#OnThisDay (21 Jul) Racial Harmony Day
📸: Road block set up by police and soldiers in North Bridge Road Area after a racial riot (24 July 1964); Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
“In teaching the Singapore Story, you will have to deal with delicate issues, especially race and religion, and sometimes relations with our neighbours. We must treat such issues sensitively, but we cannot gloss over them. Amnesia is not an option. We cannot pretend that incidents involving race and religion never happened. They are part of our history.” This was what then-DPM Lee Hsien Loong said at the launch of National Education on 17 May 1997.
The communal riots that broke out on 21 July 1964 between Malays and Chinese during a Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday was identified as one of the key events that mark defining moments in Singapore’s history. So #onthisday (21 July), we celebrate Racial Harmony Day to remind us of the importance and fragility of racial harmony.
He made these points in his speech:
1) Why we emphasise racial harmony strongly: It was one of two race riots that took place in 1964, which had deliberately been instigated to intimidate Singapore’s Chinese population. Many Chinese and Malays were killed. Riots occurred again in 1969, a spillover from the May 13 riots in Malaysia. Race relations in Singapore took years to recover from the trauma from these events.
2) The ideal of a multiracial, multi-religious society is fundamental to us: Our leaders fought for this ideal while in Malaysia, we have also tried to realise this as an independent country since 1965. It is because Singaporeans of all races stayed united and refused to be intimidated that we separated from Malaysia.
3) Creating unity in diversity: By teaching the history of how we became one people, we will draw our races closer together. But we do not expunge the differences between the ethinc groups – each community contributes its own unique characteristics and strengths to our society.
In 2021, more than two decades after this speech, PM Lee said the day is commemorated annually “not to proclaim that Singapore has ‘solved’ this problem, but to remind ourselves this is something we need to continue working hard on”. Our racial harmony is an ongoing process that evolves and takes on different aspects and complexities with each generation. What can we do better?
Read PM Lee’s 1997 speech here.