The Foreign Minister of The Netherlands Stef Blok has spoken before a private meeting whose contents have been leaked to the media in which he said the following,
“I have asked my ministry this and I will pose the question here as well. Give me an example of a multi-ethnic or a multi-cultural society, in which the original population still lives, and where there is a peaceful cohabitation. I don’t know one”.
Of course while there are many multicultural societies that are deeply dysfunctional, implying that all such societies are dysfunctional is not only absurd but such thinking comes from the position of supreme ignorance. In the 1960s, Singaporean society was in fact torn apart by some of the same tensions derived from its multicultural/multiracial characteristics that would be instantly familiar to someone like Blok – a man who appears aware of the problems of some multicultural societies but totally unaware of peaceful and successful ones.
In 1963, the former UK colony of Singapore joined with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia. The new multicultural entity got off to a rocky start due to the disagreements between Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of the Singapore based opposition People’s Action Party (PAP). While Tunku Abdul Rahman favoured policies of affirmative action which would grant special privileges to the ethnic Malay population of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP advocated for full equality between all of the ethno-confessional groups of Malaysia as a whole.
Elections in 1964 led to tensions as the PAP did incredibly well among the entire population of Singapore whether Han Chinese, ethnic Malays or Indians (primarily of Tamil background). As part of his drive to promote the PAP as a pan-Malaysian party, Lee’s party contested seats outside of Singapore, crucially winning one race in peninsular Malaysia, thus seriously irritating Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Media outlets sympathetic to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s UMNO party attempted to avenge the PAP’s success by promoting anti-Han Chinese propaganda among Singapore’s ethnic Malay population. This led to violent race riots which were an immediate precursor to Singapore’s exit from Malaysia and the consecration of the Republic of Singapore.
At this point, Lee vowed to limit the role of ethnically charged media in order to avoid the problems that led to the riots of 1964. Lee’s solution involved not only restrictions on hateful incitement of inter-racial violence but also a pledge to create a modern Singapore where economic, social and educational opportunities were equal for all Singaporeans irrespective of background. Additionally, the official language of public life was to be English because a non-indigenous but globally important language meant that no single group’s indigenous tongue was favoured over any other. However, all Singaporeans were and remain compelled to learn a second language which by custom is either Mandarin Chinese, standard Malay or Tamil. Crucially, Lee’s government discouraged the use of anything other than the standard forms of the major languages, famously denouncing colloquial “Singlish” (a creole form of English) or non-Mandarin variants of Chinese languages.
As a result, Singapore’s population is versed in some of the most important international languages while the country’s education system is frequently rated the best in the world. Economically, Singapore is a global powerhouse that remains the envy of much of the civilised world, including among former colonial overlords. Singapore’s streets are also among the safest in the world as the combination of strict law and order among a highly educated and generally materially comfortable society has made the country a serene and welcoming place for tourists.
As one of the most objectively successful countries in the world and also a country whose own difficult multicultural beginnings were difficult, the Dutch Foreign Minister ought to realise that while multiculturalism can have problems, it also can be dealt with in the win-win formula favoured by Lee Kuan Yew.
Today’s new coalition government in neighbouring multicultural Malaysia has shown clear signs of favouring elements of the Singaporean approach to social, legal and economic life as veteran Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s current political partners look to reject the legacy of affirmative action and embrace a more uniform style of equality that was championed from day one in Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew.
Why then are so many multicultural experiences in Europe failing? The reason for this is that while Singapore developed a unified approach to multicultural issues, throughout individual European states and the EU as a whole, there is no single approach. Furthermore, while it took Europe centuries of ethno-religious warfare to arrive at the point of forming a single market and common living space for all Europeans, with the added element of non-European migrants to various parts of Europe, it is as though Europe is having to relive centuries of its own fraught history. In other words if it has taken centuries to get European Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and Jews to stop fighting one another and if it has taken equally long to get the dozens of European ethnic groups to cease hostility against one another – how long will it take to create the same atmosphere between existing European races and non-European races? Europe’s own track record of solving internal problems in centuries vis-a-vis Singapore’s few short years does not bode well.
Furthermore, while Singapore and Malaysia both inherited their post-colonial multicultural experience from centuries of a combination of voluntary, semi-voluntary and forced migration, Europe is currently experiencing a wave of voluntary migration from unfamiliar cultures which has served to inflame many local populations who were never consulted before de-facto European leader Angela Merkel decided to force an open-door policy on the continent. This itself has led to popular discontent due to a poorly managed migration policy when compared to Singapore’s far more streamlined post-independence migration policy which encourages foreigners to come to Singapore, but not in the uncontrollable and unaccounted manner that European leaders like Merkel have opted for.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, while Lee Kuan Yew realised that without strict law and order measures applied uniformly and without fear or favour, that Singapore could still have been at risk in respect of inter-communal violence. Europe’s uneven and at times openly cavalier approach to law and order means that unlike in Singapore, inflaming tensions in Europe is as easy as throwing a match into a barrel of gunpowder. In Singapore, the very ability of a malicious agent to inflame tensions is severely limited due to a strong and cohesive society shaped by years of a strict and uniform rule of law.
In this sense, it is the European leaders who have themselves to blame for being arrogant regarding Europe’s own collective history of inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, being unresponsive to genuine anger among existing populations regarding the influx of those with extremely alien cultures and lastly, European leaders only have themselves to blame for forsaking law and order on the altar of uncontrollable social liberalism.
In this sense, while Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok may have correctly identified a European problem, he has not identified a specific problem with multicultural societies. Singapore is but one shining example of how a multicultural society when properly governed can become one of the most wealthy, most highly educated and most peaceful nations in the developed world.