SINGAPORE – Many Singaporeans, when asked about the worst ethnic disturbance in Singapore’s history, may cite the series of race riots of 1964 that involved clashes between Malays and Chinese and resulted in 36 deaths and 560 injuries.
But in fact, a far more violent conflict had happened between Hokkiens and Teochews in 1854.
It lasted for more than 10 days, left 400 dead, a great many wounded and burned down about 300 houses.
Based on historical records, the riot was sparked by the Hokkiens’ refusal “to join in a subscription to assist the rebels who had been driven from Amoy by the Imperial China troops”.
Recounting this episode in history to illustrate that even seemingly stable identities that Singaporeans take for granted are not set in stone, Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong said: “We cannot assume that the harmony we now enjoy is solid, let alone permanent.
“It seems astounding to us today, but barely 150 years ago, tribal, or more accurately “dialect” identities among Chinese here in Singapore, as well as in China too, trumped their racial, cultural or national identity as Chinese.”
Mr Wong was speaking at a roundtable organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on identity, which discussed the rise of tribalism and identity politics and how these will affect Singapore.
He noted that the culture wars that began in the West have already created new forms of identity politics here, beyond the familiar divides of race and religion.
“If we are not careful, the new tribalism can easily take root here, and our politics can become defined by new identity issues too,” he said.
“The challenge is to acknowledge and do our best to address the legitimate concerns of every ‘tribe’, without allowing our politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances.”
In his speech, the minister noted that Singapore has always been a mix of tribal identities, comprising a racial mix from three major Asian civilisational complexes – China, India and South-east Asia.
Singapore’s nationalism, in fact, had its inspiration by the separate tribal nationalisms of its component races, he said.
Without the Chinese revolutions of 1911 and 1949, the Indian national movement that culminated in the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the Indonesian Revolution leading to its independence in 1948, people in Singapore would not have conceived it possible to have a Singaporean nationalism, he added.
“Can we then really be sure, with the rise of China, India and South-east Asia, that Singaporean nationalism will not deconstruct again into Chinese, Indian and Malay nationalisms?” he asked.
In fact, the state of affairs in Singapore, with different races and religious groups living in harmony, did not happen by chance, said Mr Wong.
Having experienced the racial and religious riots in the 1950s and 1960s and having witnessed how differences were politicised when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Singapore’s founding fathers had gone to great lengths to safeguard racial and religious harmony, he added.
They took “tough but necessary action” such as invoking the Internal Security Act against chauvinists of all ilk, making English the main medium of instruction in schools, and later putting in place the Ethnic Integration Programme for public housing to create more common spaces.
“All of these moves were only possible because generations of Singaporeans believed that what Singapore stood for as a nation exceeded the pull of their own tribal instincts and feelings,” he said.
“This was not an instinctive choice to make, or the natural thing to do in many other societies.”
But the harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge, he stressed, and the culture wars that began in the West have already created new forms of identity politics here beyond the familiar divides of race and religion.
Mr Wong warned that this could result in a new tribalism taking root, and politics becoming defined by new identity issues.
But he acknowledged that the pull of identity politics arises from real differences in the lived realities of different tribes and groups, and said these differences cannot be dismissed or ignored.
Citing examples, Mr Wong pointed out that women continue to bear a disproportionate share of housework and receive less recognition at work, people with disabilities are not able to participate as fully in society, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) people feel that society does not accept them or even recognise them as different.
He added: “These are important concerns. One cannot say to any of these groups that their concerns are illegitimate or exaggerated. If we are to live up to the founding ethos of Singapore, every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity.
“That is what a fair and just society must mean. And we cannot – in the name of avoiding the dangers of identity politics – deny the rights of a variety of groups to organise themselves, so as to gain recognition for their concerns, or seek to improve their conditions.”