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 this riot, people attacked others simply because they came 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, many 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 for racial harmony.
Advocating for racial harmony can take many forms. Students from schools in the S6 cluster have collaborated to put up an exhibition on hawker culture here at Bartley Secondary School (BSS), which illustrates how hawker culture is an avenue for better intercultural understanding. Through sharing their knowledge and learning, students will act as advocates of intercultural understanding to their schoolmates and peers from other schools. Visitors will also be interviewed by BSS students regarding their recollections of hawker food and its relevance to racial harmony and nation-building in Singapore. These interviews will be captured on video and be used as resources for students to deepen their learning about racial harmony and how hawker culture contributes to it. Through building understanding and acting as advocates, as the students from BSS and other S6 cluster schools have done, I hope that we will learn to value one another for our similarities as well as our differences. This will enable us all to do our part in building a community of mutual respect and 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. It took us 50 years to get here, it is something that we need to preserve going forward. That is in the hands of the schools who are sitting in the audience here. Because the past 50 years were led by the pioneers before you, the next 50 years is in your hands. How Singapore develops, in terms of its racial, religious, and cultural harmony, depends on how you interact with each other, with your peers, as well as people from other races and cultures. So 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.↵