Both Big and Small


While eating dinner, I heard loud booms outside the apartment. It was not the rolling clamour of thunder, but the short, sporadic bursts of fireworks at the NDP Rehearsal at Marina Bay. I hurried to the window to watch the glorious pyrotechnic display, sharing the luminous moment with thousands of spectators sitting kilometres away – and presumably other curious onlookers dotted around the cityscape.

“It takes me an hour to get to Marina Bay from my house,” I mused, “and yet I can enjoy the fireworks as if they were in my hypothetical backyard.”

I noticed a subtle paradox. Ours is a city of overwhelming skyscrapers. The towering behemoths can sometimes create the impression of largeness. And indeed, we are a bustling, crowded metropolis. But ascend the concrete mountains, and depending on location, you’ll be able to see the borders of our tiny island, the peninsular to our north, and even the islands of our (much) larger southern neighbour.

In the same vein, because of our small size, we live in such close proximity to one another. And yet, there is a vast distance even between neighbours – a social chasm resulting from our relentless busyness, our desire for precious privacy, and our obsession with ourselves. We even commute as silos, detached from the world by our headphones and screens.

We are big and small, so near and yet so far.

In many ways, we are defined by our minuscule size. It weaves its way into every decision, every policy, every forecast, and sometimes even the insults of foreign leaders. We are undeniably small. But we constantly devise ways to distract from that inconvenient truth. We sing about how in Singapore, you’ll find that our hearts are big and wide (after taking a little trip around Singapore town in a Singapore city bus). During NDP 2014, a catchy song was sung with the words “Big Island” repeated countless times. We also love poking fun at the residents of Jurong, calling them foreign citizens from a faraway land.

We live in this paradox daily, and so we don’t think much about it. But it flashed through my mind just like the fireworks – small solitary fireballs erupting forcefully into big flaming flowers over our big and small island.


The First Stone

The First Stone

Just one wrench of the wrist, and the wretched man’s life would end.

The whole ordeal was supposed to be over before sunrise. The condemned was not to see the light of another day. But the sun was already up, and Sherry Liew still could not bring herself to pull the lever. She stood at the gallows with her eyes fixed on the hooded man with the noose around his sweaty neck. Her hands trembled with fear; her soul bowed beneath the weight of the power of life and death.

Sherry was wracked with grief for her precious son, who had been bludgeoned to death by the hooded man now standing before her. Sam had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into gang fights and working for ah longs, and would ignore her relentless pleas to come home. But she prayed unceasingly for the prodigal son to return.

On that fateful morning, she leapt for joy when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. But the last flicker of hope in her heart was snuffed out when she opened the door to a policeman bearing tragic news of his death.

Now, she had the power to avenge her son. For many months, she had longed to strangle the evil bastard with her bare hands. But what then of her many years preaching the forgiveness and love of Christ that covers a multitude of sins? The murderer’s mother had fallen on her knees, begging for mercy for her only son. Even that monster – she struggled to see him any other way – had written countless tear-stained letters to her, asking for forgiveness and promising that he had turned his life around in prison.

How then could she spit in God’s face?

Abruptly, she loosened her grip on the lever and walked away. No matter how much this man deserved to die, she couldn’t be the one to kill him. One mother had lost her son – there was no need for another to bear the same anguish.

She walked out of Changi Prison, weary and disoriented, but at peace.

How on earth did a sweet, unassuming school teacher become an executioner?

For years, the debate on Singapore’s death penalty was stale and predictable. The government continued to peddle the hackneyed narrative that death by hanging was an effective deterrent against egregious crimes like murder and drug trafficking. The abolitionists pointed to academic research questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and championed a more “merciful and humane” penal system over the country’s “ruthless and primitive” system of retribution. The vast majority of Singaporeans either accepted the government’s rhetoric, or were too busy growing their bank accounts to bother engaging in public debate.

It was clear that the abolitionists needed a new strategy. Whenever they criticised the death penalty as a “barbaric” penal system, they were accused of derisive name-calling. When they called for a more enlightened form of justice, they were ironically caricatured as naive latte liberals, completely out of touch with reality.

Tired of the impasse, one activist devised a new game plan. The government was adamant on keeping the death penalty, and there was no indication that the ruling party was going to lose power any time soon. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to the moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”. So perhaps the way forward was not to target the substance of the policy, but its implementation instead.

This activist figured that the death penalty was carried out so effectively because the condemned was hanged by a professional executioner who was supposed to be a dispassionate agent of the state, with no emotional investment or psychological inhibitions to deal with. He was just like any other bureaucrat with a job scope and KPIs. Ultimately, this automaton was the linchpin of the entire process. Remove him, and the process would fall apart.

But how could the executioner be removed? To answer this, the activist decided to ask another question – why should the State carry out executions in the first place? Murder is certainly a crime against society in that it violates the moral sanctity of life on which society stands. And the State is supposed to carry out punishments so that there is fair and proportionate justice, not vigilantism. But it is also a crime against the ones who loved and cherished the victim. The State did not give life to the victim – a mother did. Before the victim was a citizen of the State, he was a son first and foremost.

The activist argued then that in the case of first-degree murder, the execution should be carried out by the family of the victim. As for drug trafficking, the trafficker should be hanged by family members of victims of drug abuse. The State would still play the role of a neutral third party, but instead of delegating an agent to carry out the execution, it would merely “set up the venue”.

The Government accepted this proposal because it kept the death penalty intact. And so did the abolitionists. After all, for many years, they had framed capital punishment as nothing more than a clinical, state-sanctioned form of retribution. In their eyes, this new system would clearly demonstrate their point by empowering the victims’ families to exact their revenge.

More importantly though, the new system left room for compassion and mercy to intervene. In the old system, mercy was virtually non-existent because the President (or rather, the Cabinet who advised him) almost never granted clemency. But now that the act of execution was no longer in the hands of a detached, professional hangman, would every hanging be followed through?

In first-century Judea, when an angry mob brought a woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, an act punishable by death, Jesus replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd dispersed because none of them believed they had the right to mete out the death sentence.

It was the same with Sherry Liew. She chose to show mercy because she believed mercy had been shown to her. But had she decided to pull the lever, she would have acted legitimately and lawfully as well.

Of course, this scenario is completely hypothetical. But it is worth wondering what the contours of public debate would look like if a proposed system like this really gained traction. I wonder what would change if Singaporeans were no longer detached from the gruesome act of hanging, which today is carried out secretly in the early hours of the morning behind the iron gates of Changi Prison.

Would we be willing to cast the first stone?



Source: MySkillsFuture website (

I’ve become so accustomed to filling in my “Race” on application forms in Singapore. Usually, I just need to choose one of four options – Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

But when you register on the MySkillsFuture website (, you now have a long list of “races” to choose from!

Instead of being just “Malay”, you can choose “Acehnese”, “Boyanese” or even “Bugis”.

You can identify as “Indian”, or you can be more specific and select “Tamil”, “Punjabi”, “Sindhi”, “Goan”, or others.

Depending on how nationalistic you are, you can choose “French”, “Dane”, “German”, or just jettison all these archaic labels for the more progressive “European”. For the more pedantic, instead of “British”, go ahead and choose “English”, “Welsh” or “Scot” (apologies to the Northern Irish, there’s no option for you).

If you’re only partly English, don’t worry – there are several hybrid options for you, such as “Anglo Chinese”, “Anglo Indian”, “Anglo Filipino”, “Anglo Burmese”, and “Anglo Thai”. (What, no “Anglo Uzbek”??? Sheesh.)

At the risk of sounding like a neo-Nazi, you can even choose “Aryan”. Oh man, I’d like to see who’s brave enough to do that…

If you think that “American” and “Canadian” are races rather than the more inclusive labels of civic identity that they are generally believed to be, those options are listed too. I have no idea why, but they’re there.

For our Middle Eastern friends, shalom/salam and welcome to the party. Along with “Jew” and “Arab”, “Israeli” and “Palestine” are somehow options too. Wow, this reminds me of Conflict Resolution classes back in Israel…

But if all this is too complicated, and you’d rather just put the generic and non-committal “Other”, you’re in luck. Though for some bizarre reason, that’s listed along with “Other Eurasian”, “Other Indonesian” and “Other Indian”.

So what should I choose? Normally, I would just choose “Indian”. But with such a smorgasbord of “races”, I feel like writing in and asking for “Indo-Greek” to be made available. After all, that sounds better than “Greco-Indian”.

Or I could just be a rebel, forget the whole “race” thing, and choose “Brahmin” (I kid you not, it’s actually there).

Look, I appreciate the effort to move away from the CMIO system and acknowledge the great diversity on our island, but in offering so many options, the labels have become meaningless. Or maybe that’s the whole point?

Spaghetti Girls


Lenny’s frustration grew with every tick of the clock. He squirmed in his uncomfortable chair, equipped with a cushion for his back but plain plastic for his buttocks. Wasn’t Changi Airport supposed to be paradise on earth – a replica of Heaven’s own aviation terminal? Surely they could afford better seats? He must have really pissed off the customs officer earlier with his typical New York levity.

“Well, who cares about my ass, they’re gonna cane it anyway,” he muttered under his breath. His smirk seemed to irk the officer sitting across the room. Or rather, he thought he had annoyed her. She was completely expressionless, almost catatonic, but her death-stare seemed a bit more intense, so she must have been ticked off by his insouciance.

But hey, what could he do? He was a hound dog, sniffing out amusement in every situation.

“Hey, ‘smirk’ and ‘irk’ rhyme!” he smiled clownishly. Why was he so easily entertained by the slightest thing? He couldn’t help himself! That’s why he was brought into this sterile waiting room, fully furnished with awkward chairs, an abnormally loud clock, and a dour, bespectacled bureaucrat whose stony demeanour gave him the heebie-jeebies. He was left there to stew in the eerie silence, all because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

No, hang on a minute. Lenny refused to shoulder the blame for his predicament. It wasn’t his fault that this country had no sense of humour. All he wanted to do was inject a bit of mirth into the humdrum of lining up (oh wait, they say ‘queuing’ over here) at the airport border control. Was his joke really that offensive?

He cast his mind back to his freshman year in Columbia, where he spent countless hours with his Singaporean buddy, Jackie Chan. (Actually, he had an unpronounceable Mandarin name – something like Chan Zi Hong or Chan Zhi Huang or whatever – so Lenny just gave him the natural nickname.) Jackie spoke incessantly about his country, and curious Lenny lapped it all up – the Singlish, the acronyms, the National Service stories, even the odd custom of ‘choping‘ tables with tissue packets.

But what really piqued his interest were the SPGs.

“You know, Lenny, if you come to Singapore, you’ll have a lot of SPGs chasing you,” Jackie cheekily remarked one day. Lenny gave his characteristic quizzical look, waiting expectantly for his next nugget on this quirky country.

Jackie continued, “We call them Sarong Party Girls. They like to go for ang mohs.” Now he really had Lenny’s rapt attention. As he explained what a sarong was and the peculiar origin of the term ang moh, a mischievous grin stretched across Lenny’s face.

“Looks like I’ve gotta find myself some SPGs!” Lenny chuckled. “So when I visit you in Singapore, and the customs officer asks what the purpose of my visit is, I’ll exclaim, ‘Spaghetti Girls!'”

And that’s precisely what landed him in hot soup. Damn jialat, as Jackie would say.

Welcome to Singapore, where banter is banned, and fun is done, Lenny quietly quipped. Of course, he didn’t do himself any favours by guffawing at his own joke at the customs desk. But besides the bans on smoking and some queer spiky fruit – not to mention the ridiculously menacing warning about the death penalty for drug trafficking on the customs form – he was quite certain that there was no restriction on laughter at this world-class airport.

Or was there?

As he nervously wrung his clammy hands in the waiting room, he thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t shoot his mouth off about his brilliant solution to Singapore’s falling population. Back in college, when Jackie told him that only the men had to spend (or did he say ‘waste’?) two years in the military, he railed indignantly against the gender inequality of the system. Then in his classic witty style, he proposed an ingenious way that women could serve the nation too.

“You guys should start a Reproductive Regiment!” he blurted out. “The more babies, the higher the rank!” The bewilderment on Jackie’s face back then was priceless.

Lenny glanced at his watch, crossed his legs, uncrossed his legs, glanced at the blasted ticking clock, sighed in exasperation and scratched his blond locks. The robotic immigration officer glared mercilessly at him. Lenny thought about starting a staring contest, but he changed his mind, lest he be accused of leering inappropriately at a woman. Or of trying to pick up an SPG.

The officer’s scowl was getting too much to bear. What was his crime? Had he really been so insensitive that he had to be detained? Had he violated some sacrosanct Singaporean custom? Why was everyone so touchy here? This country has redefined absurdity!

Lenny was resigned to his fate. Since his sorry ass was most definitely going to be hauled off to jail – after it was caned of course – perhaps he should just throw all caution to the wind and have himself a bit of fun. He stood up slowly, shuffled across the room to the soulless uniform, looked her straight in the eye, and smiled the gentlest smile that he could muster.

“Excuse me, Miss, do you have any chewing gum on you?”

The ticking clock was drowned out by Lenny’s racing heartbeat. The lady was stunned. Her deadpan face betrayed a slight quiver of the lip as she tried in vain to suppress a grin. Lenny held his breath, surprised that he had actually found the chink in her armour. She got up quickly, turned around and scurried off to the next room, fighting back the giggles.

Moments later, a senior ranking officer entered the room with a beam plastered across his face. Lenny clenched his fist, ready to sock the man in the jaw with full immunity – for right there before his eyes stood his college buddy.

“Jackie Chan, you son of a gun, you’re a customs officer?!” Lenny threw his arms around his friend.

“The joke’s on you, buddy,” Jackie declared triumphantly. “Welcome to Singapore. Let’s grab something to eat.”

“How about spaghetti?”

The Slow Smothering of Curiosity


Bryan lumbered past his desk and flopped onto his bed, teary-eyed and frustrated. He glared angrily at the stack of books that he had thrown on the floor in a tantrum.

“Bryan! Pick up those assessment books right now!” His mother’s bellow sent tremors through his limp body. He scurried to gather the accursed books – the bane of his short existence, the inescapable chore of the Singaporean student. Why was his slave-driving mother so obsessed with these anthologies of tedium?

Bryan was familiar with the routine by now. His mother, Mrs Ong, would invest in new assessment books three times a year – at the start of the academic year, at the midpoint, and once again before the final exams, just to be sure. Of course, they had to be the thickest ones with the latest MOE syllabus, recommended by the snooty parents of the brainiest kid in class. The moment the plastic wrapping was off the books, the answer keys would be ripped out and locked in Mrs Ong’s drawer – the same one in which the cane was kept.

The books would greet him upon his return from school and fill the rest of his afternoon till 5 pm, when he was allowed to play till dinner at six. Even that sacred hour of recreation was curtailed if he was caught dozing off or playing on his phone instead of focusing on his English comprehension passages or Math problem-solving questions. Oftentimes, his curmudgeonly grandmother would drift into his room and complain about the slothfulness and ingratitude of millennials.

“Young people nowadays…” Ah Ma would rant incessantly. “Your Ah Gong and I worked so hard to give you a better life. Study hard and score well in your tests.”

“Don’t be lazy like your useless father.”

Eyes shut, fists clenched, muscles tense – that was Bryan’s typical reaction to the frequent soul-crushing barbs that Ah Ma spat out of her vile, toothless mouth. What else could he do? If he responded with a smart-ass answer, his ass would smart from the sting of his mother’s cane. So he just stared intently at his assessment book till his vision blurred.

Blur like sotong. Bryan never fully understood this playful pejorative (what’s so “blur” about a squid?) but it was one of the milder ones thrown at his father. True, Mr Ong was often dull and absent-minded, but even the most cerebral of men would be the same after clocking twelve-hour shifts in a cab, day in, day out. Deep down, Bryan knew that he was lucky to have such an industrious father. But try as he might, he could not shake off the shame that clouded his head every time he saw his father in his taxi.

But more than shame, resentment filled the young boy’s heart as he saw his father leave the house every weekend and public holiday to ferry passengers across the island. Other kids’ fathers would take them to the soccer field or swimming pool. But not Bryan’s father. He had to work every bloody day. Why couldn’t he get a better job and earn more money? Why didn’t he study harder in school?

“Maybe Ah Ma is right,” Bryan thought as he hung his head over his crisp, new assessment books. He immediately recoiled at the notion that he was actually in agreement with the crabby old hag. But how could he deny his grandmother’s interminable accusations – that his father didn’t study hard enough, that the whole family was suffering because of his father’s laziness in school, that he himself was en route to economic redundancy?

What if he turned out to be a failure? Nobody cared about failures. Was he destined to be one?

Enough. These ominous thoughts weighed him down like a millstone. He stormed across his room, locked the door, grabbed his phone, and dove into bed again. He knew his mother would come knocking soon, but damn the consequences! There were 158 unread messages in his class Whatsapp group that needed to be read.

“gongcha is opening at singpost next week!!! 😀 😀 😀 “

“class outing leh”

“i wan i wan i wan”

“hey my fren say that he gg to queue up the night before…”

“wa lao eh your fren damn bo liao lor”

“who else wants to go?”

“hey you all retarded or what?”

There he was, right on cue. The genius-in-residence, Aloysius Tan, had a Pavlovian need to deride anything that he found trivial and absurd. The egotistical son of a bookish university professor, Aloy soared well above his classmates in both intelligence and arrogance. He was a voracious reader, devouring every book the school library had to offer. On the one occasion that he was invited to a class outing to watch The Hunger Games, he emerged from the cinema with his characteristic smirk, claiming triumphantly that the book was still better than the movie.

“You mean the movie is based on a book?” The words tumbled out of Bryan’s mouth before he realised the folly of revealing his ignorance to the smart alec.

Aloy rolled his eyes in pitiful contempt. “Please lah, I read the book two years ago. Suzanne Collins is one of my favourite authors. I guess you could say she has a very novel way of writing!” Bryan couldn’t understand why Aloy was sniggering to himself, which made him laugh even harder.

Bryan went home that day and asked his mother if he could buy the entire Hunger Games trilogy. “Read story book for what?” his mother retorted. “Don’t waste your time; your exams are coming soon. No need for childish story books, just do your assessment books!”

As Bryan lay on his mattress recounting the condescending insults of his classmate, his train of thought was derailed by the violent knocking on his bedroom door. “Open the door now!” His mother’s hysterical screech could only mean one thing – his buttocks had an appointment with the rotan. Bryan ran to open the door, but not before putting on an extra set of underwear.

They say that if you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child. But Mrs Ong believed that if she spoiled the rod on her son’s bottom, she’d spare her child a future of aimlessness and regret. Sloth was anathema to her; disobedience was even worse. Bryan had defiantly demonstrated both. So down came the cane, sharp and swift. Each whimper from her son was a chisel to her heart, but she had to mask it.

“Finish your work, or no dinner for you!” she sternly instructed her sobbing son. Bryan got to work without hesitation.

He soon heard his father shuffle through the front door. In America, when the man of the house returns from work, his dog greets him exuberantly and his wife smothers him with a wet kiss – or at least that’s what happens on TV. But not in the Ong household. Mr Ong took his seat in the dining room while his wife laid the table, dutifully but joylessly.

Bryan soldiered on through his assessment book. The silence outside was deafening, broken only by the occasional clicking of chopsticks. But his father was about to open the floodgates.

“I earned even less this week,” Mr Ong lamented. His soft, piercing words hung in the air like a noose. Bryan could only imagine the scowl on his mother’s face now as she loaded her sharp tongue with a barrage of questions.

“Are you driving in the city centre? Is your taxi meter working properly? Has the taxi rent increased? How long is your lunch break? Did you buy 4D? How can we afford Chinese tuition for Bryan like this?” Her agitation rose steadily with each question. Before long, Ah Ma interjected.

“Drive taxi also cannot make it. Useless bugger.” There was truly no limit to Ah Ma’s vitriol.

“You think it’s so damn easy ah? Everyone wants to use Uber, use Grab… WHAT THE HELL CAN I DO?” Bryan hadn’t heard his father growl like that in months.

Mrs Ong hit the roof. “Stop making excuses! If you cannot make money, find another job!”

“What other job? Like he said, WHAT THE HELL CAN HE DO?” Ah Ma’s mocking mimicry could get under anyone’s skin.

“I’ve had enough of your shit!” Bryan gasped as he heard a glass shatter, followed by heavy footsteps and the slam of the front door. He clasped his ears as he read his Math question aloud.

“Ali has 140 marbles. He gives some marbles to Bala, leaving him with twice as many marbles as Charlie…”

September Sixteenth

malaysia day

Source: National Archives of Singapore

On this day in 1923, a pioneer was born. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would grow to become a fervent advocate of racial equality, meritocracy, and the unifying power of civic nationalism.

Exactly forty years later, under the guidance of this pioneer, a new political creature would be formed (purportedly) on the basis of these values. Malaysia officially came into existence on 16 September 1963 – a federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

From this day onward, Singapore was no longer under British colonial rule. The residents of Singapore were told that they were now Malaysians, that they shared a common identity and destiny with their fellow citizens from Perlis to Johor, and that they were co-builders and co-owners of this brand new nation. The PAP and their partners in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention issued the clarion call to build a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in opposition to special privileges and quotas for Malays.

Alas, the political experiment faced a road bump in 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The residents of this island once again experienced an identity change – they were now told that they were Singaporeans, not Malaysians or Malayans. The spirit of “Malaysian Malaysia” lived on in the new Singaporean identity, exemplified in the words famously penned by Mr S Rajaratnam: “regardless of race, language, or religion”.

A half-century later, I believe that our leaders and the vast majority of our population are still strongly devoted to the ideal of racial equality. Undoubtedly, there are worrying aberrations. Off the top of my head, I am concerned about socioeconomic inequality along racial lines, discriminatory deployment of National Servicemen, extremist views, suggestions that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, the unrepresentative nature of the upper echelons of the civil service, and homogeneity in elite/SAP schools. The idea of a Reserved Presidential Election has also been roundly criticised as an unmeritocratic form of affirmative action (let alone the fact that there was no election at all).

But I also realise that these concerns pale in comparison to the problem of emboldened white supremacists in America and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar. This fact should not encourage an attitude of complacency with regard to strengthening our social solidarity. Instead, it should remind us that our society could easily slip into chaos and disarray if we do not constantly watch our words, review the intentions and content of our social policies, and weave new threads in our social fabric through interacting with people who are different from us.

Overcoming the Politics of Hate: Comparing Rwanda and Singapore

Few countries have been torn apart by the same ruinous hatred that devastated Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. In just 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred. But since the end of the genocide, Rwanda has made tremendous progress under the iron-fisted leadership of President Paul Kagame. While the traumatic scars of the catastrophe have not faded away completely, hatred between Hutus and Tutsis has been replaced by peaceful tolerance and a unified resolve to never let ethnic differences fuel such bloodletting again.

This miraculous recovery is underpinned by rapid socio-economic development. Faced with a wrecked economy and debilitating poverty after the genocide, Kagame looked to Singapore to emulate its turbo-charged development from Third World to First. [i] [ii] Having learnt from Singapore’s experience, Kagame’s government cracked down on corruption; invested heavily in housing, education and healthcare; attracted foreign investors with developed infrastructure and minimal red tape; and cleaned up the capital city. As a result, Rwanda has achieved an average real GDP growth of 8% per annum since 2001 and is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Africa.[iii]

While much has been written about Rwanda’s emulation of Singapore’s development trajectory, not much attention has been given to the similar social policies that both countries have adopted to manage relations between their diverse ethnic groups. Like Rwanda, Singapore is a multi-ethnic country. The Chinese constitute the majority while Malays and Indians are significant minority populations. The city-state is also home to people of different religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. While Singapore has never experienced genocide, it has suffered the turbulence of racial riots between Chinese and Malays.[iv] But today, “racial harmony” is the bedrock of Singapore’s stability and progress. This article examines the similarities and differences in the laws, policies and initiatives that Rwanda and Singapore have adopted to overcome the politics of hate.

Building a Unifying National Identity

Both Rwanda and Singapore have focused on building national identities that unify their diverse ethnic groups. However, each country has taken a separate route – Rwanda has adopted the assimilationist model, while Singapore has adopted the multiculturalist model.

In a bid to turn Rwandan society into an integrated “melting pot”, Kagame’s government has embarked on the ambitious task of ridding the country of ethnic classification altogether. Citizens are encouraged to think of themselves only as Rwandans, and not as Hutus and Tutsis. Kagame’s goal is to erase the same ethnic categories that fuelled the catastrophic genocide of 1994. In line with this policy, the ethnic identity of Rwandan citizens was excluded from national IDs in 1996. As NYT journalist Jeffry Gettleman discovered, many Rwandans refuse to reveal their ethnic identity, choosing to identify solely as Rwandans.[v]

On the contrary, there are many Rwandans for whom ethnic identity is important because the events of 1994 have made them irreversibly distrustful of members of the outgroup.[vi] Also, some Rwandans suspect that Kagame’s decision to play down ethnicity is a ruse to mask the fact that Tutsis wield a significant amount of political and economic power despite making up only 15% of the population. If they are not allowed to talk about ethnicity, it is hard to discuss the disproportionate power that Tutsis hold.[vii]

Singapore, on the other hand, has kept and even institutionalised the ethnic identities of its citizens. According to Singapore’s multiculturalist vision, Singaporeans do not discard their ethnic identity but render it secondary to their national identity. Rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of erasing citizens’ attachment to primordial identities, the government has chosen the path of open and honest discussion about ethnic identities and differences (within certain limits) while emphasising the overarching national identity that unites all Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”, as quoted from Singapore’s National Pledge.

Hence, Singapore’s society is perceived through the lens of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) system, which has become a ubiquitous element of the Singaporean experience.[viii] The four national languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, and the festivals of each major ethnic and religious group are national holidays. Singapore’s parliamentary electoral system ensures that the minority Malay and Indian groups are always represented in Parliament. The Government is contemplating the idea of an “electoral safeguard” to ensure that Singapore has minority Elected Presidents from time to time. Most visibly, “race” remains a category on the Singaporean national ID, which a UN Special Rapporteur has criticised for contributing to racially based policies and discrimination.[ix] In response to such criticism, a Singaporean cabinet minister claimed that ethnic identities “are not going to go away soon”, so Singaporeans should recognise them and “work on them to achieve a higher ideal”.[x] That higher ideal is a fair and meritocratic society where individual progress depends on ability and industriousness, not on ethnic background.

Inculcating a Duty to Serve the Nation

As part of their efforts to develop strong national identities that transcend narrower ethnic identities, both Rwanda and Singapore have emphasised the importance of every citizen’s duty to serve the nation. Through community service, individuals learn to place the needs of the nation before the needs of their immediate community. Community service also provides a platform for cross-ethnic interaction as citizens unite to achieve a common goal.

In Rwanda, the primary form of community service is a nation-wide initiative called umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.[xi] This draws on the Rwandan tradition of calling upon family, friends and neighbours to help complete a difficult task. During Umuganda Saturday, which is the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans between the age of 18 and 65 are expected to engage in some form of community service.[xii] This includes infrastructure development like the building of schools and medical centres, and environmental protection like the rehabilitation of wetlands.[xiii] This mandatory community work is used as a tool to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility, and has provided opportunities for productive collaboration between Hutus and Tutsis.

Similarly, Singaporean students are expected to engage in a variety of Community Involvement Projects and Service Learning Projects throughout their schooling years. These programmes aim to teach students to care for the needs of every Singaporean regardless of ethnic background. After school, all male citizens are drafted into the military, police force or civil defence force for two years of National Service (NS). NS plays a significant role in uniting Singaporeans of different ethnicities as strong cross-cultural camaraderie is forged in the crucible of physically demanding exercises. Through NS, Singaporeans unite to defend the nation from external threats and internal discord.

Legislation Against Hate Speech

The governments of Rwanda and Singapore recognise the danger of irresponsible speech in their multi-ethnic societies. Derogatory language could upset the hard-fought social harmony that both countries have achieved. As such, both countries have enacted laws that set the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

The Rwandan government is understandably wary of speech that could rekindle ethnic tension. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda highlighted the role of the media in stoking the flames of ethnic violence in 1994. For example, the popular radio station Radio télévision libre des mille collines (RTLM) broadcast statements calling for the extermination of Tutsis, and the newspaper Kangura ran multiple articles that aimed to incite violence against Tutsis.[xiv] In recognition of the catastrophic effects of irresponsible public statements, the government has taken a strong stance against any speech or publication that could potentially spark ethnic conflict and plunge the country into internecine violence again.

In 2002, the Rwandan parliament passed a law criminalising “sectarianism”, which is “any speech, written statement or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people”.[xv] In 2008, a law was enacted against all speech containing elements of “genocide ideology”, which involves propounding the act of genocide and denying or minimising the Rwandan genocide. These laws aim to restrict speech that could normalise ethnic hatred, dehumanise entire segments of society or promote “division (which) makes domination possible”.[xvi]

Similarly, Singapore has enacted laws against hate speech that could sow discord in society. Both the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalise speech that promotes hatred and ill-will between religious and racial groups. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows the Minister of Home Affairs to issue a restraining order against a religious leader who promotes enmity between religious groups. In extreme cases, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allows for preventive detention and the prohibition of publications in response to acts or speech that promote hatred and hostility between ethnic and religious groups.

These laws have been enacted in Rwanda and Singapore in order to restrict speech that could promote hatred. However, such legislation has also been criticised for violating their citizens’ freedom of expression. International advocacy groups like Amnesty International have accused Kagame’s government of abusing the laws against “sectarianism” and “genocide ideology” to suppress dissenting political views and legitimate debate.[xvii] These groups often highlight the arrest of Victoire Ingabire, the former head of the opposition United Democratic Force Party, who had suggested that Tutsis should be prosecuted for war crimes and Hutu victims should also be commemorated. Critics also point out that the laws are arbitrary – for example, the law against “sectarianism” proscribes even the act of “laughing at one’s misfortune”.[xviii]

Similarly, Singapore has also been accused of excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. Besides the controversy surrounding the government’s power to detain individuals without trial under the ISA, there have been several cases in which the punishment seemed disproportionate to the crime. In 2015, Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was tried and convicted as an adult under Section 298 of the Penal Code for comments that were deemed to be insulting to Christians, even though he was only 16 at the time.[xix] In the same year, a Filipino nurse was convicted of sedition for a Facebook post that was deemed to promote hostility between Singaporeans and Filipinos.[xx] He was jailed for 4 months, which some believed was a disproportionate response to a harmless and even comical post.


More parallels can be drawn between Singapore and Rwanda, but this presents a snapshot of the policies that have been adopted by both countries to promote tolerance and social harmony. However, while Rwanda has managed to preserve its social stability, the politics of hate has not disappeared – it has merely undergone a transformation. Under Kagame’s illiberal rule, the cleavage of hatred is no longer between Hutus and Tutsis, but between government loyalists and opponents.

Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) is perceived as Rwanda’s saviour because it ended the genocide. Kagame has utilised the heroic reputation of the party to accuse political opponents of siding with the genocidaires, since they refuse to side with the party that rebuilt Rwanda from the ashes of the genocide.[xxi] Hence, Kagame’s authoritarian rule extends beyond the banning of opposition parties, the clamping down on dissident media, and the dubious 93% electoral win that he achieved in 2010. His Manichean viewpoint has fuelled the persecution and even execution of political dissidents. As a result, dozens of political dissidents have fled for their lives. In 2010, an assassination attempt was made on veteran opposition leader Kayumba Nyamwasa. In 2011, UK intelligence suggested that there was a plot to murder a Rwandan dissident in London, Rene Claudel Mugenzi.[xxii]

Rwanda has come a long way since the turmoil of the 1990s. By learning from Singapore’s experience, it has achieved rapid economic development. The government has also successfully rebuilt Rwanda’s social capital. However, questions linger about the sustainability of Kagame’s autocratic rule. While some argue that Kagame’s rule is still necessary for Rwanda[xxiii], the time may come when Rwandans are more certain about the strength of their social fabric and demand greater political liberalisation. When that time comes, let’s hope that Rwandans of opposing political affiliations do not engage in the politics of hate once again.

[i] “Africa’s Singapore Dream”, Foreign Policy, 2 Apr 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[ii] “Africa’s Singapore?”, The Economist, 25 Feb 2012, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[iii] “Rwanda: Overview”, The World Bank, last updated on 11 Apr 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[iv] “Communal riots of 1964”, Singapore Infopedia, last updated on 18 Sep 2014, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[v] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[vi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[vii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[viii] Chua, B.H. (2003). Multiculturalism in Singapore: An instrument of social control. Race & Class, 44(3): 58-77.

[ix] Gomez, J. (2010). Politics and ethnicity: Framing racial discrimination in Singapore. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 28(2): 103-117.

[x] “Battle against extremism: Singapore takes a ‘different approach’ on race, religion”, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xi] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xii] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xiii] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xiv] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xv] Law No. 47/2001 on 18/12/2001 on Prevention, Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Discrimination and Sectarianism

[xvi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xvii] Amnesty International (2010). Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’. London: Amnesty International. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xviii] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xix] “Singapore: Amos Yee sentence a dark day for freedom of expression”, Amnesty International, 6 July 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xx] “Singapore jails Filipino nurse for ‘seditious’ posts”, AFP News, 21 Sep 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xxi] Bekken, N. (March, 2011). Rwanda’s hidden divisions: From the ethnicity of Habyarimana to the politics of Kagame. The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xxii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from:

[xxiii] Stubbs, T. “Why Kagame’s bid to serve a third term makes sense for Rwanda”, The Conversation, 27 Jan 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: