The world is struggling with racial and religious conflicts, but my trip to Malaysia and Singapore have shown me a society where people of diverse ethnicity coexist in peace. Walking down the streets of Bukit Merah, the Singaporean neighborhood where I’ve settled, I witnessed men and women of different ethnicities casually chat and have drinks together. Churches, mosques and Buddhist temples, at a stone’s throw from each other.
It didn’t surprise me to find out that a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center stated Singapore was the most religiously diverse country in the world. After all the racial and ethnic unease I’ve seen in both America and Europe, I wanted to understand how the Singaporeans made it. Before my stay in Singapore, I spent a couple months traveling around Malaysia, and I think that helped me understand the differences between the two countries and why Singapore has been so successful in achieving and maintaining peace and tolerance.
Follow along and I’ll explain!
On Ethnicity and Tolerance: Malaysia vs Singapore
The territory that’s now called Malaysia was ruled over the centuries by very different people, from the Muslim Malays to the Dutch, from the British to the ancient realm of Johor. Indian and Chinese immigrants flowed the territory during the 20th century, chasing the opportunities of a booming local economy. But also contributing to social destabilization. Rising sentiment of nationalism from Muslim Malays bloomed after the Independence which happened in the 1940’s, and racial tension increased. That tension can be felt even to this day, for those who make their living in Malaysia.
Today, Malaysia is ethnically diverse, with around 50% Malays, 20% Chinese and 6% Indian. And with around 10% of foreign inhabitants. Malays are typically Muslim, while Chinese are often Buddhist and Indians practice mostly Hinduism. But the social unrest among these groups is evident. Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and his initiatives to both create a more racially diverse Parliament and fight for the equality of people from all origins before the law, is facing strong opposition from the Malays. They put it simply: they don’t want to lose the privileges they have enjoyed over other ethnicities for decades. They state this literally.
Singapore and Malaysia share most of their history – they were even merged together at some point – as well as their significant racial diversity. However, while Malaysia still struggles with its internal conflicts, Singapore has embraced its diversity. You see kids from different ethnicity go to the same school. And official stats show that around 20% of marriages are interracial. When you compare this to Malaysia, which doesn’t even legally allow dual nationality, you understand how deep the difference between the two countries go. And it’s easy to wonder why? Those who have saved up to visit these fascinating countries will ask why two nations so close to each other both geographically and historically managed the key issue of racial integration so differently? And more importantly, what can we learn from Singapore, which did it right?
How the government of Singapore changed the country
Just like Malaysia, the population of Singapore is ethnically diverse, but most inhabitants are of either Chinese, Malayan or Indian descent. After a tumultuous process of independence, the Singaporean government decided to take a series of measures regarding race and religion. A measure that at first sight seemed like a terrible idea. Each person was literally classified in four ethnic groups, which were stated on their identity card.
Further measures ensured that every person would have their identity recognized and respected. For example, every school would teach the English language. But also, every kid would use as a second language the one that corresponded to their ethnicity. Chinese people would learn Mandarin, Malay people would learn Malay, and so on. Each ethnic group has an assigned religion (the Chinese would have Buddhism, the Indians Hinduism, and so forth) with their own celebrations and days off work that should be respected as well.
These measures would seem like they encouraged segregation and conflict. But surprisingly, they had the complete opposite effect. Each ethnic group feels that their identity is respected and protected. Hence they rarely feel any animosity against the government. Urban planning established that people from different ethnic backgrounds would live in the same blocks, share the same work spaces, and their children would go to the same schools. This way, people in Singapore got used to coexisting and making friends with people from diverse backgrounds. And the result is social harmony.
Why it worked
If you think about this scenario, you might think this couldn’t be the only explanation. Why would the government of Singapore take these strange measures. And, more importantly, how did they succeed? But the answer lies even deeper, in the psychology and life philosophy of the Singaporean people.
When people from the East look at Westerners, a few characteristics are quickly noticed and acknowledged. Namely, how individualistic and competitive our society is, when compared with the different approach Easterners have onto life. From our earliest age, competitiveness is taught, reinforced and awarded. We have to be the best, we have to stand out, we have to be the individual hero of a generation and smash our adversaries. Millions of books on how to be more competitive are sold every year. We believe that being competitive will push us to the limit and motivate us to make our best, for the betterment of society and economy. In Singapore, they don’t think like this. And still, they succeed.
The high proportion of people of Chinese descent in Singapore has contributed to a distinct Eastern mindset among the population. Especially thanks to the influence of Confucian thinking. As a result, the people of Singapore are very collectivist and value group harmony over individual achievements. Their default approach to any task is a group effort. And they will share both the burden of work and the rewards that come at the end of it. During a crisis, rather than “every man for himself”, they will face the situation as a solid block, tightly tied together through values, obedience and respect. The results show.
This integration is the secret behind Singapore’s immense economical success
Today, Singapore is one of the most powerful countries in Southeast Asia, from an economical standpoint. Many international reports highlight the massive growth that the country has had in the past fifty years. Just as an example, as of 2019, Singapore’s GDP was calculated at no less than U$S 323.9 billion, accounting for more than 0.5% of the entire world’s GBP. Most of the national GDP comes from Singapore’s crazy successful bank industry, while other major areas include manufacturing and services.
A couple years ago, the International Herald Tribune interviewed Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew about this booming success. Interestingly enough, the Prime Minister emphasized not foreign investments, a strategical geographical position or competitiveness. But rather, he openly stated that the root of the country’s success was its people. He pointed out how the peace and stability that society provided was the best scenario for prosperity, peace and international recognition.
The Singaporean people have found a way to make themselves strong in their union. And use the combined wisdom of their diverse, often millennial-old cultural backgrounds to stand the test of time. The past is well and alive in society, giving the inhabitants a sense of belonging. While entering global markets has helped create cultural unease in other Eastern societies, that eventually led to conflict and violence, the Singaporean people knew how to balance treasuring their past and facing their future. You can leave your room at the 30th floor of your luxury hotel, casually walk pass a big Chinese temple, turn around the corner and sit down on a little, traditional tea shop to enjoy the taste of millennium-old recipes. And everything is well-integrated.
Travel, see, listen, learn
One of the privileges of traveling around a lot is that you get to see very different people, living different realities. You can learn from both their mistakes and their success. Singapore is a one-in-a-kind country that achieved what many others can only aspire to. When you travel to Singapore and see it from the inside, it becomes clear. A wise combination of the right ethics and well-thought government measures can change the fate of a country forever. People from all corners of the world have plenty to learn from the Singaporean miracle.
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