The terrible attack that happened in New Zealand will allow me to explain a few of the reasons – and why, had the world decided to learn from Singaporean experiences, this and many other acts of terrorism would likely have never happened.
Microcosm of the World
There are many areas in which the island state can show the way forward – economic management, combating crime, infrastructural development, taxation, law and so on. All of them, however, are bound by the need to serve the society – one which is arguably the most diverse in the developed world.
On the surface it appears to be dominated by the ethnic Chinese who comprise 75% of the 4 million resident population (with Malays at 13% and Indians at 9%).
In reality, however, additional 1.65 million – or 30% of the total – consists of mainly non-resident low to mid-range workers from the region – India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and, of course, neighboring Malaysia (among others).
So not only can Singapore act as an example of how to elevate a country from the 3rd to the top of the 1st world within mere 50 years – but how to achieve so much when the population is divided along ethnic, religious and cultural lines – with a high percentage of fresh immigrants.
Through its diversity it is really a microcosm of the world – and how it should be – where people from all of its corners have come together to work, trade, live in a crime free, clean, well-organized, safe environment. But it was not always so.
Singapore gained independence against its will, after being expelled from the federation it formed with Malaysia – a result of tensions between the Malay and the Chinese (both politicians and people) which led to incidents (some deadly) throughout the 1960s.
And yet, today, it is easily the safest developed country in the world, recording crime rates between 5 to 15 times smaller than the West. Given its diverse population, representing practically all races and major religions, while sharing such a small space, it is an ideal example how multiculturalism can be managed for the benefit of all.
Conflicts are a natural occurrence in all groups of people. Even if they share the same ethnicity or religion, someone is going to be rich or poor, tall or short, fat or skinny, pretty or not, from the city or a kampong, left wing, right wing etc. Of course the more profound the differences the greater the potential divide and tensions.
These issues do not resolve themselves by just leaving people alone – as most tend to gravitate to those who are similar to them, failing to bond closely with others. This phenomenon is often seen in the West in the form of ethnic “ghettos”, what only amplifies the problems stemming from lack of integration and understanding.
Singapore, under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, took a much more disciplined path.
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” –
Given the tumultuous situation the country gained independence in – with tensions with Malaysia and Indonesian Konfrontasi – it was essential for its survival that nobody feels inferior, since it could incentivize allegiance to external powers. While Malaysia embraced its Bumi policies, giving preferential treatment to Malays, Singapore had managed to forge a society that everybody could identify with.
But it didn’t just happen – it required many years of dedicated, planned management.
Unlike the communists , who wanted to wipe out different identities and replace them with the Utopian New Man, Singaporeans embraced their differences. Every child is required to master both English and the mother tongue of its culture – Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. Every group can celebrate its holidays – albeit in a way that preserves equality of representation, so that there are no accusations of favoritism.
And to force closer integration, public housing estates – where most Singaporeans live – have racial quota imposed to reflect the make up of the society and ensure different people live next door instead of clumping into isolated, racial districts.
Keep Your Views to Yourself
Most importantly, however, Singaporean authorities also control what is being said and published – and that is one of the most important lessons.
Blindly idealistic free speech absolutists are going to protest right now but Singapore has implemented strict policies to preserve social harmony, which outlaw any attempts at inflaming racial or religious tensions by any criticism or ridicule of different people – or beliefs – in the society.
As a result everybody tends to keep theirs to themselves. Religions are equally protected – and equally restricted – to avoid pointless conflicts over ideological issues that could set off a spiral of hate.
What you do or don’t believe in is a personal matter that has no place in the public discourse.
This equality of treatment is extremely important because it prevents disenfranchisement, which may motivate people to take rash actions out of anger over being marginalized or targeted by whom they perceive to be sellout politicians.
That’s what led to the tragedy in New Zealand.
The attack on two mosques in Christchurch – an extreme consequence of the rise of nationalist, right wing sentiments across the developed world – is a result of years of inconsistent policies of Western leaders. (Jihadist extremism there has similar roots).
Generations of politicians have utterly failed at integrating foreign migrants (who have been coming to Europe since the 1960s), resulting in their gradual segregation in e.g. the infamous Parisian banlieues. Resulting social and criminal problems only deepened the divide between them and the locals.
In the meanwhile, law enforcement has limited means of preventing violence since it can only arrest people who commit crimes – what means the need to monitor them 24/7. Given thousands of suspected radicals it is just physically impossible. In Singapore, however, under Internal Security Act, all individuals credibly suspect of potentially dangerous activity can be detained before they do anything rash.
Westerners like to decry these laws as uncivilized and prone to abuse, but what is more important: worrying about imaginary threats or dealing with the real ones?
To make matters worse laws curbing provocative hate speech of any sort are either inexistent or applied inconsistently, further contributing to polarization rather than integration.
In some cases it has become quite ludicrous. People land in courts and get prison sentences for angry posts on social media – while the authorities… are busy planning how to reintegrate returning ISIS fighters into the society by helping them find jobs and housing.
Such short-sighted governance only creates frustration and a sense of betrayal, which are a breeding ground for extreme behavior.
The media hardly help either.
Westerners tend to be patronizing about media supervision in Singapore – while they are almost uniformly ignorant of the obvious fact that freedom has to come with responsibility. If this responsibility cannot be expected it has to be enforced so that liberties are not abused by self-serving individuals or organizations – while destroying the fabric of the society.
As a result European and American media coverage of the current issues of immigration and terrorism is painfully polarized, partisan and destructive. Because sensationalism sells.
On the right end of the spectrum you’re likely to hear that what’s happening is some sort of a civilizational invasion of criminals and enemies of the West, and that the locals will soon become a minority in their own countries.
On the left you’re going to learn that the real threat to humanity is right-wing fascism and that accepting people from all over the world – regardless of their competences, language skills or criminal record – is the best thing ever. And if you happen to disagree you’re practically a Nazi.
Singapore shows that neither of these views is even remotely true. That you can build a culturally diverse society enjoying economic abundance, free from crime, keeping extremism at bay, giving everybody – regardless of their heritage – a chance to become valuable, accomplished people without cutting off their roots.
But its story also cautions that to achieve it you need to be honest about the challenges and dangers, enact laws that curb harmful, self-serving behavior and – crucially – apply them honestly and equally. Any deviation from these rules – even with good intentions – is bound to have catastrophic consequences in the end.
Like we sadly witnessed just a few days ago…