Racial Harmony Day

Singapore Infopedia


Racial Harmony Day is an annual event held on 21 July to commemorate the communal riots of 1964 and teach students the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony in Singapore’s multicultural and multi-ethnic society. It was launched in 1997 as part of the National Education programme conducted by the Ministry of Education (MOE) for schools.1 Racial Harmony Day celebrations are also carried out by grassroots organisations such as the People’s Association (PA), community development councils (CDCs) and OnePeople.sg to strengthen race relations among Singaporeans.2 Since the first Racial Harmony Day, the event has undergone a series of expansions to widen its reach.

In 1996, tests conducted by MOE on students and street polls showed that many Singaporeans, particularly those from the post-independence generation, knew little about their country’s history. These findings led then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to call for a citizenship education programme, known as National Education, to become a part of the school curriculum.3 National Education was officially launched by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 17 May 1997, with the aim to “develop national cohesion, the instinct for survival and confidence in [Singapore’s] future”.4 During the launch, Racial Harmony Day was designated as one of several key events to be celebrated in schools as part of the programme. The day commemorates the communal riots that broke out on 21 July 1964 between Malays and Chinese during a Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The historical event serves to remind Singaporeans of the need to maintain racial understanding and tolerance among the different communities in Singapore.5

Racial Harmony Day in schools
Schools organise a range of cross-cultural activities for students during Racial Harmony Day, which may extend to become a weeklong event. Some of these activities include dressing up in ethnic costumes, sampling ethnic food and playing traditional games. Students also revisit the 1964 communal riots in different ways such as skits, talks and oral history accounts.6

Grassroots involvement
Central Singapore Joint Social Service Centre

In 1997, the Central Singapore Joint Social Service Centre (CS JSSC) was set up by the Central Singapore CDC with the assistance of five ethnic self-help groups: Chinese Development Assistance Council, Yayasan MENDAKI, Singapore Indian Development Association, Eurasian Association and Association of Muslim Professionals. Then-Prime Minister Goh had envisioned the establishment of a joint body like the CS JSSC to allow self-help groups and community organisations to work together in promoting racial harmony and community bonding.7 In 2001, the CS JSSC began coordinating activities for Racial Harmony Day with the PA.8

Community development councils
To promote racial harmony at the district level, a few CDCs began participating in Racial Harmony Day in 1998.9 The following year, the North East CDC and Buddha’s Light Association (Singapore) set up a S$100,000 fund to support heritage tours and forums, as well as school activities related to Racial Harmony Day. A total of 48 primary and secondary schools were slated to benefit from this fund.10 In 2000, with the help of the PA, all nine CDCs at the time joined in the Racial Harmony Day celebrations. During the month of July, they organised activities that foster community bonding and social cohesion.11

People’s Association
In 2001, the PA started working with the CS JSSC to coordinate activities for the celebrations.12 Since then, the PA has been a key organisation in the annual festivities. In 2002, for example, the PA, together with schools and other community groups, organised over 120 events to mark the occasion.13

In 2007, CS JSSC was repositioned as OnePeople.sg to work together with the CDCs, community self-help groups and the PA in promoting racial harmony initiatives.14

Other organisations
The National Heritage Board and its various museums took part in the Racial Harmony Day celebrations in 2001. Activities organised by the National Heritage Board included an exhibition at the National Archives titled “Living History: Tracing Our Customs and Traditions” and another exhibition at the Singapore Philatelic Museum, which explored Singapore’s ethnic cultures through stamps and postcards.15 In 2003, the National Arts Council also participated in Racial Harmony Day by presenting a concert that included ethnic dance and musical performances.16

Later developments
Orange Ribbon Celebrations

Besides food tasting, games, homestays and the practice of donning ethnic costumes, a few key activities have been introduced to the Racial Harmony Day celebrations over the years. The practice of wearing orange ribbons – the colour symbolising racial harmony and intolerance towards racism – first began in 2001, when the Singapore History Museum (now known as the National Museum of Singapore) introduced it in a school.17 Since 2008, OnePeople.sg has organised the Orange Ribbon Celebrations, a signature month-long event held every July, to commemorate racial harmony on a national level.18

Declaration on Religious Harmony
In October 2002, then Prime Minister Goh unveiled a draft code to serve as a guide for Singaporeans to practise their respective religions and strengthen interreligious confidence. The code was drafted in response to the challenge posed by terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah to religious harmony in Singapore.19

A multireligious team, headed by then Minister of State (Ministry of Community Development and Sports, and Prime Minister's Office) Chan Soo Sen, was subsequently formed to work on finalising the code. The team consulted various community and religious leaders, national religious bodies, the national steering committee for the Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (now known as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle) as well as the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.20

The finalised code, known as the Declaration on Religious Harmony, was unveiled to the public in June 2003. Representatives of the national religious bodies propagated the declaration to their respective congregations and worked together to resolve any queries from the public regarding it.21 The declaration was first recited by students, grassroots organisations and religious groups during the Racial Harmony Day celebrations in 2003.22

Text of Declaration on Religious Harmony23
WE, the people in Singapore, declare that religious harmony is vital for peace, progress and prosperity in our multi-racial and multi-religious Nation. We resolve to strengthen religious harmony through mutual tolerance, confidence, respect and understanding. We shall always
Recognise the secular nature of our State,
Promote cohesion within our society,
Respect each other's freedom of religion,
Grow our common space while respecting our diversity,
Foster interreligious communications,
and thereby ensure that religion will not be abused to create conflict and disharmony in Singapore.

Beyond race and religion
During the Racial Harmony Day celebrations in 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned about new fault lines emerging in Singapore society that went beyond race and religion, such as the rising tensions between new and old citizens due to differing norms and habits. He thus encouraged more interaction between the two groups to promote better understanding and integration of new citizens.24 Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat delivered a similar message during the 2014 celebrations when he called on Singaporeans to embrace greater diversity by going beyond the main races to respect everyone who resides in Singapore, regardless of their race, language or religion.25

Loh Pei Ying & Jamie Han

1. “Racial Harmony Day,” National Heritage Board, updated on 14 September 2021.
2. “About,” OnePeople.sg, accessed 2012.
3. Tan A. and Wan R., “Introduction to National Education in Singapore,” in Securing Our Future: Sourcebook for Infusing National Education into the Primary School Curriculum, ed. Steven Tan Kwang San and Goh Chor Boon (Singapore: Prentice Hall, 2003), 3. (Call no. RSING 372.95957 SEC)
4. Lee Hsien Loong, “Launch of National Education,” speech, Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) TV Theatre, 17 May 1967, transcript, Ministry of Information and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. 1997051607)
5. “Racial Harmony Day”; Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 437–38. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
6. ‘Hi, your Flowers Match my Baju…’,” Straits Times, 22 July 1997, 1; Allson de Souza and Tracy Quek, “Schools Mark Occasion with Cross-Cultural Events,” Straits Times, 22 July 1997, 38; Allson de Souza, “Catholic High Students Broadcast History Programmes,” Straits Times, 21 July 1997, 27; Audra Lim, “Ethnic Groups Gear Up for Racial Harmony Week,” Today, 24 July 2001, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
7. OnePeople. sg, "About.”
8. “Feast of Activities to Celebrate Racial Harmony Day,” Today, 18 July 2001, 5; Lim, “Ethnic Groups Gear Up for Racial Harmony Week.” 
9. Lim, “Ethnic Groups Gear Up for Racial Harmony Week”; Teo Chee Hean, "The Racial Harmony Day organised by Pasir Ris Zone ‘11’ RC, Northeast CDC and Loyang Secondary School,” speech, Aquarius Park, 18 July 1998, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. 1998071804)
10. “Fund for Racial Harmony Set Up,” Straits Times, 24 November 1999, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Jack Hee, “CDCs Celebrate Racial Harmony Day,” Straits Times, 21 July 2000, 51; “Islandwide Fun for Racial Harmony Day,” Straits Times, 19 July 2000, 51. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Feast of Activities”; Lim, “Ethnic Groups Gear Up.” 
13. “Harmony Every Day,” Straits Times, 21 July 2002, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “About.”
15. “Feast of Activities”; Lim, “Ethnic Groups Gear Up.” 
16. “Cultural Infusion,” Straits Times, 17 July 2003, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Orange Ribbon for Racial Harmony Day,” Straits Times, 23 July 2001, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Jessica Jaganathan, “1st Orange Ribbon Event for Newcomers to Mix,” Straits Times, 7 July 2008, 24. (From NewspaperSG); “National Orange Ribbon Celebrations,” People’s Association, last updated 25 August 2021.
19. “PM Condemns ‘Dastardly Acts’ at S’pore’s Doorstep,” Straits Times, 15 October 2002, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Multi-Religious Team to Draft Harmony Code,” Straits Times, 2 November 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Neo Hui Min, “More than Words, a S’pore Way of Life,” Straits Times, 10 June 2003, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Neo Hui Min, “A Religious Harmony Pledge for Everyone,” Straits Times, 19 July 2003, 15; Neo Hui Min, “Reliving the Kampong Days – and its Spirit,” Straits Times, 20 July 2003, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Neo, “More than Words.” 
24. Toh Yong Chuan, “PM Warns of New Fault Lines in S’pore,” Straits Times, 11 July 2012, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Pearl Lee, “Reach Out Beyond Main Races Here,” Straits Times, 22 July 2014, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
April Cheong and Yen Feng, “Call to Build Trust Among Races,” Straits Times, 20 July 2009, 20. (From NewspaperSG)

Eugene K B Tan, “Celebrate, Don’t Fear, Diversity,” Today, 21 July 2010, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

Gurmeet Singh, “A Taste of Our History,” Today, 14 July 2003, 23. (From NewspaperSG)

How has Religious Harmony Fared Since 1989?,” Straits Times, 24 July 2009, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

Inter-Religious Harmony Circle, Declaration on Religious Harmony, postcard (Singapore: Author, 2007). (Call no. RCLOS O1061)

Lai Kew Chai, “One United People,” Straits Times, 22 July 2008, 110. (From NewspaperSG)

Ong Dai Lin, “Bus Tour Takes you Places, Promotes Racial Harmony,” Today, 11 July 2011, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Tay Kay Chin, “Schools Mark Racial Harmony Day,” Straits Times, 22 July 1988, 22. (From NewspaperSG)

Zainudin Nordin, “Whither Race Relations in S’pore?,” Straits Times, 23 July 2011, 32. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 September 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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