By Rameez Aboobacker –
In May 2009, the present government successfully defeated the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Ealam( LTTE) militarily, and heralded a new era of inter-ethnic relations and pluralism in Sri Lanka. The historic victory speech made by the President on May 19, 2009postulated the status of minority communities in Sri Lanka. He averred “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any other minorities. There are only two kinds of people in this country now. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group”.[i]
While the speech was interpreted that all citizens were equal, whether they were majorities or minorities, before the law and to the president and his government, there was also concern raised by some that the statement would be constituted as a denial of the rights of the minority communities in Sri Lanka. Some critics went to the extent of articulating their concerns that the speech was a clear manifestation of the continued hegemony of the majority Sinhalese and a majoritarian mindset.[ii] Having said that, one could posit that this was an ample opportunity presented before the government to advocate pluralism or multiculturalism in the post war context, not because of steering the country towards socio-economic prosperity that was the need of the hour, but because of promoting the country as a unique model of pluralism in South Asia. As a matter of fact, no one can deny that the pluralism was the peculiar feature of the tiny island during the pre-colonial and the post-colonial era. Pathetically, it was, however, the reverse that happened thereafter and brought forth the issues of minorities into academic and public debates and discourses in the post war context.
This brief article attempts to expound the concept of pluralism or multiculturalism, drawing an analogy of multicultural model adopted by Singapore in Southeast Asia, and then recount the reservoir of goodwill and socio-cultural niche that Sri Lanka has compared to other nations to augment the pluralist ideal as a model in Southeast Asia.
The concept of pluralism
Gordon (1964)[iii] illustrates that one of the outcomes of inter-ethnic relations of minority ethnic groups with majority community is pluralism, which is all about different ethnic groups preserving their unique culture and behavior, while still sharing common native values and goals. A well-known anthropologist J.S Furnival(1948) accents the same point as Gordon on pluralism, but aptly notes that different ethnic groups ‘mix but don’t combine’.[iv] Since the late 1970s, the term pluralism seems to have been superseded by the label ‘multiculturalism’ in many places. The pluralism or multiculturalism, which serves to describe the condition of different ethnic compartments of society living together, yet separately within an overarching political unity and is, thus, marked by an idealized tolerance of ethnic difference. Such model ensures the promise of diversity and, at the same time, equality and recognition of minorities’ rights. More importantly, it is often championed by states that adopt multicultural or multiracial policies by promoting cultural pluralism and protecting cultural diversity, such as in the Singaporean case.
Multi-cultural model of Singapore
While Canada, which has been identified as a state that has successfully implemented multicultural model in the west, advances three kinds of distinguished multiculturalism such as ethnic multiculturalism that introduces certain kinds of multicultural policies towards immigrant ethnic groups, bilingual multiculturalism, and nationalist multiculturalism that implies recognizing a special set of rights for indigenous people, Singapore, the home of multiethnic communities, promotes overall national unity through conscription of all boys into national military service upon their completion of secondary studies for 2 years which provides a great space for boys belonging to all ethnic groups to get together and interact or integrate with each other, through the promotion of national symbols, slogans, and events such as the annual National Day parade, and through a common educational system which promotes common values through one of the four official languages- English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – and especially through the first since English is now stressed as the first language; it also nurtures ethnic integration and diversities through the formation of multi-ethnic public housing schemes which provide more space for different ethnic groups to co-exist together in flats and participate in regular cultural programs that represents of all ethnic groups organized by the people living there, and formulates national policy towards minorities to accord them all completely equal in respect of citizenship, access to common resources and infrastructure, and in rights and obligations such as voting in elections, national service, and before the law.[v] Thus, such initiatives of the Singapore government have largely benefited the minorities and of course the majorities in the country in three dimensions: 1) it serves to preserve or maintain the core culture and religious integrity of constituent minority ethnic groups, 2) the majority and minority ethnic groups tend to recognize and share the cultural values and integrity of each other with open mindedness, and 3) it also ensures that the majorities and minorities become equal partners to consolidate the national unity in diversity, which is referred to as pluralism, through educational, language, housing and other policies of the government. Above all, the cultural elements of minorities are respected and accorded well by the Singapore government. For instance, the national anthem of Singapore is still being sung in Malay language, which is the language of minority Malays who account for 14% of the total population in Singapore and their rich artifacts are still preserved through cultural heritage centers and museum in different parts of Singapore. As such, this recognition and preservation of cultural fabric of minorities as a cultural resource has immensely contributed to the multicultural ideology of Singapore government in a number of dimensions. Firstly, the government has tremendously been successful in marketing and showcasing the cultural fabric of minorities as cultural instruments or resources to draw tourists to the country, which apparently grist to the mill of the government since the tourist arrival to the country is two times higher than the population in a year. Secondly, it spurs the minorities to feel proud and respected and that they can contribute enormously to the development and identity of Singapore. Thirdly, there has been recognition of the fact that without the minorities and their artifacts and buildings, Singapore is more likely to lose much its attractiveness as a tourist destination. So, the preservation of the cultural fabric in general and that of the minorities in particular is one major way to offset this by packaging the minority cultures as business tools and tourist attractions. By and large, there are many positive characteristics that can be drawn by Sri Lanka from the multicultural model adopted by the Singapore government to develop our country as an economic, social and cultural hub of South Asia.
Multiculturalism in Sri Lanka
Unlike Singapore, Sri Lanka has been characterized as a unique country for its natural scenic beauties and cultural stocks that exist among the communities over the years in the country. As noted above, one of the ways of promoting pluralism among communities in Singapore is through public housing schemes where multi-ethnic groups are located in a flat and they are highly encouraged to organize certain events necessary of ethnic and national integration. In fact, there is absolutely no necessity for the Sri Lankan government to set up such public housing schemes in the best interest of promoting pluralism among majority and minority ethnic groups since they are explicitly interspersed with each other across the country and become integrated well over the years with a rich culture of sharing and caring to each other in sorrow and happiness. Such living patters of majority and minority ethnic groups in Sri Lanka ended up in them becoming multilingual communities. For instance, Sri Lankan Malays, who are a sub-minority of Sri Lankan Muslims and account for 0.3% of the total population of Sri Lanka, are characterized as multilingual since they are competent in English, Malay, Sinhala, and Tamil and are incredibly accultured with other communities in Sri Lanka without compromising their core identity of Malayness. Moreover, anecdotal report suggests that more than 50% of Sri Lankan Muslim students, at present, in Southern Sri Lanka ( 7 provinces where Muslims are thinly scattered as a minority with the majority community) pursue their studies in Sinhala medium schools. One could argue that this trend may contribute to polarize the Sri Lankan Muslims as a linguistically divided community on the whole with majority(70%) of Muslims in Southern Sri Lanka opting for Sinhala language, while their brethren Muslims(30%) living in North East increasingly adopting Tamil language for their socio-economic, cultural, educational and political needs. However, this should, in my view, be constituted positively that Sri Lankan Muslims are increasingly becoming multilingual and multicultural, while cautiously adopting that the latter does not condition and compromise their core religious identity and thereby setting themselves as a congenial community suited to the ideal of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka.
In Singapore, all ethnic groups have hard times and restrictions in exercising their religious practices in a comprehensive way. For instance, loud speaker cannot be used while performing one’s religious practices in kovil, temples, and mosques, and there are some restrictions imposed upon the various religious sects or movements. More importantly, the religious preaching and practices of these movements are closely monitored to ensure that there is no real threat to the law and order of the country. However, there is neither such restriction imposed upon one’s religious practices, nor such monitoring practices adopted upon the religious movements in Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka is well ahead of Singapore in this respect of religious freedom.
In addition, Sri Lanka is well-known in South Asia in particular and in the world in general for its multi-religious sites of worship where people from all walks of life, irrespective of their ethnicity, class, caste and gender, come to worship the Gods there. For instance, there are distinguished religious places such as Katargama, the Madhu shrine in Mannar, and Sri Pada where Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others from across the country and the world usually come together to worship by means of giving arms and seeking the blessing and favor of various Gods there. This has been in practice for centuries, as evident in the country’s archaeological and historical record. Moreover, there are religious sites of worship belonging majority and minority groups across the country and those places, though located in close proximity to each other, have been receiving religious devotees every day, which, of course, is a positive sign of multiculturalism and tolerance among the communities. Moreover, Sri Lanka has seen that the festivals of one religious community are an occasion for them to share foods, sweets, and so on with those of others. For instance, dansala of Sinhalese people in Vesak, in which Sinhalese used to give free food and drink to all the people, no matter what ethnicity, or class, or caste an individual belongs to, has been characterized and exhibited by the majority community as the rich social capital of goodwill and fraternity that can build bridges between majority and minority communities in Sri Lanka.
The role of Sri Lankan government in promoting multiculturalism
Nevertheless, the country has recently experienced some challenges, especially in the post war context, in terms of multiculturalism and religious tolerance that it exhibited as the rich reservoir of goodwill over the years, with the attempts to vandalism on places of worship such as Churches, Mosques, Kovils belonging minority communities being widely reported. Such attempts by certain extremist forces worsen and deteriorate the existence of multicultural ideal and religious tolerance among the communities. The reality of provocative and despicable incidents of that nature is such that it can grab the attention of global community within a short span of time in the modern global village through the means of electronic communication and thereby making Sri Lanka in the limelight of international community to raise its concern over the religious freedom, equality, and fundamental rights of minorities, the following the end of war in 2009.
Therefore, it is imperative on the part of the government to arrest the deteriorating trend of religious intolerance, and instead promote the ideal of multiculturalism in the country by formulating a wider national policy in the pursuit of steering the socio-economic development of the country that can also certainly transform the country as the multicultural hub in South Asia in the post war context. The government can focus on the following dimensions of policy making in order to promote multiculturalism.
By and large, multiculturalism is a climate where majority and minority ethnic groups can preserve their unique cultures while peacefully co-existing and sharing the common cultural elements with each other without the fear of their primordial or core attributes of identity being swallowed up by other cultures. Sri Lanka, in fact, is far ahead compared to Singapore in terms of the traits of multiculturalism as categorically recounted above, but these traits have been polluted or exploited by certain actors for various ideological reasons over the years. There is no denial of the fact that pluralism as a model, if internalized and advanced well, will bring about the same positive consequences to Sri Lanka as in Singapore.
It is fervently hoped that the country will move forward towards socio-economic and cultural prosperity if the aforementioned suggestions are positively taken into consideration by the government without pandering into the demands of the parochial elements that have become a stumbling block to the long term reconciliation and cultural pluralism in Sri Lanka especially in the post war context. Their mentality has still been inundated with an obsession and illusion that minorities should be subdued and marginalized following the defeat of the LTTE and such mentality, thus, will propel the country towards precipice. The studies account for that more the minorities are marginalized in a context, the more rebellious and frustrated they would become. Therefore, it is the onus of the government to deter such obsession and provocative acts of certain extremist forces to the detriment of minority communities and found a robust multicultural society in Sri Lanka which ensures cultural diversity, equality, tolerance, and fundamental human rights of minorities.
In addition, despite the fact the policy of multiculturalism is promoted by the government in the best interest of founding a plural society, it should also be noted that multiculturalism could be established and negotiated at the micro-level of society; at the level of everyday, face-to-face interaction with an initiative of civil society organizations. It is of paramount importance that a formal space for inter-faith dialogue and negotiation between ethnic communities in the interest of ethno- religious harmony could be established and initiated by civil society organizations with or without the support of the government. It should be applauded that the National Peace Council (NPC), the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Caritas International, Muslim Women and Research Action Forum (MWRAF) are some of the civil society organizations that are now in the forefront of promoting the multiculturalism and inter-faith dialogues between ethnic communities through sponsoring workshops, awareness campaign and publishing pamphlets that convey the ideal of multiculturalism. Similarly, it is also imperative on the part of religious leaders to take some initiatives to foster inter-faith dialogues by creating a tolerant public sphere and enabling religious space while respecting local communities and minorities in the present context.
The writer, lecturer in Sociology at the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, is currently a PhD research scholar at the National University of Singapore. He could be reached at email@example.com
[ii] Ismail, Q. (August 21, 2009). Critiquing the President’s Victory Speech. Retrieved November 24, 2009.
[iii] Gordon, Milton.M 1964 Assimilation in American life, New York: Oxford University Press. Pp 71-73
[iv] Furnival, J.S 1948. Colonial Policy and Practice: A comparative study of Burma, Netherlands and India, New York: New York University Press. Pp 304
[v] Clammer, John 1988. Minorities and Minority Policy in Singapore, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol 16(2), pp 105-110