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Managing Social Cohesion in diverse communities: Can South Africa draw lessons from Singapore

Occasional Paper 2/2024

This paper is published jointly by

the  Inclusive Society Institute and

School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University

Inclusive Society Institute


PO Box 12609, Mill Street

Cape Town, 8010

South Africa


235-515 NPO

School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University


PO Box 610

Bellville, 7550

South Africa


Copyright © 2024


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form

or by any means without the permission in writing from the Inclusive Society Institute and the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.


 D I S C L A I M E R


Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the

 Inclusive Society Institute or the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University.


APRIL 2024

by Daryl Swanepoel

Research Fellow, School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University

This is the first in a series of three occasional papers on managing social cohesion in diverse communities. They will explore the mechanisms that Singapore, Finland and the United Arab Emirates have deployed in forging socially cohesive societies within their very different environments. The three papers will ultimately be integrated into a comprehensive synthesised report, with the objective of providing a menu of tools for South African policymakers to contemplate for purposes of strengthening their efforts within the South African context.

Singapore Skyline Stock photo ID:1165735071


The Inclusive Society Institute’s GovDem Survey has revealed that social cohesion in South Africa has not made sufficient progress post-Apartheid. In fact, the level of cohesion has declined of late, reversing the early gains made at the onset of the democratic order initiated in 1994. This is worrying given the need for cohesion to underpin peace and security, and economic growth in a country, both of which are at worryingly low levels in South Africa.

This occasional paper has as its objective the development of a menu of policy interventions aimed at advancing social cohesion, that the policymakers in South Africa may wish to ponder. The paper forms part of a broader study that explores the practices in other diverse communities, notably Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Finland. This particular paper discusses proposals informed by the Singaporean case study. It discusses the findings thereof, and advances recommendations for South African policymakers to consider.



In analysing its extensive 2023 GovDem Survey, the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI), an independent public policy research institute, came to the conclusion that thirty years into the new South African dispensation, social cohesion had not advanced to optimal levels. In fact, trends were worrying.



In 1994 South Africa transitioned from Apartheid South Africa, in which the minority white community controlled all political power, to a new democratic dispensation in which universal suffrage ensured that all South Africans, regardless of race, shared political power in the country. Hopes were high that a rainbow nation could be forged from the divisions of the past (Austin, 2021). South Africa is celebrating its 30 years of democracy during 2024.


In the poll, less than half (48 percent) of South Africans were of the view that a united nation could be forged out of all the population groups in the country. Thirty-one percent believed it possible. Eighteen percent did not express a view one way or the other. This sentiment held true across all the major race groups in the country. Only 46 percent of whites believed it feasible, 48 percent of blacks believed it so, and for Indians and coloureds it was 44 percent and 50 percent respectively (ISI, 2023).

Even more disquieting is the finding that only 39 percent of South Africans were of the opinion that reconciliation in South Africa is moving in the right direction. This held true across all the race groups, where similar trends existed.


In its definition of social cohesion, the Inclusive Society Institute includes dimensions wider than just race. It also considers religious tolerance, and attitudes towards immigrants, amongst other criteria, as contributors towards social cohesion. The Institute’s South African Social Cohesion Index (SASCI), currently in its development phase, is built on three pillars: demographic integration, extent of connectivity to the country, and sense of community (ISI, 2022). These pillars respond to the three dimensions of social cohesion as argued by Langer et al. (2017), namely inequality, trust, and identity.


Figure 1: Social Cohesion Triangle (Langer et al., 2017)


High levels of inequality, Langer et al. argue, threatens social cohesion in society, in that it erodes relationships, which, in turn, could cause conflict. When trust is missing between members of society, the ability for individuals to collaborate in order to build the nation is weakened. And a national identity, in contrast to group or ethnic identity, may cause aggressive behaviour amongst members of society to the detriment of stable co-existence.


In South African society, trust amongst the various groups is worryingly low. For example:


  • In the same GovDem Survey, only 40 percent of white South Africans completely or somewhat trusted their black compatriots, and similarly only 41 percent of black South Africans completely or somewhat trusted their white compatriots.

  • Only 48 percent of South Africans completely or somewhat trusted people from a different religion to their own.

  • Only 43 percent of South Africans completely or somewhat trusted people from different nationalities. Similar trends existed across all the major race groups.

  • Of particular concern was the finding that 68 percent of South Africans did not trust immigrants from other African countries. So too, some 66 percent did not trust immigrants from overseas. And likewise, similar trends were registered across all the race groups.

(ISI, 2023)


These disappointingly low levels of trust suggest that, as a nation, in terms of demographic integration, South Africa has a long way to go in consolidating social cohesion in the country.


That said, the ISI survey finds that South Africans are slowly starting to forge a nation. Already, 46 percent of South Africans – with similar trends across all race groups – are in favour of associating with compatriots across racial lines, as opposed to only 31 percent who do not like associating with people from different population groups. And already, 52 percent of South Africans – with similar trend across all race groups – are socialising (entertaining) with compatriots from across racial lines.


Likewise, some 49 percent of South Africans – with similar trends form across all race groups – do attend the church/shul/mosque/religious services of their fellow South Africans.


And 69 per cent of respondents indicated that they wanted a united South Africa.


In considering the second pillar of the ISI’s SASCI, the extent of connectivity to the country, the findings of the survey were equally disappointing. Nine percent of the respondents indicated that they were seriously considering emigrating to another country in the next year or so. Of particular concern was the number of high income earners and those with tertiary education. Eleven percent of the high income earners and those with tertiary qualifications were considering emigration. South Africa is experiencing a critical skills shortage across almost all sectors (Business Tech, 2023). For the country to lose more skills and taxpayers would be quite tragic for the country.


The minority communities are the most vulnerable. Fifteen percent and 14 percent of whites and Indians respectively were considering emigration, as opposed to 8 percent of black South Africans.


There were two main reasons driving the sentiment:


  • A lack of confidence in the ability of the economy to deliver jobs for themselves and their family. Twenty-five percent of respondents cited work opportunities as the reason for them contemplating emigration, and only 23 percent were confident that their children will be able to become part of the South African labour market and that they will find a good job.

  • A sense that South Africa was failing. Twenty-one percent of respondents were of the view that the country was failing. Once again, with the exception of the coloured community, it was the minority communities – particularly the Indian community – that were most vulnerable. Twenty-three percent of whites and 41 percent of Indians cited South Africa’s failure as a state as the reason for them considering emigration.


In considering the third pillar of the ISI’s SASCI, namely a sense of community, a far healthier picture emerged. Seventy-five percent of South Africans agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to get involved in the community in which they lived, 47 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to actively work for the welfare of their community, and 58 percent said that they actively looked for ways in which they could support people that were less fortunate than themselves. Similar trends were registered across all the race groups.


The survey was however silent as to the extent to which the individual race groups’ involvement extended across demographic lines.


About the survey


The aforementioned data is drawn from the Inclusive Society Institute’s GovDem Survey, which forms part of the Ipsos Khayabus Survey, the methodology of which is illustrated in the diagrammes contained in Figure 2 below.


Figure 2: The Ipsos Khayabus (ISI, 2023)


Against this backdrop one has to ask: Is enough being done to promote, nurture and ensure social cohesion in South African society? The country’s National Development Plan (NDP) after all recognises that the strategy set out therein needs to be underpinned by social cohesion (NPC, N.d.).


The NDP argues that “leaders throughout society have to balance the power they hold with responsibility, including … promoting social cohesion”, and that it is necessary to broaden social cohesion and unity while redressing the inequities of the past. “South Africa’s own history and the experiences of other countries”, it says, “show that unity and social cohesion are necessary to meet social and economic objectives”. It also argues that social cohesion in society is necessary to narrow the inequality divide (NPC, N.d.).


The NDP is correct, because in socially cohesive societies, where there is a general absence of underlying social conflict, people work together as one towards the well-being of all in society. It works against exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its people the opportunity of upward mobility (SFRI, N.d.). It enables people to be engaged in “a common enterprise”, wherein they are able to face shared challenges as members of the same community (Maxwell, in SFRI, N.d.). It allows society as a whole to share equitably in its prosperity, because cohesive societies are politically stable, thereby allowing them to focus on economic growth (Bris, 2014).


It is therefore encouraging that the National Planning Commission recently proposed the establishment of a Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Council, with the objective of “developing and monitoring strategies for the promotion of tolerance and the embracing of  diversity … for the emergence of a shared South African identity and pride” (NPC, 2023).


Some progress has been made in setting up the structures and mechanisms to advance the goal of social cohesion in South Africa.


The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) has been established in terms of Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution. The primary objectives of the CRL Commission is “(a) to promote respect for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities; (b) to promote and develop peace, friendship, humanity, tolerance and national unity among cultural, religious and linguistic communities, on the basis of equality, non-discrimination and free association; and (c) to recommend the establishment or recognition, in accordance with national legislation, of a cultural or other council or councils for a community or communities in South Africa” (RSA, 1996).


Since its establishment the CRL Commission has tackled a number of topics that impede social cohesion. The full list of reports contained on the CRL Commission’s official website include:


  • The commercialisation of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems;

  • Challenges that lead to deaths and injuries at initiation schools in South Africa;

  • The reuse  of graves by local governments: Seeking a solution to the violation of cultural and religious rights of communities through the reuse of graves by local governments;

  • Ukuthwala (the abduction that involves kidnapping a girl or a young woman by a man and his friends or peers in order to compel the girl or young woman's family to endorse marriage negotiations);

  • The use of official languages by organs of state;

  • Violations of religious rights by members/congregants of church missions; and

  • Civil unrest in Phoenix that allegedly resulted in racially motivated deaths.

(CRL Commission, N.d.)

Scrutinisation of the annual and other reports will suggest that the bulk of the Commission’s work has been limited and reactive in nature. No wonder given that the Commission’s annual budget in the 2021/22 financial year amounted to a mere R46,4 million rand (CRL Commission, N.d.). Given the extent of the work needed to tackle the social cohesion deficit, it is clear that the Commission has not been adequately resourced to properly carry out their work.


So too, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), is mandated to lead nation-building and social cohesion through social transformation, but the unit tasked to carry out this mandate is inadequately resourced. The DSAC social cohesion programme includes activities such as the celebration of national days, advocacy platforms on social cohesion, and community conversations (DSAC, N.d.). The unit tasked with carrying out the social cohesion mandate comprises four members of staff (Anon., 2023) and the annual budget for 2024/25 amounts to a mere R59,8 million (Treasury, 2024).


On paper it suggests that government is committed to securing social cohesion in South Africa. It forms an integral part of the NDP, a constitutionally committed commission has been established to promote and protect the rights of the country’s diverse communities, and DSAC has established programmes aimed at promoting social cohesion in South Africa. The lived reality tells a different story: activities are few and limited in nature, the programmes are wholly under-resourced and as evidenced in the ISI’s GovDem Survey, the level of social cohesion is disappointingly low.


What to do?


There are many other countries around the world that have/are faced/facing social cohesion challenges. Three come to mind, each with different mechanisms to nurture and promote social cohesion within their societies. These are Finland, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore, which is the focus of this particular paper. The Singaporean experience may hold lessons for South Africa, the exploration of which is the object of this dissertation.


Research question and methodology


The departure point of this study, based on the empirical evidence contained in the Inclusive Society Institute’s GovDem Survey, as highlighted in the introductory chapter, is that:


  • Social cohesion, of which, in the South African context, nation-building and reconciliation are crucial elements, is not at an acceptable level.

  • South Africans desire a united nation in which the different communities that compose the nation can work together to build a common future.

  • The South African Constitution places a high premium on a non-discriminatory environment underpinned by social cohesion.

  • All three spheres of government – that is, the executive, legislative and judicial spheres – at its heart, recognise and promote the ideals of the Constitution, which is a united and reconciled South Africa culminating in a socially cohesive society.

  • The current structures, programmes and resources allocated by the authorities have not yet – thirty years since the transition from Apartheid – delivered the desired level of social cohesion in South Africa.


It recognises the importance of social cohesion in any society that wishes for harmony, stability, and prosperity. Thus, more needs to be done to promote such. What that is, is an open question.


This paper examines the Singaporean model for managing diversity and social cohesion. It aims to provide new options for South Africa’s policymakers to contemplate, by identifying a set of practices that do not currently form part of the South African toolset.




Singapore is a city-state of about 718 square kilometres on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, in Southeast Asia. It gained independence on 9 August 1965, and has adopted a parliamentary democracy system (MOFA, N.d.).


It is a “hyper diverse” state, with a racial composite that has remained stable over the last fifty years, notwithstanding significant inter-racial and transnational marriages. A large proportion of the population is comprised of transient labour (RSiS, 2024).


According to the latest census (2020) the Chinese comprised 74,3 percent of the population, the Malays 13,5 percent, Indians, 9 percent, with the rest from a range of other ethnic groups. The relative stability of the ethnic breakdown of Singapore’s population can be seen in Table 1 below.


Table 1: Ethnic composition of Singapore’s population:


                       Source: RSiS, 2024


The historical context

The British established trading posts in Penang (1786) and Singapore (1819), and captured Malacca from the Dutch (1795). In late 1818 they established a trading station at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula on the island of Singapore through a formal treaty concluded with Sultan Hussein of Johor and the Temenggong, the de jure and de facto rulers of Singapore. A second treaty was entered into in 1824 where outright ownership of the island was ceded to the British. And in 1867 Singapore became a Crown Colony of the Colonial Office in London (Singapore-Expats, N.d.).

Singapore became a significant port of call for ships sailing between Europe and East Asia. And after the 1870’s following the development of rubber planting industry, it also became the main sorting and export centre for the global rubber trade. This led to unprecedented prosperity, which led to Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants flocking to Singapore. The peace and prosperity ended when the Japanese conquered it during the Second World War (Singapore-Expats, N.d.).

The British returned in 1945 and Singapore came under British Military Administration, and in 1946 the Straits Settlements was dissolved, which saw Singapore become a Crown Colony, whereas as Penang and Malacca became part of the Malayan Union, later the Federation of Malaya (Singapore-Expats, N.d.).

Postwar Singapore no longer comprised transient immigrants and the people demanded a say in the government. Whilst constitutional powers vested in the Governor, who had an advisory council of officials and nominated non-officials, it evolved into the separate Executive and Legislative arrangements in 1948 with provision for six members to be elected by popular vote to the legislature (Singapore-Expats, N.d.).

Self-government was attained in 1959. But it ushered in an uneasy period. The People’s Action Party (PAP) had come into power with the support of the communists, who controlled many mass organisations, especially the workers and students, with the shared objective of fighting British colonialism. The moderates pushed for full independence for Singapore as part of a non-communist Malaya, whereas the communists wanted a communist take-over. The two factions split in 1961, with the Malayans agreeing to Singapore's merger with them as part of a larger federation. This was, however, short-lived as Singapore separated from the rest of Malaysia in 1965 to become a sovereign, democratic and independent nation (Singapore-Expats, N.d.).


Means taken to promote social cohesion


Given the ethnic diversity, Singapore has taken a number of measures to ensure the meaningful political representation of the various groups, and they have instituted a number of constitutional safeguards to ensure social inclusion.


These measures include:


  • The Presidential Council on Minority Rights (PCMR), which advises on any Bill or subsidiary legislation that contains differentiating measures. And it also reports on matters that affect any racial or religious community that are referred to it by Parliament or the Government.

  • The Presidential Council on Religious Harmony (PCRH), which advises on matters affecting religious harmony.

  • Reserved presidential election to ensure multi-racial representation. Under this measure the election to the office of the president is reserved for a certain community, that is Chinese, Malay or Indian, if no person belonging to that community has held the office of the President for any of the last five terms of office.

  • Group Representative Constituency, which ensures minority representation in parliament. Under this measure the electorate will, in their particular constituency, elect a group of individuals to be their member of parliament, of which at least one of the candidates must be from an ethnic minority (RSiS, 2024).


Furthermore, there is a deep sense of heritage preservation, which emphasises and supports cultural and faith continuity. The Singaporean system accepts that the state and tribal identities are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) typology is a deeply entrenched frame of reference in policymaking (RSiS, 2024).


Singapore also adheres to bilingual policy. All Singaporeans learn English as their main language, and a mother tongue according to their racial identity, that is Mandarin for Chinese, Bahasa Malay for Malays. And Tamil for Indians (RSiS, 2024).


The state also supports Community Self-Help organisations. It recognises that social safety support along community lines can better address ethnic specific challenges. A number of such community schemes, for example the Chinese Development Assistance Council, the Council for the Development of the Singaporean Malay/Muslim Community – Malay-Mendaki – and the Eurasian Association,  are officially recognised and supported (RSiS, 2024).


It is also recognised that there is an overlap between racial and religious identity. Accordingly, the major faith groups in Singapore take guidance from their respective domestic religious authorities, who interpret religious teachings through a Singapore-centric and progressive lens (RSiS, 2024).


To this end, the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), which is comprised of the ten main religious groups, including, amongst others, Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, was established in 1948 (RSiS, 2024).


Coding integration into law


The Singaporean authorities are strong proponents of social integration. This they believe is essential in order to maximise a shared experience and to forge a distinct Singaporean identity. It is, they believe, through social integration that a sense of belonging, pride and patriotism is engendered. To this end, a number of social policies have been coded into law.


  • With regard to education policy, all Singaporean children are compelled to attend at least ten years of schooling, in which a standardised national curriculum is taught. Schooling is taught in English, but the curriculum includes a mother tongue as a second language. All scholars are taught to embrace national symbols such as the anthem and national pledge, which is recited at the onset of every school day.

  • National service is also compulsory for all Singapore citizens and second generation permanent residents. They are obliged to serve two years conscription in the defence force. The rationale behind the enlistment is grounded on three principles: Firstly, the defence imperative is to fulfil a national need, not an ideology. Secondly, it is universally applied, with little or no exception. And thirdly, it is done in an equitable manner, in which servicemen/women are deployed according to operational needs and competency.

  • Communal ties and cohesion are fostered through the Ethic Integration Policy. Under this policy, shared spaces and interaction across communities is promoted in order to avoid the formation of racial enclaves. A prime example of such a policy is the Singaporean public housing scheme (HDB flats), which is done against the backdrop of 80 percent of Singaporeans living in public housing. The workings of the scheme is explained hereunder:

    • Every block of flats is allocated a racial quota according to the latest census on the racial identities of households in Singapore. This ensures that there is a racial mix in every block of flats and that the occupancy of the block reflects the national demography of the country.

    • Home sellers are restricted from selling their apartment to buyers from another race in instances where the blocks have reached the maximum quota. For example, a Malay household is not allowed to sell the unit to a Chinese buyer in instances where the block has too many Chinese households, since the sale would further dilute the proportion of Malay residents.

    • Similar quotas are imposed on permanent resident households in order to prevent immigrant enclaves.

(RSiS, 2024)


In short, there is a social compact between the individual and the state in Singapore. A balance is struck between heritage, agency, and continuity on the one hand, and a national super-ordinate identity on the other. There is a trade-off between individual autonomy and the national collective interest. And the small nuclear family, economic competition, individual-centric pursuits, and the retreat to communal psychological safety are overtly recognised as some of the key challenges to fostering cohesion.


Figure 3: Singapore’s social compact (RSiS, 2024)



Presidential Council for Minority Rights


The Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) was established in 1970 but took its current name in 1973. It was established under Part 7 of the Singapore Constitution. It has as its purpose the safeguarding of minority rights and advising the Government and Parliament on these issues (Desker, 2024).


It forms part of a structure in the President’s office comprising the Council of Presidential Advisors, the PCMR, and the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) (Desker, 2024).

The objectives of the PCMR are to ensure:


  • That legislation takes into account the diverse interests of Singaporean society from the perspective of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity

  • That the legislative process has considered the diverse elements in Singapore society so that minority groups do not feel that they are oppressed or excluded.

(Desker, 2024)


The role of the PCMR:


  • The primary function is to scrutinise Bills that are before Parliament after the second reading in Parliament and after the first debate on the Bill. That is, before the third reading of the Bill, when it is adopted into law, if it is passed. The intention is that all Bills will be reviewed by the council to ensure that it does not discriminate against any ethnic or religious community. If there are differentiating measures, then the council will report its findings to Parliament and refer the Bill to it for reconsideration or revision. It also examines all subsidiary legislation and statutes.

  • A secondary function is to take up other issues affecting social cohesion that are deemed necessary.

  • The President also has the executive power to appoint the Chairperson of the PCRH. This body was established by the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 2001. This is done on the advice of the PCMR.

(Desker, 2024)


The composition of the PCMR:


  • Up to twenty members can be appointed to the PCMR (Republic of Singapore, 2020).

  • It may be comprised of up to ten permanent members (who may be appointed for life (Republic of Singapore, 2020), who could include the Prime Minister, as well as any previous Prime Ministers. The current council has six permanent members. It includes the current Prime Minister, the Minister for Law, three retired ministers – one of which is ethnic Indian and two that are ethnic Malay. It is currently chaired by the Chief Justice (Desker, 2024).

  • The Chairperson is appointed for a three-year period, but is eligible for re-appointment (Republic of Singapore, 2020).

  • There are also up to ten additional members that are appointed for three-year terms, which terms could be renewed. These ten members come from ethnic minorities, religious groupings, for example, the Muslim Mufti, the Catholic Cardinal, the head of the Buddhist community of Singapore are members of the council. Then there are representatives from the minority communities, for example, the Sikh community, the Eurasian ethnic minority, and the Malay communtiy and an Indian Supreme Court Justice – whose father happened to be a former leader of the opposition (Desker, 2024).

  • The President of Singapore has the executive power to appoint the members of the Council, on the advice of the Prime Minister (Desker, 2024).


Eligibility for appointment to the PCMR:


  • Members must be Singapore citizens residing in Singapore.

  • They must be at least 35 years of age.

  • There are no restrictions on the appointment of cabinet ministers or political office-bearers or members.

(Desker, 2024)


Meetings of the PCMR:


  • The PCMR generally meets once a month.

  • It could schedule additional meetings if there is a specific reason therefore, for example, as happened after a race riot in Little India. In that instance the PCMR reviewed actions taken by the government.

  • The Prime Minister may authorise ministers and parliamentary secretaries to attend meetings, but that is not generally the case unless it is felt that there is a need to advise the Council.

  • All meetings are held in private. The conclusions are recorded and conveyed to Parliament, but the discussions are not. This is to allow for the exchange of views that can sometimes be of a very sensitive nature in a society that has had race, linguistic and religious riots in the past.

(Desker, 2024)


Matters excluded from consideration by the PCMR:


  • Money Bills

  • Bills on defence and security

  • Bills classified by the President as urgent. In such instances, if the Bill were to be passed into law and the PCMR subsequently discovers some or other differentiating measure, it may discuss the matter and make recommendations as how to remedy the Act.

(Desker, 2024)


Resources deployed to support the work of the PCMR:


  • The budget is limited since it uses the facilities and staff of Parliament.

  • The Clerk of Parliament acts as the Secretary to the Council.

  • Unlike members of Parliament, there is no funding provision for the members of the Council to commission outside expertise to assist with their work, but there are no barriers or prohibitions excluding members from getting voluntary or externally funded support by expert individuals to assist them in their work.

  • Members of the PCMR receive an honorarium, which is limited in nature. On its own it is not sufficient and requires the member to have external employment and/or resources. It is considered a contribution to society.

(Desker, 2024)


Working methodology:


  • More often than not, the findings of the PCMR are in the form of a comment on what issues need to be considered or gaps in the legislation that need to be addressed.

  • The findings could also take the form of drafting actual amendments to the legislation for Parliament to consider.

(Desker, 2024)


Example of a finding:


There was a piece of legislation which restricted Indian workers coming into the city centre on their days off – at the weekends. This applied mainly to people from the South Asian sub-continent who came to work on one- or two-year contracts. They were housed outside the city, but tended to concentrate in Little India on the Sunday when they were off (Desker, 2024).


Legislation was introduced after a major riot took place. The council played the role of attempting to ameliorate the impact of the legislation so that it did not completely prohibit the entry of people who came from these communities into Little India, but to rather ensure that it wasn’t done in a manner which would overwhelm Little India. It ensured that some other crowd control means were put in place and that, for example, bars could only sell alcohol after six in the evening. Before that, bars were open during the day and the workers would get inebriated, with consequential unruly behaviour (Desker, 2024). 

Presidential Council for Religious Harmony


As already mentioned, the President also has the executive power to appoint the Chairperson of the PCRH. This body was established by the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 2001. The President makes the appointments on the advice of the PCMR. Some would argue that the PCRH is subsidiary to the PCMR, others argue that it functions in parallel to the PCMR (Desker, 2024).


The objectives and role of the PCRH:


  • The PCRH considers and reports to the Minister on matters that affect the maintenance of religious harmony.

  • They also consider and make recommendations to the President on restraining orders against religious leaders or groups that cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between different religious groups”, or that carry out activities to promote a political cause or political party, or encourage disaffection against the President or the Government, under the guise of promoting or practicing any religious belief.

(Republic of Singapore, 1990)


Composition of the PCRH:


  • The PCRH is comprised of a chairperson and at least 6 and not more than 15 other members.

  • At least two-thirds of the PCRH members must be drawn from amongst the representatives of the major religions in Singapore. The others must be individuals that “have distinguished themselves in public service or community relations in Singapore”.

  • As already pointed out, the members of the PCRH, including the Chairperson, are appointed by the President on the advice of the PCMR.

  • They are appointed for a period of three years.

(Republic of Singapore, 1990)


Eligibility for appointment to the PCRH:


  • To qualify for appointment, the individual must be a Singaporean citizen.

  • He/she must be at least 35 years of age.

  • He/she must be a resident of Singapore.


Meetings of the PCRH and working methodology:


  • The PCRH has the power to appoint a Secretary and any other officers it deems necessary to carry out its work in order to meet its objectives.

  • It regulates its own procedures, provided that a quorum of at least half of its members need to be present at a meeting; and that the Chairperson (or if he is not available another member elected to chair the specific meeting) chairs the meeting.

  • Its discussions are held in secret, with only its findings and recommendations reduced to writing.

(Republic of Singapore, 1990)


Impact and need for the measures on social cohesion


In considering whether the measures taken to ensure social cohesion in Singapore are bearing fruit, this report defers to the 2022 report by Mathews, Key and Nah, titled Attitudes, actions, and aspirations: Key findings from the CAN-IPS survey on race relations, 2021.


In this dissertation, only a snapshot of the survey’s findings is given, so as to provide a sense of the progress made in Singapore in promoting social cohesion. The full report on the survey can be accessed via the link below.



Most respondents believe that meritocracy in Singapore is not contingent on race, with more than 80 percent believing that everyone can be successful, regardless of race. This is evidenced by the respondents’ beliefs about success and race as set out in Table 2 below. Ninety-seven percent are of the view that this will remain true and improve in the future. However, racial minorities and younger respondents are more likely to believe that majority privilege exists, and they are split on whether racism remains an important problem today – about 56,2 percent (up from 46,3 percent in 2016) feel that discrimination based on race will worsen.


Table 2: Respondents’ beliefs about success and race (figures in brackets are from 2016 wave, where available)


          Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022


Although a significant number of respondents (58,6 percent) disagreed with the notion of political leaders speaking openly about race in that it may cause unnecessary tension, most (88,8 percent) felt it important for them to do so.


Most (70,2 per cent) do not believe that the majority race’s culture is privileged, but racial minorities are more likely to feel the converse is true. As for the next five years, most respondents of all races expect intercultural knowledge and willingness to accommodate differences to stay the same or even improve. In terms of the attitudes with regard to national unity, as can be gleaned from the responses in Table 3 below, only a small minority were of the view that the level of national unity would worsen.

Table 3: Attitudes with regard to the level of national unity

         Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022

With regard to racial prejudices and biases, respondents have become more likely to see themselves, their family, and their close friends as hardly or not at all racist. At 83,6 percent this is up from 73,6 per cent in 2016. But members of the majority race tend to perceive their own race as less racist than how racial minorities view them, whilst the same trend is not observed for Malay’s and Indian’s perceptions of people of their own racial groups. This is illustrated in Table 4 below.


Table 4: Perceived racism of self, by respondents’ race (figures in brackets are from 2016)

           Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022


Whilst some policies, such as Racial Harmony Day (8 out of 10 respondents) are well-received, others, such as the Special Assistance Schools (4 out of 10 respondents), are not. Most respondents (63 per cent) feel that the CMIO system (Chinese/Indian/Malay/Others) is effective in preserving racial harmony, whereas a lower proportion (38,6 per cent) feel that it is safeguarding minority rights. The other overarching race classification policy is also broadly viewed positively.


Over three-quarters of respondents are of the view that legislation on race is able to preserve racial harmony. More than 7 in 10 respondents are of the view that the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and ethnic self-help groups help to preserve racial harmony. Six in 10 want to retain these policies as they are. Chinese respondents (81,3 percent) are, however, more likely than minorities (two-thirds) to believe the EIP preserves racial harmony. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority, whether from the majority Chinese or minorities’ point of view, want the EIP to continue.


The sentiments towards the various ethnic-based policies are set out in Table 5 below.


Table 5: Sentiments towards ethnic-based policies

        Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022


In terms of their lived experiences, only a small proportion of respondents experienced racial discrimination at work (less than 9 percent) and in the housing market (less than 3 percent). That said, minorities are more affected by such discrimination than Chinese. See Table 6 hereunder.


Table 6: Experiences of discrimination and unfair treatment

          Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022

And much of the population (41 per cent) say they have not been affected by race-related incidents highlighted in the news.


A slight majority of respondents are tired of talking about issues of race and racism, whereas the rest are of the view that more public dialogue on these issues will be helpful.


Regarding aspirations for the future, whilst many respondents indicated an indifference as to future developments to do with race, a highly welcomed development is greater intercultural understanding. As can be seen in Table 7 below, about 62,9 per cent were of the view that this greater understanding will be good for Singaporean society. With regard to discussions concerning racial issues, mixed sentiments were expressed. About half thought that by speaking up freely about their ethnic identity not being properly respected or about problems with different ethnic cultures, would be good; most of the rest felt it would make no difference.


Table 7: Views on deeper intercultural understanding, by respondents’ race


          Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022


Although more than half of all respondents think it would be beneficial for people to identify as Singaporeans as opposed to Singaporean-Chinese, Singaporean-Malay, Singaporean-Indian and so on, they are less supportive of policies that would move in a race-blind direction. This is illustrated in Table 8 below.


Little India, Singapore Stock photo ID:1278570046

Table 8: Attitudes to future developments towards a race-blind society


          Source: Mathews, Key & Nah, 2022


China Town, Singapore Stock photo ID:614980556



Both Singapore and South Africa emerged from a colonial past. Singapore from British rule, and South Africa from a white minority oppressive Apartheid regime, which was also preceded by British colonial rule.


So too, both jurisdictions have a multiracial demography, with a majority and a number of minority communities. In Singapore the Chinese community comprises around 74,3 percent of the population, the Malay 13,5 percent, the Indian 9 percent, and others around 3,2 percent (RSiS, 2024). In South Africa, according to the latest census (2022), similar trends emerge, albeit from different ethnic communities. Here, the black population form the majority with around 81,4 percent, followed by the coloured community at 8,2 percent, the white community at 7,3 percent, and the Indian/Asian community at around 2,7 percent (RSA, N.d.).


The difference between the two countries is that the Chinese majority did not have to contend with the Apartheid laws and were therefore not favoured and excluded from the economy to the same extent as blacks were in South Africa. The result is that at independence, in Singapore there was greater equality between the races than was the case in South Africa.


There is also a different philosophy as to the defining of the individual’s identity. In Singapore, group identity (ethnicity) is accepted and coded into law. That is, individuals identify as Singaporean-Chinese, Singaporean-Malay, etcetera. In the ‘new’ South Africa the “question constantly arises about what it means to be a South African … and whether you’re a South African first and then ‘black/white/coloured/Indian’ or vice versa” (Diergaardt, 2018).


Until this question is settled in South Africa, there will be a constant debate as to whether the legislative and social construct should embody and reference race as a composite component of public policy. A national dialogue on what constitutes the South African identity seems overdue in light of the ISI’s GovDem Survey findings.


The trust deficit between races, religious groups, indeed across all facets of South African society, evidenced in the GovDem Survey, would suggest that pro-active mechanisms need to be put in place to improve the levels of trust in the country. Some would argue that it should start in the political sphere, where minority communities often (rightly or wrongly) feel that their interests are being marginalised by the majority. One example is that although “Afrikaans is still maintaining its status of an official language, its speakers feel that it is being marginalised by the government. One of the reasons given is the enforcement of English in former Afrikaans institutions” (Snail, 2011).


The architects of the new South Africa “chose a functionally single-district proportional representation electoral system and a federal executive structure to distribute power both racially and regionally” in order to maximise inclusiveness at the national and provincial levels of government. The main parties are broadly multiracial, but as elections have progressed, there has been a gradual emergence of racial politics. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has, for example, escalated its racial appeals in its election rhetoric, and it has to a much larger degree filled its party lists with more black candidates. And it has of late disproportionately targeted the black voters in its campaigns (Macdonald, 2012), leaving many from the minority communities perceiving themselves to be largely excluded from mainstream political decision-making.


Now the electoral system is under review, with an Electoral Review Panel set to be announced in the foreseeable future as provided for in the Electoral Amendment Act 1 of 2023. This panel will be tasked with designing a new electoral model for South Africa (RSA, 2023).

It may be wise for the panel to consider some elements of Singapore’s Group Representative constituency system, which guarantees minority representation at the constituency level, with a view to ensuring multiracial representation at the constituency level, as opposed to a single-seat constituency system, which could marginalise opposition parties and those from the minority communities from constituency representation at the expense of social integration and cohesiveness.


The perception of exclusion is being exacerbated through the inclusion of racial coding into South African law. A number of laws and policies have been introduced that have as their objective the remedying of historical injustices. These include, for example, the Employment Equity Act of 1998, the Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, and the Black Industrialist programme of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, amongst others. The noble and constitutional intentions of these laws are often overlooked when wrongly interpreted and implemented, which in turn builds distrust amongst some from the minority communities, and feeds their perception, rightly or wrongly, of alienation. Hence the high level of intent shown in the GovDem Survey by those from the minority communities to emigrate.


Coding into law of racial quotas, per se, does not constitute an infringement of minority rights. It is often, as in the South African case, a necessary tool to remedy past injustices. It is when this legislation is introduced within an environment of low trust that perceptions of exclusion take root.


The Singaporean case, where racial quotas are a feature of legislation and policy, proves the point. Singaporeans have embraced the notion to the extent that in the 2022 survey, covered herein, a majority of respondents indicated that they were not supportive of racially-blind policies, nor did they experience the quota system as threatening of their rights.


The introduction of mechanisms in South Africa such as those embodied in the work of Singapore’s PCMR and PCRH may prove a differentiating feature capable of building trust. If a credible body with sufficient powers and regard were to ameliorate legislation that would differentiate on racial and/or religious grounds, it would serve, as the Singaporean case would suggest, to instil faith and build trust amongst minority and religious communities.


However, a cautionary note. Singapore’s PCMR and PCRH are adequately resourced and are composed of individuals with gravitas and who command great respect. Should this route be charted in South Africa, great care will have to be taken in selecting the right calibre of individuals to be appointed to oversee the work, lest trust be further imploded.


The choice must be such that it creates trust in society that their recommendations will be taken seriously by the lawmakers and not just fobbed off. As pointed out by Dr Mathew Mathews (2024) from the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore in the course of an interview with him, in Singapore, as it relates to the PCMR, “it’s too high a council for anyone to ignore”.


In this regard Singapore’s PCMR and PCRH cannot simply be cloned. South Africa will have to make its own adaptions in two main respects:


Firstly, as it relates to the separation of powers. In Singapore the PCMR is comprised of, amongst others, members of the Executive such as the President, Prime Minister and ministers, and members from the judiciary, such as the Chief Justice. Furthermore, it is housed in the Parliament and makes use of its facilities. The Clerk of Parliament acts as its Secretary. Within the PCMR, these different arms of government work in partnership. The purists would argue that such machination would go against the separation of powers principle that is prescribed in the South African Constitution (RSA, 1996).

So, in this regard one may have to consider re-mandating one of the Constitution’s Chapter 9 Institutions, the Commission for the Promotion of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission) possibly being the choice. This being the case, the eligibility for being appointed as a Commissioner, to provide for the necessary gravitas, respect and skills, and the mandate, to provide for the reviewing of legislation for recommendation to Parliament, will have to be revisited. And the fiscus will have to provide sufficient resources for the Commission to do its work effectively and independently – the current budgetary allocation to the CRL Commission is, when considering the importance of social cohesion for peace and stability and economic growth, quite frankly, a farce.


Secondly, it is doubted that unfettered appointment powers by the President will, within the South African environment, pass constitutional muster. An open and transparent public participation and parliamentary process will have to be followed. More so, against the backdrop of cadre deployment across all spheres of the state, which the State Capture Commission has declared illegal and unconstitutional (Haffejee, 2022), public trust will be undermined should the process not be considered and embraced by the broader society as being credible.


 Masjid Sultan Mosque, Kampong Glam district, Singapore Stock photo ID:1445118179




Social cohesion in a country is by no means a nice-to-have. It is an economic imperative, and a crucial requirement for peace and security. Otherwise stated, a lack of social cohesion will not garner the level of societal and investor trust needed for a growing economy, and it inevitably leads to social insecurity and instability.


Evidence suggests that social cohesion in South Africa is backsliding, with disturbing trends developing. Whilst on paper structures and mechanisms exist to promote social cohesion, the lived reality tells a different story. South Africans are not confident in the country’s ability to come together as a united nation. And trust levels amongst the various race, religious, linguistic, nationalities, are worryingly low.


Public policymakers can no longer sit by idly and allow social cohesion to slip any further. The stakes for the nation are simply too high.


To this end the Inclusive Society Institute has commissioned a study on Managing Social Cohesion in Diverse Communities. The study explores how other nations with diverse populations are dealing with and building social cohesion. It has identified Finland, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore as countries from which South Africa could possibly learn. It provides a menu of options for policymakers to consider. This paper considers the Singaporean practices and tools deployed in this regard.


Scoping of the Singaporean approach, the research suggest, has identified at least five areas from which South Africa can draw lessons, and accordingly, makes the following recommendations:


  • That the custodianship of South Africa’s social cohesion programme be reallocated from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture to the Presidency. And that the importance of social cohesion for the nation’s wellbeing be recognised by properly and sufficiently resourcing the programme. Social cohesion is far more than a cultural imperative. It affects all aspects of societal life. It is necessary for creating business and investment confidence, the prerequisite for economic growth and job creation; and it is necessary to ensure a peaceful and stable environment. It nurtures a sense of belonging, and creates hope for the future for all citizens, who then see a place for themselves in the country. This builds trust and patriotism amongst the various communities of the country, who then work together to build prosperity and a shared future. In the first instance, it requires a multidisciplinary, inter-departmental approach, best coordinated in the centrality of the Presidency. And by locating it in the Presidency it signals the importance and priority that government attaches to ensuring a socially cohesive South Africa.

  • Re-evaluate and expand the mandate of the Commission for the Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities to include the scrutinisation of Bills before Parliament and other secondary legislation for purposes of ensuring that it does not discriminate against any minority or religious community. And that should differentiation measures be necessary, for example, to ensure redress from past discrimination, that it is ameliorated in a manner that does not create social dissonance. To this end the CRL Commission’s budget will have to be materially overhauled, given that the current paltry budget is wholly inadequate to give credence to the Commission’s stated objectives. And the process of appointing commissioners will also need to be revisited. Currently, commissioners are selected by a panel appointed by the Minister (RSA, 2002). To ensure greater public faith and support in the work of the Commission, a more open and transparent parliamentary process – with meaningful public participation – ought to be followed. It is further recommended that the Commission, or at least the legislative review functions of the Commission, be chaired by a retired High or Supreme Court of Appeal judge.

  • In that electoral reform is currently underway, it is recommended that an electoral system be designed that will adequately accommodate multiparty support at a constituency level. One such mechanism could be a Multi-Member Constituency (MMC) model. Whilst South African policymakers may not be persuaded to code racial quotas into the electoral system as is the case in Singapore, evidence suggests that South African political parties remain racially slanted in their composition. Thus, by guaranteeing multiparty representation at the constituency level, the probability is that the various demographic groups will be better represented in an MMC system compared to a straight-winner-takes-all single-seat constituency model. Furthermore, parties should be encouraged to voluntarily ensure that their MMC candidates adequately reflect the demographics of the particular MMC and the party supporters they serve.  

  • Social cohesion programmes and policies should be data-driven, and accordingly, regular extensive surveys related thereto need to be adequately resourced.   The Singaporean case study has highlighted the importance of securing broad public support for social cohesion engineering, the nature of which can sometimes be very sensitive. To ensure that public policymakers are able to ensure that support, they need to accurately understand the public mood and sentiments, to which end an empirical measurement tool is required.   It is recommended that an extensive independent but publicly funded annual social cohesion survey be undertaken, much along the lines of the Attitudes, Actions and Aspirations: CAN-IPS Survey on Race Relations, which measures these issues within the Singapore context. Independence is necessary to ensure that the issues are reported on in a non-biased manner, and public funding is necessary to ensure that the measurements can be done in a sustainable way.  

  • A national dialogue needs to be organised to tackle the question of what constitutes the South African identity.   The ISI’s GovDem Survey underscores the undeniable reality that the lived reality in South Africa is still race-driven. And studies have shown that there isn’t a unified understanding of what constitutes the South African identity. The research cited in this paper suggests that South Africans continue to grapple with the question as to whether they are South Africans that happen to form a particular race group, or whether they are white/black/coloured/Indian South Africans.   The answering of this question will have a profound impact on how policymakers can and should approach the design of public policy. Furthermore, a unified understanding and acceptance of what that identity entails will allow for a greater understanding and broader societal buy-in to what can sometimes be sensitive social-engineering policy manoeuvres.  

Social cohesion trends are currently heading in the wrong direction. But it is not all doom and gloom. Whilst it is so that only around a third of South Africans believe a united South Africa is achievable, nearly 70 percent of them want a united nation. What is lacking is the political will, policies, and tools to build the cohesion.


The Singaporean case study encapsulated in this report suggests that by deploying the right  policy instruments and driving those policies with the necessary vigour and priority, a united, and socially cohesive multiracial society is possible.


What South African policymakers now need to do is to refocus their efforts on achieving the Mandela rainbow nation dream, by better equipping themselves with the means to do so. And with the necessary urgency that it demands.




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This paper is published jointly by

the  Inclusive Society Institute and

School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University



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