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Govt. must implement stringent laws to prevent racial discord: Supramaniam


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  • Singaporean Government takes prompt actions to crackdown on acts of racial discord
  • Sri Lanka has a poor record of religious harmony and tolerance
  • Sri Lankan politicians who manipulate race and religion for their own selfish purposes should be held accountable
  • Singaporeans are too sensible to vote in bigots and idiots
  • SL media is vital to prevent fanning the flames of bigotry and prejudice
  • Sri Lanka can learn from Singapore’s Constitutional guarantees of racial freedom and the Group Representative Constituencies system 

 

A top Singaporean legal expert said that the Sri Lankan Government should ensure ethnic and religious harmony by introducing stringent laws to prevent racial discord. Dato Paul Supramaniam, Founder and Chairman of Law Asia, an international law firm based in Singapore with branches across Asia, said that the Government needed to implement policies enshrining equality for all ethnic groups while strictly controlling clerics on what they say and preach and subject them to strong rules of law against subverting racial harmony. “This can only be done by courageous and honest leaders of integrity,” Supramaniam, a Singaporean of Jaffna origin, said.He said that it was the Sri Lankan political leaders who sowed the seeds of disharmony and strife, which eventually resulted in a bloody civil war, in which human rights abuses were rife. “Therefore, the politicians are primarily to be blamed,” he said, stressing on the importance of bringing a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which would empower the Government to issue restraining orders against any person who causes ill feelings between different religious groups.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Can you explain Singapore’s stance on maintaining ethnic and religious harmony?

A: Singapore’s leaders at independence took the view that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Newly-independent Singapore in 1965 was vulnerable, without wealth, natural resources or reserves. An overcrowded tiny city state of two million people, Singapore was crammed with congested housing, lack of significant infrastructure, a barely viable economy, and with no defence force of our own. Singapore’s population is largely made up of the indigenous Malays (14%), the numerically-dominant ethnic Chinese (76%), and ethnic Indians (8%), along with other significant minorities (classified under ‘Other’) such as its Eurasian community. 

The then Government understood that Singapore would face tensions if nothing was done to foster strong inter-racial and inter-religious ties. Significant race riots with fatal consequences had occurred the year before, when Singapore was still a part of Malaysia. The riots, in some cases, were instigated by ultra-racial extremists from Malaysia. 

Singapore faced stupendous challenges and the leadership realised that we had only one choice, survival by creating a nation out of an improbable city state of immigrants from India and China, plus ethnic Malays, or become a blot on history. And to foster nationhood, we needed to have a common purpose and unity. A sense of equality, shared ownership and everyone is belonging, creates the common goal that pushes everyone onwards, and in the same direction.

Singapore’s strong stance on maintaining ethic and religious harmony can be seen its zero tolerance of ethnic chauvinism, strict weeding out of extreme religious clerics and in its Government housing policy. Subsidised Housing Development Board flats, home to the majority of Singaporeans, are allocated on a quota basis to prevent any one ethnic group dominating any particular neighbourhood. Mixed neighbourhoods help to build up a sense of community not based on ethnicity or religion.

The Government is very quick to crack down on actions which sow discord or which smack of intolerance or disrespect to other races or religions. There are four official national languages, English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay. Malay, the language of the indigenous population, has also been designated as Singapore’s ceremonial language – the National Anthem is sung and military commands are given in Malay, whilst English is the unifying language of business, education, Government, the courts system, and a language that most people speak fluently. Singaporeans are encouraged to embrace their own ethnic culture, for instance through maintaining their linguistic, culinary and religious traditions, as well as to wholeheartedly respect, understand, and appreciate the other cultures which make up Singapore’s vast ethnic melting pot

 

Q: What are your experiences of living in Singapore with all ethnic groups?

A: It has been an experience of richness and diversity, mutual respect and happy coexistence rather than one of strife, suspicion and bigotry. I feel blessed to live in a society where the richness of three major cultures are equally respected, a society where people are free to practice their respective religions and cultures, yet co-exist with one another.

I have very good Chinese and Indian friends, and am fluent in speaking Malay. I feel a richer person as a result of my understanding of Singapore’s multiple cultures. And despite this myriad of cultural identities, freely practiced, there is a strong national identity of loyalty to the nation, hard work, a ‘can do attitude’ and a ‘we shall overcome’ mantra which takes precedence.

But it was not always thus. I have personally seen this country morph from a fractured and divided country into a modern nation, with a pride of nationhood based on harmonious multi-racial coexistence, and a set of ingrained national ideals. My early memories in 1961 were of a British colony. Many parts of the tiny island were still semi-rural, with ‘atap’ huts and rubber estates. Social divisions were the norm – a clear ruling and servant class, racial stereotypes within this employed ‘servant class’ (e.g. chauffeurs were Malay, security guards were Punjabi, nannies were Chinese and cooks were Indian). Upward social mobility was very limited and the ethnic communities did not interact much with one another, partly due to problems in communicating in their different vernacular. And we had race riots before independence. 

Yet in a short space of 50 years, we have become a global example of racial coexistence, progress, tolerance, social mobility for all races, and one of the richest and most envied societies on planet Earth. 



Q: How do you think Singapore can be a model for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process?

A: I am now 60 years old and have seen how the steadfast meritocratic and race-blind policies of our Government, including zero tolerance for racial chauvinism and the tough stance on communalists, have meant that gradually in successive generations, as a people, we have developed a strong national identity and now define ourselves as Singaporeans first, and only then do we define ourselves by our race, language and religion. Our respective cultures are as established as the Sinhala and Tamil cultures in Ceylon. Indeed, parts of the ancient Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures prevalent in Singapore predate those of the Sinhala and Jaffna Tamil cultures and predate Buddhism. But we do not let old histories and a sense of ‘I came here first’ or ‘I am the majority’ ruin the racial tolerance coexistence and equality of all. 

My own Ceylonese family can trace our descent down the family tree all the way to the 1100s. Despite this, I think of myself first and foremost as a Singaporean, and a proud one at that. Singapore and our leadership here installed this sense in all of us – by implementing English as the medium of communication in schools, by making all 18-year-old Singaporean males sacrifice two years of their life in full-time national service to the nation, by reining in media excesses so that racial bigotry is not propagated, and by committing to uplifting all communities within the nation.

Despite the fact that the Chinese community comprises over 75% of the population, they do not dominate politics, academia, the civil service or professions. For example, fewer than 40% of Singapore’s presidents have been of Chinese extraction. Indeed on a per capita basis, the Indian community here (eight per cent of the population), have a disproportionately large number of Cabinet members, and 25% of Singapore’s presidents have been from the Indian community, in a society where meritocracy is strictly adhered to.

Nothing comes without hard work, grit and striving for excellence, and that we have done in spades. Singapore has shown that being proud of one’s culture and guarding it zealously is not a zero sum game with racial harmony, goodwill and racial coexistence. 

 

FT Profile: Paul Supramaniam

Dato (Lt. Col. of the Singapore Armed Forces) Paul Supramaniam, a reputed lawyer in Singapore, is the eldest son of late Dr. James Supramaniam, the Deputy Permanent Secretary of Health in Singapore, who was credited with helping Singapore eradicate TB, which was the country’s No. 1 killer disease in the 1950s to early 1960s.

Dato Supramaniam, who is researching his roots in Jaffna, said that he and his father had found that 11 generations of males and females of the Supramaniam family tree links to the King of Jaffna named Kulasekara Singgal Aryan Pararahasekaran Arya Chakravarty, who ruled Ceylon from 1240 to 1256. 

Dato Supramaniam’s grandfather, Rev. James Supramaniam, who co-founded the Ceylon Tamils Association in Singapore in 1910, was from a Hindu Jaffna family but later converted to Christianity in 1894 in Malaysia. He had been a respected community leader and headmaster of a number of Anglo-Chinese schools in Malaya.

Dato Supramaniam, a Wright Rogers Law Scholar of Cambridge University and qualified to practice in the Supreme Court of England and Wales and the Supreme Court of Brunei, is an acknowledged leading international corporate and commercial lawyer. 

Holding military awards from Singapore and the USA, he has led some of the largest cross-border mergers and acquisitions, capital market transactions, privatisations, joint ventures and private equity investments in Asia, Europe and Australia, with particular jurisdictional familiarity with Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, the UK, Finland, Sweden, Spain and Australia. 

He is ranked in the International Who’s Who Legal as one of the world’s leading M&A lawyers in Chambers Global as an M&A leading expert in South-East Asia. He has also been M&A Lawyer of the Year in Myanmar for a number of years. 



Q: After a three-decade-long war, Sri Lanka in the process of reconciliation. What do you think that we are lacking to make the reconciliation process effective?

A: Of course, I would welcome reconciliation. The civil war was painful and a matter of shame for people of Ceylonese extraction living abroad and looking in. The examples of nations where reconciliation has worked are many and often it means honesty, proper apologies and a striving to make amends.

I do not know enough to comment, but it pains me to see that there is still communal violence in the county (most recently against Muslims), often emanating from men of the cloth, who are meant to be bastions and guardians of morality and right living.

Sri Lanka has a poor record of religious harmony and tolerance despite being bequeathed a paradise society which was peaceful, prosperous, pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious at independence in 1948. In fact it was held out as a model state for other nations seeking independence. English was the main language and the country was blessed with high literacy rate, a flourishing diversified economy and natural beauty rightly earning Ceylon the title ‘Pearl of the Orient’.

But Sri Lankan political leaders, starting with the late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, misguidedly sought to court cheap votes by playing the racial and religious card, abandoning a secular state model for one with Buddhism as the official religion, and with Sinhala as the main language, disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Tamil voters by stripping them of the right to vote, and thereby created deep fissures in a nation which up till then had been a bastion of peace.

In successive generations, many Sri Lankan politicians further sought to manipulate race and religion for their own selfish purposes and should be held accountable. This manifested itself in unfair quotas for jobs, education, land rights, discrimination and led many educated people to leave the country.

It was the Sri Lankan political leaders who created the situation and sowed the seeds of disharmony and strife, which eventually spilled into a bloody civil war in which human rights abuses were rife. Therefore, the politicians are primarily to be blamed. 



Q: What are your views on Singapore’s political leadership in reconciling all ethnic groups?

A: The credit should go to our leaders at independence for adopting strong policies to ensure a harmonious multiracial and multi-religious society, for enshrining these fundamental principles in our Constitution and steadfastly ensuring compliance, for quickly weeding out chauvinism, making English a unifying language compulsorily taught in schools and reciting the National Anthem by every student in schools daily. 

Our National Pledge is said daily in all schools by everyone and is held dear to the heart of all Singaporeans. I quote: ‘We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.’

Successive generations of politicians have built on these principles working hard to ensure that nothing is taken for granted. The introduction of Harmony Day was one such example of continuity amongst the leadership in ensuring all ethnic groups are treated equally and fairly in Singapore.

Our people now instinctively are non-racist. So chauvinists do not get into politics in Singapore, they would never be voted in. Our people are too sensible to vote in bigots and idiots.



Q: What are the lessons Sri Lanka can learn from Singapore with regard to ethnic and religious harmony?

A: The Sri Lankan Government should ensure ethnic and religious harmony by implementing policies enshrining equality for all. This can only be done by courageous and honest leaders of integrity. Sri Lanka also needs to introduce strong laws to prevent racial discord to strictly control clerics on what they say and preach and subject them to strong rules of law against subverting racial harmony. Here, the media also have a significant role to play, to prevent fanning the flames of bigotry and prejudice.

Some other lessons to be learnt from Singapore include the social engineering via housing to prevent racial ghettos. Everyone here leans English at schools and they all can communicate with each other, everything that is preached or taught in temples and churches and mosques is monitored and anyone fanning racial bigotry is firmly taken to task and there is zero tolerance of the media stirring racial issues.

Sri Lanka can also learn from our Constitutional guarantees of racial freedom and the Group Representative Constituencies system, in which three, four or five MPs get elected on a common slate, where each slate must have minority race representation and the Courts uphold the Constitution. Our judges are not removed willy-nilly and these basic norms are lessons that Sri Lanka learn from Singapore. Importantly, we also have a national spirit of give-and-take. This operates at all levels, and on religious matters requires responsible religious leaders who are able to handle sensitive issues. 

Recognising that religion can divide Singaporeans, Parliament passed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill in 1990. The Act gives powers to the Government to issue restraining orders against any person who causes ill feelings between different religious groups. Those who violate the restraining orders may be fined or jailed, or both. Sri Lanka desperately needs similar laws in place and firmly enforced, without fear or favour. In Singapore, a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony was also set up to advice the Minister for Home Affairs.

Meritocracy has always been a key pillar of Singapore’s policies. The idea is that success is not tied to one’s background, such as race, and opportunities are given to everyone to succeed on his own merits. This idea is important for preserving racial harmony because it means that no racial group will be given special treatment and neither will any be put at a disadvantage.

PM Lee Hsien Loong has said that though we have remarkably good religious and racial harmony, the Government still actively works on preserving racial harmony, recognising that there are constant threats such as terrorism, self-radicalisation of certain religious extreme groups, etc. and fake news. 


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