Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat at the Racial Harmony Day Celebrations
Remembering the Past
50 years ago today, on the 21st of July 1964, a peaceful procession from the Padang to Geylang turned violent. Fighting broke out between Malay participants and Chinese individuals. The violence spread quickly. Before long, it turned into a racial riot.
In a riot, crowds of people get angry. They start fighting and hurting each other. In this riot, people attacked others simply because they were from a different race. They were emotional and they listened more to rumours than to reason. The riots spread across two five-day periods in 1964 where property was destroyed, people were injured and some lost their lives. This was one of the darkest periods in Singapore’s history.
It is a period in time which we never want to repeat. It is important for us to remember the tragic consequences of racial disharmony, and irresponsible spreading of rumours. There was a lack of understanding among the races which led to suspicion. There were instigators who misled others and fed on these suspicions.
That is why we make it a point to commemorate Racial Harmony Day every year on 21 July. More importantly, throughout the year, we must strive to better understand our various cultures and practices, and form strong friendships across the communities. These relationships that bind us together will help us in difficult times. When the riots occurred in Singapore in 1964, there were many stories of how Singaporeans from the different races protected their neighbours. One such story comes from the predominantly Chinese kampong of Kampong Sireh 1 . Inche Hussein Bin Ibrahim was the Malay ketua (head) there in 1964. He told The Straits Times after the riots that the 70 Malays and the 3000 Chinese who lived there were ‘one family’. During the periods of disturbances, Chinese families did the marketing for the Malays. At night, Chinese and Malays joined together as guards. It was the trust, friendship and understanding among the villagers that helped the community survive the difficult times. The good relationships, built during peaceful times, between the Malay families and Chinese families in Kampong Sireh meant that nothing external was going to change the way they interacted with one another.
Building Understanding and Advocating for Racial Harmony
Good relationships can only be built if we better understand those around us.
I am heartened by the recent study on Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony. These indicators were created by OnePeople.sg, a ground-up national body focussed on building racial and religious harmony, and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), to gauge the state of racial and religious relations in Singapore. The results show that Singapore has much to celebrate about the state of harmony here. Schools and the community groups must have done a good job in educating subsequent generations of the importance of racial and religious harmony. Still, there are areas that we need to work on. The study shows that we can do more in building “interest in intercultural understanding and interaction”. We must not take intercultural understanding and interaction for granted. We have to continue to build strong bonds in our community – bonds of trust, friendship and understanding — to meet the challenges of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous global environment we face today. We also need to encourage others to do the same – which means that each of us should be an advocate of racial harmony.
I am happy to announce that OnePeople.sg has been working with MOE and our primary schools to engage all Primary 4 students in advocating racial harmony by providing them with Orange Ribbon kits. The Orange Ribbon has been adopted by OnePeople.sg as a symbol of racial harmony to promote values of respect, understanding, trust and friendship. Each Primary 4 student will make 6 orange ribbons from the materials in the kit. Students will wear one of the ribbons while giving each of the other ribbons to someone of a different culture, who could be a schoolmate or a neighbour. The ribbon will be accompanied with a personal note and card encouraging the recipient to wear the ribbon, and to talk to a friend or a neighbour from a different race to find out more about their culture and practices. I hope that this cohort experience will develop as a signature event so that over time all our young Singaporeans will have this experience of not only understanding the importance of racial harmony but also being racial harmony advocates themselves.
Today’s programme at Elias Park Primary involves the Primary 4 Eliasians representing the school to be advocates of intercultural understanding and racial harmony. They will present the Orange Ribbons they made to children from two kindergartens in the Pasir Ris area. Student guides will also lead the children through the Singapore Heritage @ Elias Park (SH@PE) Alive learning centres to teach them about the importance of Racial Harmony. This is a good example on how our students can go beyond understanding to do their part to be advocates of Racial Harmony.
Singapore has thrived because of our openness to international trade flow, knowledge and cultures, all of which have brought us opportunities and progress. As Singapore moves towards a more diverse landscape, it is important that we continue to embrace diversity. Singapore is a cosmopolitan city like many other dynamic cities of the world. We also need to go beyond understanding the main races to respecting all people regardless of race, language or religion, who live and work in Singapore – for the happiness, prosperity and progress of our nation.
This year, let us not just look back on the tragic events of 50 years ago, but also look forward to think about what we can do to ensure Singapore continues to enjoy harmony in the next 50 years and beyond. Let us all do our part to understand other cultures, and going beyond that, let us also be advocates of racial harmony. I want to encourage all of you to make a special effort to befriend people of other races, cultures and religions, and encourage your friends and neighbours to do the same as we go about promoting ‘Harmony from the Heart.’
I wish all of you an engaging and meaningful Racial Harmony Day.
- From “Chinese Village Guarded its Malay Families” published in The Straits Times, 17 September 1964.↵