Confucius once said “Let the states of equilibrium and Harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” Harmony is defined as the state of being in agreement or concord. Singapore is a bustling metropolis and a multi-racial society, where people of different ethnic groups co-exist and lived harmoniously. Singapore has thrived rapidly because of our openness to international trade flow, knowledge and cultures, all of which have brought us opportunities and progress. As Singapore moves towards a more diverse landscape, it is important that Singaporeans continue to embrace diversity and live in harmony.
Singapore is also a cosmopolitan city , just like many other dynamic cities of the world. Singaporeans also need to go beyond understanding the main races to respecting all people regardless of race, language or religion, who live and work in Singapore – for the harmony, prosperity and progress of the nation. The nation’s turbulent and tumultuous history is a coherent testimony to the significance of racial harmony. The day commemorates the communal riots that broke out on 21 July 1964 between Malays and Chinese during a Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which led to 36 dead and 590 injured.
That is why we make it a point to commemorate Racial Harmony Day every year on 21 July. George Washington once said “Cultivate peace and harmony with all.” More importantly, throughout the year, we must strive to better understand the multifarious myriad of cultures and practices, and form strong friendships across the communities. These relationships that bind us as a nation will help us in difficult and dark times. Disharmony will also lead to schism , enmity and discord such as in Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland which kindles hostility.
As Albert Einstein once said, “Harmony cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” Singaporeans have to continue to build strong bonds in our community — bonds of friendship and understanding — to meet the challenges of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous global environment one faces today. Racial harmony is vital for peace, progress and prosperity in this multi-racial Nation. Through Racial Harmony Day, Singaporeans can strengthen religious harmony through mutual tolerance and understanding.
Singaporeans in turn will recognise the secular nature of our State, promote cohesion within our society and respect each other’s freedom of religion. As a nation, Singaporeans can then grow our common space while respecting diversity, foster interreligious communications, and thereby ensure that religion will not be abused to create conflict and disharmony in Singapore. Imperative is this celebration, as Singaporeans can assimilate and learn cultures and traditions of other races. This is paramount in avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts of different races and make our country a democratic society.
So, what does the government do to promote racial harmony in our multi-ethnic society? Besides food tasting, games, homestays and the practice of donning ethnic costumes, a few key activities have been introduced to the Racial Harmony Day celebrations over the years. The practice of wearing orange ribbons – the colour symbolising racial harmony and intolerance towards racism – first began in 2001, when the Singapore History Museum (now known as the National Museum of Singapore) introduced it in a school. In addition, since 2008, OnePeople.sg has organised the Orange Ribbon Celebrations, a signature month-long event held every July, to commemorate racial harmony on a national level. The Government has also established Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCC) and Harmony Circles in all our 84 constituencies to reach out to all Singaporeans in order to strengthen understanding and a shared sense of responsibility among Singaporeans of all races and religions.
The IRCCs create opportunities for Singaporeans to explore and appreciate their differences and develop bonds among different ethnic and religious communities. They organise visits to the houses of worship of different religions. This fosters greater religious harmony between the different religious and ethnic groups. This can promote racial harmony in our society. In addition, more than 80 % of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. Living in multi-racial housing estates is a step towards forging a bond between the different racial groups in our society.
As the various communities are brought closer together and share common facilities in the housing estates, it allows them to interact with and understand one another better. Living together in multi-racial housing estates may also increase the likelihood of friction between different races. Hence, residents have to learn to live in harmony with one another. Furthermore, government encourage schools to organise a range of cross-cultural activities for students during Racial Harmony Day, which may extend to become a weeklong event. Some of these activities include dressing up in ethnic costumes, sampling ethnic food and playing traditional games. Students also revisit the 1964 communal riots in different ways such as skits, talks and oral history accounts.
Moreover, The National Heritage Board and its various museums took part in the Racial Harmony Day celebrations in 2001. Activities organised by the National Heritage Board included an exhibition at the National Archives titled “Living History: Tracing Our Customs and Traditions” and another exhibition at the Singapore Philatelic Museum, which explored Singapore’s ethnic cultures through stamps and postcards. We should not take our Singapore’s harmony for granted and should continue to flourish as a nation, regardless of our differences. Sallust, a roman historian, once said “Harmony makes small things grow. Lack of it makes great things decay.”