Free expression must not be at expense of racial and religious harmony; only S'pore Govt can decide balance
'MR GITHU Muigai visited Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore Government. He had requested to come to Singapore to better understand our society, engage in dialogue, and identify best practices to be shared.
We told Mr Muigai that for Singapore, maintaining racial and religious harmony and treating minorities fairly is not just the morally correct thing to do. It is a political, economic and even foreign policy imperative for our continued survival and prosperity.
The principle of meritocracy is the basis of Singapore's success and will continue to serve as the core value of our society.
Mr Muigai told us that he now better appreciates the complexity of Singapore society and how we deal with racial issues.
He agreed with us that managing racial issues is a journey with no end and there will always be challenges. We told him that we will deal with them pragmatically as they arise; policies are continually reviewed and adjusted if changes are warranted.
The Singapore Government looks forward to reading Mr Muigai's final report. We have an open mind because the maintenance of racial harmony is of such vital importance to us that we are prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal and is workable in our unique circumstances.
We do not expect Mr Muigai to agree with all our approaches; nor do we agree with all that he had shared with us. Such differences of opinion are natural when dealing with a subject as complex as race.
We will respond fully as appropriate when we see his final report.
However, there are some comments in his press statement and from his press conference that require immediate clarification.
POSITION OF THE MALAYS
WE ARE surprised that Mr Muigai had so quickly concluded that in the field of education, 'special measures within clearly defined timelines' may be necessary to help address the historical inequalities faced by the Malay community.
As Mr Muigai himself has acknowledged, statistics show that 'great progress has been made in the last decades' in terms of the Malay community's performance in education and many other areas.
These statistics are publicly available.
The approach that Mr Muigai appears to be advocating - popularly known as 'affirmative action' - is one that has been tried by many countries without notable success. During our discussions with him, we found that Mr Muigai is well aware of failures of affirmative action and indeed shared with us an example of such a failure in another country.
During his meeting with Muis (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), Mr Muigai directly asked the president of Muis, Haji Mohd Alami Musa, whether he thought the Malay community wanted the Government to create special provisions to help the Malay community.
Haji Alami categorically told Mr Muigai that the Malays disapproved of any affirmative action policy because the Malay community had a deep sense of pride in its own ability to achieve steady progress under the national system of meritocracy.
RESTRICTIONS ON DISCUSSION OF SENSITIVE ISSUES
IN THE course of his press conference this afternoon Mr Muigai referred to restrictions in our laws such as the Penal Code and the Sedition Act and expressed the opinion that they may not be as useful today as 45 years ago. He called for greater openness in the public discussion of sensitive issues.
Here we must emphatically disagree with Mr Muigai.
Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony.
This balance is only for the Singapore Government to determine because only the Singapore Government bears the responsibility should things go wrong.
The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the Government's approach.
PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL FOR MINORITY RIGHTS
MR MUIGAI was of the opinion that there was a potential conflict between the role of the Chief Justice as head of an independent judiciary and as chairman of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR).
Mr Muigai has not fully understood the Constitutional role of the PCMR. As the Chief Justice (Chan Sek Keong) himself told Mr Muigai, if there was any conflict of interest in a case, the Chief Justice would recuse himself.
Our judiciary is well respected internationally and the PCMR has worked well to preserve racial harmony in Singapore.
CATEGORISATION BY ETHNICITY
MR MUIGAI has suggested that categorising individuals by ethnicity, for example on our National Registration Identity Cards and through our Group Representation Constituency system, may reinforce and perpetuate prejudices and negative stereotypes.
However, during our discussions Mr Muigai acknowledged that there was no single correct approach to this issue and that there were good reasons not to pretend that ethnic differences did not exist.
ACCEDING TO INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS
MR MUIGAI has also recommended that we accede to certain international human rights conventions.
We have told Mr Muigai that we are in the process of studying some of these conventions and do not rule out acceding to them.
But we do not value form for its own sake and will accede to these conventions if there is substantive value in doing so and we are prepared to implement all their provisions.
THERE are also factual errors in Mr Muigai's press release that need immediate correction.
EDUCATION FOR MALAY STUDENTS
MR MUIGAI had noted that 'the Government had until a decade ago supported free education programmes for Malay students'. This implies that the Government has reduced the amount of money devoted to Malay education. This is not true.
What has changed is that the money that used to be allocated to middle-class Malays who no longer need subsidies for education is now given to Mendaki for distribution to the most needy Malays. The total amount of money dedicated to Malay education has not changed.
NON-TAMIL-SPEAKING INDIAN MUSLIMS
MR MUIGAI claimed that non-Tamil-speaking Indian Muslims may find it difficult to identify with (community self-help groups) Mendaki or Sinda. This is not true and in fact they have been making full use of programmes in both community groups. No Indian Muslim in need of help is denied help.
SPECIAL ASSISTANCE PLAN (SAP) SCHOOLS
MR MUIGAI claimed that Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools were established in order to nurture the best talents that will form the next generation of leaders in the various fields.
This is a misunderstanding of the role that SAP schools play in Singapore.
Then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa Sikh Vesakhi celebrations in 1999 had explained fully the role of SAP schools. The speech is still relevant and Mr Muigai was given a copy of the speech today.'