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SINGAPORE MODEL FOR LANKA: LET’S CELEBRATE DIVERSITY - EDITORIAL

1 September 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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This week, our leaders are laying the foundation for a National Unity Government with a new political culture based on the principles of consensual and consultative politics. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe say their goals include good governance, democracy and social justice, accountability and transparency in the framework of a society where plurality and diversity are celebrated. 

Many Sri Lankan leaders have spoken of a Singapore model. When Singapore’s widely-acclaimed Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew come here about 50 years ago, he said Sri Lanka would be a model for the New-born Singapore. Today Singapore is classed among the first –world countries, while Sri Lanka is still struggling to reach middle-in come levels. Since Independence, Sri Lanka has been plagued by ethnic crisis so was Singapore . But there was a major difference in the manner in which the two countries addressed this crisis. The altitude or approach of Sri Lanka’s political leaders led to a disastrous 25-year war. On the contrary, Mr. Lee, though he had to strictly impose discipline at times, promoted unity in diversity to such an extent that in some vital areas it was virtually mandatory. 

At a time when Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister are pledging they are committed to principles of unity in diversity, it would be wise for then and all Sri Lankans to closely study the journey of Singapore. Cable News Network (CNN) political analyst Fareed Zakaria, in his latest widely-read column in the Washington Post highlighted the polices and principles through which Singapore brought about racial integration. The correspondent says he interviewed Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on what he regarded as the country’s biggest success. Instead of talking about economics -- since Singapore’s  per capita GDP now outstrips that of the United States, Japan and Hong Kong -- he spoke instead about social harmony. 

According to Mr. Shanmugaratnam, Singapore was not meant to be a nation.  The swamp-ridden island, expelled from Malaysia in 1965 had a polyglot population of migrants with myriad religions, cultures and belief systems. Interesting and unique about Singapore, more than economics, are social strategies. “We respected people’s differences yet melded a nation and made an advantage out of diversity,” Mr. Shanmugaratnam says.

How did Singapore do it? By mandating ethnic diversity in all of its neighbourhoods. More than 80 percent of Singapore’s people live in public housing – all of it is well regarded, some of it up market. Every block, precinct and enclave has ethnic quotas.

This is what people mean when they talk about Singapore’s “nanny state” and the Minister readily admits it. “The most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important. It turns out that when you ensure every neighbouhood is mixed, people do everyday things together, become comfortable with each other, and most importantly, their children go to the same schools. When the children grow up together, they begin to share a future together,” the Minister says.

“The natural workings of society rarely lead to diverse and integrated communities, not in Singapore or elsewhere.” They more likely lead to mistrust, self-segregation and even bigotry -- which we see in abundance in so many countries today. Let’s be honest. Human beings are not perfect. Everyone has biases, a liking for some and distrust of others. But that’s why there is a role for Government. Not about speeches and symbols. It is about specific mechanisms and programmers to achieve the outcomes we all seek” Mr. Shanmugaratnam says in the interview. 

The Singapore Minister with Sri Lankan Tamil ancestry has through experience and implementation and not just through heavily over-quoted manifestos outlined practical steps in daily living, schools and workplaces where unity in diversity could be promoted in Sri Lanka. Going to only the economic model without laying a foundation of rock will be like building a sandcastle and we know what happens when a storm comes as it did in 1958 and 1993.      
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