ST: ‘Intolerance’ can bring a nation down

28 May 2009
Straits Times

‘Intolerance’ can bring a nation down

That poses the biggest threat to S’pore, says Prof Koo in apparent reference to Aware saga

By Jeremy Au Yong

INTOLERANCE, not the economic crisis, poses the biggest threat to Singapore, Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee (Tanjong Pagar GRC) warned in Parliament yesterday.

While the economic slump will pass, religious and racial bigotry could bring about Singapore’s downfall, he said during the debate on the President’s Address at the opening of the new session of Parliament.

‘This economic crisis cannot set us back permanently. It is a passing thunderstorm,’ he said.

‘But if we fall prey to religious and racial bigotry, then it will be a growing cancer in society.’

Although he did not state it explicitly, it was apparent that Prof Koo was referring in part to the recent leadership tussle at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). The controversy sparked a divisive debate on issues such as religion and homosexuality.

‘I see an increasing number of Singaporeans identifying themselves with race and religion. That in itself is nothing wrong if seen in the right perspective,’ he said.

‘But I see small groups becoming self-righteous and becoming intolerant of diversity. This intolerance may be our downfall.’

Singapore has succeeded so far as it has a system of tolerance and meritocracy, one which embraces diversity and inclusiveness, he said.

Still, he warned that the country was not in the clear yet: ‘We are still a young country. In the history of nations, we are still a long way from proving that our success in peaceful co-existence can withstand the test of time.’

The Minister of State for Defence used the examples of Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia to show how multi-racial, multi-religious societies had fractured. He contrasted this against cities like New York and London which embraced diversity and tolerance ‘in huge doses’.

‘While we focus our energies on solving this economic crisis, we should never lose sight of the long-term challenge of building a tolerant, diverse and inclusive infrastructure where everybody has a private space within the bigger common space,’ he said.

The Aware saga also featured in Mr Sin Boon Ann’s (Tampines GRC) speech. He launched a stinging attack on the media’s reporting of the event and took issue with The Straits Times in particular.

In Parliament, he read out excerpts of a widely circulated e-mail from a person named Cheryl Ng, which accused the paper of being biased.

In citing the e-mail, Mr Sin said he did not know who the writer was, nor had he verified the substance of the contents.

‘However, I would say that I would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is,’ he said.

Among the accusations: that the main Straits Times reporter covering the saga was ‘hobnobbing with the homosexual fraternity at the extraordinary general meeting’; that members of the press were jubilant at the ousting of the new guard; and that there was a media cover-up of an amendment to give men full voting rights in Aware.

Mr Sin wondered if the press could be called on to report responsibly and impartially and to present the facts neutrally and objectively ‘when some of its own members feel rather passionately about the issues in the public domain’.

The accusations brought into question ‘whether there should ever be an unregulated press’, he added.

The press had quickly framed the contest as one between the Christian right and homosexuals and lesbians, he said, adding that by presenting it as an issue with religious undertones, the debate had polarised society.

Mr Sin said the incident involving the leadership takeover by ‘a group of concerned Singaporean citizens’ showed how fragile society here is.

‘What turned out to be a relatively simple and lawful act of democracy suddenly turned into a deeply polarised and heated debate,’ he said.

Asked for his response to Mr Sin’s comments, Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang said: ‘I’m disappointed that Mr Sin saw fit to read out an e-mail in Parliament attacking The Straits Times, from someone he said he did not know, and the contents of which he said he did not verify.’

Pluralsg editor’s note: On the Parliament website (www.parlgov.sg, accessed 28 May 2009) Koo Tsai Kee’s religion is stated as “Nil”; Sin Boon Ann’s religion is declared as “Christianity”.

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