It was 1965. I was six years old. My mother had asked me to go to the provision shop a few doors away to get some groceries. The owner was a mild mannered, middle aged Indian Muslim man who I knew only as “uncle”. As usual while he was gathering the groceries I was walking about the shop, restless. My eye caught a flag on a bamboo stick hanging outside the shop. From the colours I could tell it was the Pakistani flag. This intrigued me.

I asked “uncle” why he would put up the Pakistani flag when he was a citizen of India where his wife and children reside. He told me it was because he was Muslim.

This was my first big lesson in multiculturalism. It hit me that we can have many identities at the same time – based on race, religion, language and nationality – and that these can oftentimes be in conflict, or at least not be in sync.

 Yes, I experienced the race riots the previous year, but was perhaps too young to make sense of what I saw. It did not erode the joy I derived from growing up in what I remember to be a truly multicultural setting. While the kids interacted mainly in English, not many adults were educated and so market Malay was the common language for them. We were very conscious of our cultural differences – the Teochew Opera, Thaipusam, the Muslim weddings and the “Kenduri”, and of course the revelling and carolling during Christmas! I have fond memories of how I used to go to non-Indian homes during Deepavali to deliver trays of Indian sweets and savouries. Likewise, how my friends would bring trays full of goodies during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Christmas.

As kids we used to hang out in each other’s homes and had a first hand taste of the cuisine of different cultures. I could confidently say there was a deep enough knowledge of and appreciation for each other’s culture that gave us comfort and security. Yes there was ethnic and religious stereotyping but because we knew each other well, there was a tacit acceptance of the differences. Where we had to tolerate we did so because it was natural to do so and because we wanted to.

It was in this setting of trust that the race riots of 1964 happened – I don’t recall it having an impact on the way we saw or related to each other. I remember my mother telling me that our Chinese neighbour “auntie” made it a point to accompany our Malay/Muslim “auntie” to the wet market during the riots to give her “protection” since we lived in a predominantly Chinese precinct.

These were vital experiential lessons that shaped my sense of multiculturalism, and my commitment to jealously guarding it. Lord Parekh, Professor of Political Philosophy and Chair of the 2000 Report, “The future of Multi-ethnic Britain”,  said: “…no culture is perfect or represents the best life and it can therefore benefit from a critical dialogue with other culture…multiculturalism requires that all cultures should be open, self – critical and interactive in their relations with each other…..”

In Singapore we decided against the US model of a “melting-pot” where people are “encourage” to shed their cultural identities in favour of a powerful national identity. Especially today, cracks are showing up. A key reason for this is that when we attempt to put down or even gloss over primordial instincts and allegiances, there will be a build up within. And at some point there will be an implosion.

Singapore chose an approach that is more multicultural. It is a challenging approach because of the inherent tension between an active cultural identity and a national identity. Over the years we have seen tension between the pursuit of multiculturalism as an ideal and the socio-economic and political realities of the day.

This is what Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew alluded to when he spoke in Parliament on August of 2009. He referred to the part of the National Pledge that talks about us being “one united people regardless of race, language or religion” in a “democratic society based on justice and equality”. He highlighted what he saw as “realitics” in the race, religion realm that would limit our ability to have equality or equal treatment in the strict sense of the word. He asserted that these tenets of the National Pledge are essentially “aspirations” that may take a long time for us to truly achieve. Mr Lee said that “our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the government not to treat everybody as equal. It’s not reality, it’s no practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle.”

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