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 individuals from different races. The violence spread quickly. Before long, it turned into a racial riot.

In a riot, crowds of people get angry. They start fighting and hurt each other. In this particular 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 very sadly 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 the irresponsible spreading of rumours.

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 all strive to better understand our various cultures and practices, and form strong friendships across the communities. These relationships will help us in difficult times. When the riots occurred in Singapore in 1964, there were many stories of how Singaporeans from 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 Malay residents and the 3,000 Chinese residents who lived there were ‘one family’.

During the periods of disturbances, Chinese families did the marketing for the Malay residents. At night, the 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. This is a very inspiring story of how we can build good relationships by better understanding those around us.

Building Understanding and Advocating for Racial Harmony

I am heartened by the recent study on Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony. These were created by, 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 their part in educating subsequent generations of the importance of racial and religious harmony. Still, there are areas that we can all work on. The study shows that we can do more in building “interest in intercultural understanding and interaction”. We also need to encourage others to understand the challenges of the volatile, uncertain and complex global environment that we all face today.

I am happy to note that 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 as a symbol of racial harmony to promote values of respect, understanding, trust and friendship. Each Primary 4 student will make six 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 experience will develop as a signature event so that over time young Singaporeans will have this experience of not just understanding the importance of racial harmony but becoming advocates themselves.

For today’s programme at Greenridge Primary School, our Primary 4 students will be acting as advocates of intercultural understanding. They will give an Orange Ribbon to Primary 3 students, explain its meaning, and teach these Primary 3 students traditional games which promote values of respect, understanding, trust and friendship. This reinforces the learning from the school’s signature programme named “Funtastick Harmony”. This is a good example on how we can encourage our students to 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 value racial harmony. 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.

This year, let us not just look back on the tragic events of 50 years ago, but also look forward and think about what we can do to ensure that Singapore continues to enjoy racial and religious harmony.

Let me encourage all of you to make a special effort to befriend people of other races, cultures and religions, and let me wish all of you an engaging and meaningful Racial Harmony Day.

Thank you.

  1. From “Chinese Village Guarded its Malay Families” published in The Straits Times, 17 September 1964.