Race

National Day Rally 2021: PM Lee looks forward to post-COVID world, addresses societal

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Earlier in his Mandarin speech, Mr Lee said that it is “entirely baseless” to claim that there is “Chinese privilege” in Singapore. Singapore’s founding leaders stood firm on the overarching policy of racial equality and the Government was impartial when drafting laws and administrative measures, he said.

“We treat all races equally, with no special privileges. Few countries have made this their policy, and even fewer have actually managed to make it a reality.”

But he acknowledged that racial discrimination still happens and that minorities are the ones most affected by it, and asked the majority Chinese community to be “more sensitive to the concerns of the minorities”.

“We must also have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour, to express clear disapproval of racist incidents when they happen,” he said. 

“And what is much harder: To call out deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else. Like the campaign against CECA, which claimed to be about putting Singaporeans first, but had a strong racial undertone.”

CECA is short for the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement and there has been fierce criticism of the trade pact for swelling the flow of workers from India in Singapore, an assertion that has been debunked by the Government.

NEW RACIAL HARMONY ACT

Mr Lee said that the real solution is to change social attitudes, but this takes time and legislation can play a role.

“Laws may not by themselves make people get along with one another, or like one another; but laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better,” he said.

Mr Lee announced that a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will collect together in one place all the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues.

It will also incorporate some “softer and gentler touches” like the power to order someone who has caused offence to stop doing it, and to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties with them.

Mr Lee also said that from November, Muslim nurses will be allowed to wear a tudung with their uniforms, if they wish to. He made the announcement both in English and in Malay.

This will not apply to other uniformed occupations such as the military and the police force, as they are “impartial and secular arms of the State”, and need to be seen to be doing their duty without fear or favour, he said.

For school uniforms in national schools, Mr Lee said that students need to wear the same uniform regardless of social status, race or religion.

“We need to emphasise their similarities and minimise their differences, so that students can build bonds in their formative years that will shape their attitudes for life,” he said.

Mr Lee said that he hopes everyone will take this move on the tudung “in the right spirit”. While the Muslim community had called for this for many years, the Government was cautious about how it would affect relations between the communities.

“We are making a careful adjustment to keep our racial and religious harmony in good order. This approach has worked well for us for many years,” he said. 

Rounding up his speech, Mr Lee said that Singapore has many strengths to be proud of – its healthcare system, civil service, public infrastructure and the country’s national reserves.

“But our greatest strength is our people: United and resilient, steadfast and resourceful, in good times and bad,” he said.

Throughout the speech, he had brought up several individuals and frontliners who have stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis. In this crisis of a generation, Singaporeans have shown how strong they can be, and what Singaporeans can do, he said.

“COVID-19 will not be our last crisis. We will surely encounter more trials on the road ahead. We will be tested again, sometimes severely,” said Mr Lee. 

“Each generation will wonder, as their parents and grandparents did: Will we survive? Will Singapore prevail? Will Singaporeans stay together as one people? 

“My answer: We have done it before. We will do it again.”

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