The weakening economy, rather than race and religion, is the greatest threat to national harmony, according to NUS students.
In a non-scientific poll of 30 students from various academic disciplines conducted by the Observer, 70 per cent of respondents said they did not agree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that issues of race and religion have the greatest potential to cause social unrest in Singapore.
Lee highlighted the twin issues of race and religion as “the most visceral and dangerous fault line” in Singapore during his National Day Rally speech on Aug. 16.
Instead of the double threat posed by race and religion, a majority of the students polled cited the current economic downturn as having the greatest potential to cause a rift in society.
Sangeetha Yogendran, a final-year student in the Faculty of Law, said that race and religion are not such pressing issues because Singaporeans have been educated in a pluralistic society and exposed to different types of people all their lives.
“At least with the younger and more educated Singaporeans, races and religion won’t disrupt our harmony at this point, as volatile as those issues can be,” said Yogendran.
The public school curriculum in Singapore stresses the importance of racial and religious tolerance, while the celebration of Racial Harmony Day serves as a constant reminder of the consequences that racial disputes can bring about.
For fourth-year computing undergraduate Zheng Junyi however, such initiatives actually reinforce racial differences.
“Race is an artificial construct which the government is enforcing on us, even though racial lines are becoming increasingly blurred. To me, and where I interact, race is usually not an important consideration.”
Not exempt from the global economic crisis, Singapore has suffered from a spike in unemployment, and its GDP shrunk by an unexpected 11.5% in the first quarter of 2009. To help Singaporeans tide over the crisis, the government has uncovered various financial schemes, such as a $20.5 billion ‘Resilience Package’ and sales tax-offset packages.
It seems these initiatives do not suffice for some however.
Shahrul Fahmy, a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), said, “Two hundred dollars is not enough.”
He suggested that the government could provide incentives for workers who undergo retraining when they lose their jobs.
“People (who lose their jobs) might have families who need to be supported and it also takes money for them to get to and fro (their) retraining places so they should be given some sort of monetary incentive to retrain because at the end of the day it's not a guarantee that you'd get the same job or same pay as before,” said Fahmy.
In addition to economic issues, respondents also cited the influx of foreign workers as a potential problem to Singapore society.
Adding foreign talent to the Singaporean workforce is crucial to ease the burden on Singapore’s ageing population, according to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
In a National Day celebration dinner speech on Aug. 13, Minister Mentor Lee said that attracting foreigners was necessary to make up for the babies that Singaporeans are not having. Singapore’s fertility level is currently 1.28, significantly lower than the population replacement level of 2.1.
Kirsten Andrea Francisco, a fourth-year student from FASS, sees the presence of too many foreign workers as a potential problem.
“They are new to Singapore and might not know how our society works. For example, they may be offended by our racist jokes, even though we don’t mean harm. Because of this, they will stick to their own communities, and as a result, become less accepting of others because they don’t mix around,” said Francisco.
She proposed increasing the minimum period of continuous residency required for foreigners to qualify for permanent residency. This would “ensure their loyalty and help them integrate into Singapore society.”
Currently, Permanent Residency permit applicants are not required to have stayed in Singapore for a minimum number of years.
Instead, conditions such as whether the applicants hold an Employment Pass, are investors or entrepreneurs, or are the immediate kin of Singapore citizens are taken into account.
Some respondents of the poll agreed with Prime Minister Lee however that issues of race and religion possess the gravest threat to harmony and cohesiveness in Singapore. For them, these issues are deeply rooted, sensitive and could contribute to societal division.
Siti Shafia, a fourth-year student from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, explained why religious differences could be threatening.
“Some other things that can cause social division, like moral issues of gambling and homosexuality are still largely influenced by religion too,” she said.