Can we move beyond a racialised society?

Published: 11:51 AM, September 21, 2013
Updated: 4:00 AM, September 23, 2013
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Last week, IPS and released a study on indicators of racial and religious harmony. The results point to a healthy indication of social harmony, particularly within the public sphere. There is no doubt that Singapore has gotten some aspects right in terms of managing racial and religious diversity.

But the task of strengthening our social fabric requires us to dig beneath the surface. The study, which was based on surveys, must be corroborated with deeper insights from the lived reality of Singaporeans in general.

For a start, several findings from the study are a cause for concern. For example, only 60 per cent believed that they could learn from other races, 55 per cent were interested in meeting people of other races, and 50 per cent were interested in understanding other people’s customs.

What these revealed is something that we might have been aware of: That the different ethnic communities continue to exist in segregated spheres of comfort with little meaningful interactions beyond what is necessary in schools, workplaces and the markets.


Part of the reason for this lies in the prevalent narrative of “deep fault-lines” derived from Singapore’s past encounters with racial and religious riots. Thus, it follows that each community must be kept apart while promoting civic interactions in common shared spaces or the public sphere. Consequently, an over-arching economic prosperity and effective legal enforcement play a role in keeping tensions at bay.

The CMIO model, thus, became the de facto way of dealing with ethnic diversity in Singapore. As a result, social policies are dealt through the prism of racial lenses, which translates into the existence of race-based self-help groups. These groups then continue to derive their legitimacy from national data, such as health and education indexes, which are churned along racial categories.

This forms a significant contradiction in our nation-building process. Despite our professed desire for a unified nation “regardless of race, language or religion”, what had transpired for the last four decades was the opposite. Race has become a single most important marker for our social existence. In other words, we have become a totally racialised society.

There is hardly a moment in our social interactions that we are not reminded of our racial identity – from the imprint in our identity cards, to our schooling years to job applications. This invariably leads to a hardening of identity, even as we continuously choose to exoticise the “other” through generalised traits and characteristics. The most tragic consequence for all these is the continuous perpetuation of stereotypes.


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