TODAY -

The rise of Singapore: Lessons to learn

Rohan Uttam / Kamei Aphun *



Singapore is synonymous with development today. Its name evokes imageries of a developed financial hub with sky-high buildings, greenery and clean roads among others in the minds of people at large.

Interestingly, these elegant constructions, which are recent in the temporal stretch, tell the story of a remarkable transformational journey of a country from an impoverished State to the status of a developed country, popularly came to be known as the Singapore Miracle. The economic rise is evident. From a meagre GDP per capita of USD 500 in 1965, Singapore has achieved USD 80k per capita in 2022 (World Economic Outlook Database, October 2022) ranking as the 6th most developed economy in the world.

Interestingly, the focus of this article is the social dimension related to this 'miracle' journey. Singapore has experienced periods of communal tensions and conflicts during Independence and sporadic incidents later on that have been dealt with robustly. It is therefore pertinent to understand how the Government responded to the critical situation after carefully understanding the circumstances.

Singapore is a multi-racial society, broadly organised under the CMIO (Chinese—Malay—Indian—Other) system where the population of ethnic Chinese is greater than that of ethnic Malay and so forth. There is a racial overlap with religious lines in that most Chinese practice Buddhism, the majority of Malays follows Islam and the majority of Indians follow Hinduism.

In this way, different statuses intersect to create segregated identities and a significant role has been played by colonial forces that have facilitated the severing of inter-ethnic tensions by creating a division of labour that coincided with ethnicity. In the political sphere, following the first general election, the then Prime Minister Lee Kyan Yew proposed that Singapore be merged with Malaysia due to economic and security considerations.

Upon its materialisation, communal violence and riots ensued. In 1964, clashes between two ethnic communities— Chinese and Malays led Malaysia to separate Singapore from the federation leading to the establishment of an Independent State-the Republic of Singapore in 1965. Following Independence, Singapore experienced episodes of communal violence in the 1960s along with numerous economic and political problems such as a high unemployment rate, widespread poverty and political instability.

It is against this backdrop, Singapore drafted a blueprint that incorporated multifaceted responses constituting recalibrated laws, policies and robust community engagement programs to overcome the contours of ethnic fault lines by fostering social harmony. The vision of a harmonious society is foremost outlined in the educational domain by introducing various mechanisms to utilise schools as a medium for creating awareness about diverse communities among students.

Accordingly, several activities along with excursion trips are carried out on special days where students dress in traditional clothes of other cultures, share traditional delicacies along with playing games together. As part of its civil society strategy, Singapore envisioned the engagement of communities at the grass-roots level.

It was Lee Kuan who conceived the idea of "community centres" as spaces where community members could come together, interact and learn about one another and become part of the larger community. In keeping with this purpose, these centres celebrate various festivals and provide recreational spaces for watching football matches, taking cooking classes and other activities.

By organising various workshops, these centres achieve the twin objective of promoting social cohesion and instilling developmental skills. A further step for community engagement has been the formation of Inter-racial and Religious Confidence Circles in every constituency comprising leaders from religious, social, racial, educational and business backgrounds to deepen residents' understanding of various faiths and beliefs through various initiatives like heritage walks, interfaith talks and religious festivities to promote social cohesion.

Another significant measure is the Harmony Fund, allocated under the Ministry of Culture, which funds non-profit organisations to run various programmes and projects for the same objectives. The Government of Singapore identified that a major hindrance to the integration of communities has been the phenomenon of community clustering ie concentration of a particular community in a limited space.

These spaces have been highly sensitive to social unrest. By introducing the Ethnic Integration Policy through the Housing Development Board, the Government has worked to bring the communities together by fixing a quota for every community within each building. As a result, common spaces in the residential area like parks, shops, bus stops etc. are shared by different ethnic communities enabling intercultural exchange.

In addition to discouraging ethnic housing enclave formation, it promotes an inclusive culture based on regular encounters and interactions over time rather than piecemeal incidents. The above achievements provide an adequate ground for a country like India to rethink on the existing policies and programs.

Despite the differences between India and Singapore in terms of size, population, and culture among others, they also share some similarities in that both countries have shared a colonial past; with multi-religious and multicultural societies which require special efforts in bringing social cohesion.

Considering this, Singapore's experience can be of immense value as social harmony in India, to an extent, is also vulnerable to strains by social-economic discrimination and exclusion in various forms which are shaped and reinforced by a multitude of factors that is also likely to be exploited by political competitors for vested interests. To overcome this challenge, some fundamental values need to be incorporated in policy-making that percolate in the form of effective change in civil society.

In this regard, the community-level engagement plan launched by the leadership of Singapore which starts from the understanding of diversity from the school level via excursion trips and other practical forms of knowledge to acceptance and respect for diversity culminating in the sharing of common spaces like community centres and an innovative housing policy are the points worth appreciation, and moulding these after feasibility studies into the Indian context is a point worth exploring.


This paper is written to celebrate 100 years of Delhi University


* Rohan Uttam / Kamei Aphun wrote this article for The Sangai Express
Rohan Uttam is pursuing his Master's degree in the Sociology Department, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.
Kamei Aphun teaches South-East Asia Course in the Department of Sociology, DSE, Delhi University.
This article was webcasted on December 10 2022.



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