MULTICULTURALISM IN SINGAPORE

Citation(2013) 25 SAcLJ 84
Published date01 December 2013
Date01 December 2013

The Way to a Harmonious Society

I. Introduction

1 It Is An Honour To Be Invited To Deliver The Audrey Ducroux Memorial Lecture, For Which I Wish To Thank David Salter, President Of The International Academy Of Matrimonial Lawyers (“iaml”), Jennifer O'brien, Chairperson Of The Education Committee For The Iaml Meeting In Singapore, And The Singapore Iaml.

2 First Of All, I Must Apologise To David Salter For Not Revealing The Topic Of The Lecture Earlier. I Was Worried That If I Did, No One Would Attend The Lecture. I Also Feel Somewhat Inadequate To Reciprocate The Honour, In The Light Of The Global Dimensions Of Many Of The Previous Lectures In This Series. This Is Particularly So, As I Intend To Speak On A Subject That Seems Insular And Of Little Or No Interest To International Family Lawyers. Nevertheless, I Hope The Subject Will Resonate With Those Of You Who Come From Countries That Have Large Populations Of Immigrants And Which Are Facing Economic And Social Problems In Integrating Them As Part Of The Mainstream Culture And Values Of The Host Country. The Subject Of My Lecture Is Multiculturalism As The Way To A Harmonious Society. Singapore Was A British Colony Until 1963 When Singapore Became A Constituent State Of Malaysia, And Then An Independent And Sovereign State In 1965. Fortunately, For Singapore, Multiculturalism Was Able To Take Root Under An Imperial Power That Ensured That Each Community Preserved Its Own Culture And Respected The Culture Of Other Communities.

3 Singapore's achievement is in being able to use multiculturalism to foster social cohesion and as a building block of a new nation. In 1965, Singapore's population was made up of about 75% Chinese, 13% Malays, 7% Indians and 5% others. Thus, one can immediately see that with this kind of demographic distribution in a nascent democratic state, there was always a great risk of the majority racial group assuming political power without regard to the rights of the minority groups. But our political leaders have never allowed race to determine its social or political values if it is to forge a nation without a national identity of its

own. This can only come about in a cohesive society of the different racial communities believing in shared values, and sharing common values in their daily lives. Multiculturalism is not simply a social reality that is to be tolerated by the majority ethnic group; it is a political necessity. Since 1965, multiculturalism has been the cornerstone of our nation-building efforts. Just last week,1 the Prime Minister, when opening the Malay Heritage Centre, called on the Centre to reach out to all youths in Singapore and teach them to appreciate our multicultural heritage so that they could understand our shared cultures and the importance of ethnic cohesion.

4 Family law in Singapore is reflective of our multicultural society. Our principal family law statute is the Women's Charter,2 which applies to all racial groups except Muslims. For them, the principal law is the Administration of Muslim Law Act,3 which creates a separate legal and judicial system to give effect to Muslim law on marriage, divorce, maintenance, custody of children and other Muslim and Malay practices. Together, these two laws set out the norms, principles and values of the people in relation to family matters. In most countries, there is historically an established dominant law that reflects the cultural values of the dominant racial group. In this respect, Singapore is different from other Western countries. If we consider the Women's Charter to be the dominant law because it applies to everyone except Muslims, then the dominant law is not Chinese family law or customs, or Indian family law or customs, but English law, as the Women's Charter was based on English matrimonial legislation, modified to suit our own circumstances. Our family law for the large majority of the population is based on the law of our former colonial masters. The basic norms, principles and values of the Women's Charter are derived from English matrimonial law. You may be aware that the statute is not called an Act of Parliament but a Charter, because it was promoted politically as a charter of women's rights. Indeed, that seems to be the perception of many husbands, as now and again, they write letters to the media alleging judicial discrimination in the making of orders on maintenance, custody and the division of matrimonial assets.

5 For this reason we speak a common legal language with all other Commonwealth jurisdictions that have adopted English common law as part of their legal system. I note that in delivering the 2011 memorial lecture in this series,4 Baroness Brenda Hale spoke on the

subject of prenuptial agreements (“prenups”).5 As Justice Judith Prakash has also spoken to you on the same subject in the context of Singapore law, I should simply add a footnote. When the Court of Appeal was asked to recognise a prenup signed by two foreign parties that was valid under the governing law, that is, Dutch law, we asked ourselves whether there was any Singapore public-policy reason for us not to recognise it. We found none. Singapore is a global city-state. We have many foreign couples working and living here. It is not our business to question and dismantle whatever arrangements and agreements couples might have voluntarily made among themselves in accordance with the laws of their domicile, unless we are bound by domestic law not to recognise such agreements.6

6 Coming back to my subject, Singapore is a nation of immigrants whose ancestors came from all over Asia, but mainly from China, India, Indonesia and the Middle East. All these countries have ancient civilisations different from one another. Our ancestors all came to live, trade and work in Singapore, but their civilisations did not clash except from time to time, at the very basic level of social interactions. It was not entirely a miracle that there were few racial and religious

conflicts among them, because British rule kept a tight lid on social disturbances. The master culture, that is, British or Western culture, was not imposed on the local population, except for its laws and government. Some sections of the community, such as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans) who were all English educated, as well as the Eurasians, were perhaps closer to the British in culture and tradition than the others. The British left the various Asian communities to fend for themselves, and their law protected their diverse customs, practices and cultures.

7 Therefore we can see that British rule provided two essential cultural tools that changed the ready mix of the various ethnic and religious components of Singapore society and made it possible for the different communities to live together in peace. The first is imperial rule and its institutions buttressed by English law and the English legal system, which regulated the affairs of the various communities. Over the years, English common law has become Singapore's common law. It is indispensable to our economic, social and political life, and serves as a lifeline to the global economic system. The second cultural tool, which may be even more important, is the English language, the common use of which was spread by the establishment of English schools for locals shortly after the British took possession of the island. We owe this to the vision of Sir Stamford Raffles. When Singapore became independent, our equally visionary political leaders had retained English as the common language of all the communities, while at the same time allowed each community to retain its own languages and dialects. Under the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (“the Constitution”), English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are designated the official languages of Singapore, with Malay recognised as the national language, but English is the language of government, of the administration of justice, of trade and commerce, and is the language spoken at all levels of Singapore society. The English language has provided all races in Singapore with a common space to develop and nurture shared values and a common identity. It has enabled the different racial groups to share a common space in all aspects of Singapore life — its social, political and economic life — and has enabled the different communities to understand and accept one another's culture. Multiculturalism in Singapore would not be possible without English as a neutral common language that all can learn to write and speak as an official language,7 and that can unite the people as Singaporeans.

8 But of course, those elements, although necessary, are not sufficient. There must also be the political will to plan and implement policies to achieve the desired objectives. I believe that Singapore's

experience in building a multicultural society can provide useful lessons to some countries that find it difficult to maintain stable race relations between the dominant racial groups and the minority immigrant communities. In some Western societies, earnest and genuine attempts to create a multicultural society have yet to succeed. For instance, on 5 February 2011, David Cameron, stated publicly8 that state multiculturalism in Britain had failed in that it was fostering extremist ideology and directly contributing to homegrown Islamic terrorism. He said that Britain must adopt a policy of “muscular liberalism” to enforce the values of equality, law and freedom of speech across all parts of society.

9 Singapore has never experienced extremist ideology until after 9/11 (unless the ideology of the Malayan Communist Party is characterised as such). But it is not necessary to have extreme ideologists in order to destroy the fragile social cohesion in Singapore. A perceived failure to respect your neighbour's culture, especially his religion, will lead to enmity between neighbours. Perceived disrespect or insult on a larger scale will...

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