sudden, with no backstory, no context of motive, and with an absence of rationality. Eight explosions which took place in the cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa paralyzed the country. This wave of bombings killed over 250 people and left over 500 injured.

These attacks were acts of terror. A unified plea by Sri Lankans – despite religion or race – and unified efforts to help the families of those who have been affected signal to strengthening ties of multiculturalism and stronger levels of social integration. How important is unity and the acceptance of diversity at a time like this?

Working through the past
Sri Lanka’s efforts of reconstruction and reconciliation, while helping affected communities integrate to everyday life, have also focused on battling the cancer of racism that has begun to show its symptoms over the past few years. Communal violence over the past few years like the Aluthgama riots and the Digana attacks are a reminder that we are still working through our past. As a nation, we have made our best attempts to move on from these incidents, instead of dwelling on them.

On 6 November 1959, 10 years after returning to West Germany in the wake of the Nazi period and Holocaust, philosopher Theodor W. Adorno elaborated what “working through the past” is. He explained that the way to close the books on the past and, if possible, even remove it from memory is to first confront the past. Adorno analyses how Germany’s efforts to work through the past included rigorous efforts of education and the building of a public narrative of vehement criticism against anti-Semitism.

Perhaps this is something Sri Lanka needs to do as well? Should we start understanding the stories behind these local and communal conflicts in order to be able to move on from them? What triggered some of these riots? What was the chain of events that led to 1983 and the war in earnest after that? Can historians set out a narrative and a chain of events around these incidents?

Misinformation, miscommunication, and limited interaction has created a fog of disinformation that has played a role in inciting communal violence and building hatred that leads to retaliatory attacks.

Like Adorno suggested, perhaps a starting point could be understanding this narrative. There is a fog of disinformation and misinformation; would trying to dispel this be a start?

Institutionalised integration
Singapore is among the top economic hubs in the world and has been a case study for nations like ours, striving for economic development. However, something that is often overlooked is how ethnically diverse and inclusive Singapore is, and how this has facilitated the nation’s development. Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently linked the republic’s economic success to its diverse society.

When Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965, multiculturalism was written into the Constitution. This was spearheaded by the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who realised that any ethnic tensions or communal clashes would only stand in the way of him achieving his grand vision of making Singapore a prosperous trading hub. Since then, multiculturalism has shaped many major national policies, spanning education, housing, and politics, among others.

For example, about 85% of Singaporeans today live in public housing estates and 90% of citizens are homeowners. The public housing estates, managed by the government, have an enforced ethnic quota. Maximum proportions are set for the residents from various ethnic groups in these blocks of apartments. The objective behind this measure is to promote ethnic integration.

In 1997, the Ministry of Education began marking 21 July as Racial Harmony Day. On this day, schools hold activities to teach students the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony.

In Sri Lanka, perhaps efforts to strengthen unity among citizens and establish a stronger sense of multiculturalism can start from policies and efforts like this. Just as we have integrated gender-focused budgeting into our budget allocation, we can actively take efforts to ensure that we promote diversity and social integration in policies that govern us.

Anuki Premachandra has a background in public policy with an active involvement in policy communications. If you have any questions or feedback on this article, she can be contacted on @anukipr on Twitter.