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The Big Read in short: Yes, let’s talk about racism. But how?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at racism in Singapore and what needs to be done about it. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

The Big Read in short: Yes, let’s talk about racism. But how?

Activists, community organisers and academics whom TODAY spoke to agree that the conversations of race need to move forward productively in the age of social media where tensions are inflamed easily.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at racism in Singapore and what needs to be done about it. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Singapore has come a long way from those dark days of violent racial conflict, embarking on a unique path among nations of the time as a multiracial and multicultural country
  • Yet, the topic of racism has returned to the fore once again following recent events, including the street confrontation between a Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer and an inter-ethnic couple
  • Some feel that the recent spate of racist incidents is an indication that racism in Singapore not only exists but has been gathering speed for some time
  • Activists, community organisers and academics agree that conversations on race need to move forward productively in the age of social media where tensions are inflamed easily
  • After decades of being held up as a role model society for multiculturalism and multiracialism, Singapore seems to be at a crossroads and has to find its own way again

 

SINGAPORE — When former national sprinter Canagasabai Kunalan and his wife, Madam Chong Yoong Yin, both 79, saw the viral video of a polytechnic lecturer making racist remarks to an interracial couple two weeks ago, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

The video evoked memories of 1964, when racial tensions gripped Singapore. Then,  the couple were given the ultimatum by their families to end their relationship or leave their homes, because they were of different races.

“Singaporeans now are so educated… how can we still think like this?” said Mr Kunalan.

The racial riots between the Malays and Chinese in Singapore following its merger with Malaysia in 1963 plunged the country into nationwide violence. Houses were burnt down, the police were deployed to enforce curfews and people were beaten and killed.

Yet, even in the most uncertain of times, there were also people of different ethnic groups standing together regardless of race.

Speaking to TODAY, older generations of Singaporeans recounted how people stepped up in solidarity when emotive racial conflicts shattered the peace.

Mr Kunalan, who was then a 22-year-old sprinter preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, said: “The riots were happening in different areas in Singapore. Surprisingly, in my kampung (village), it was peaceful. There were no tensions at all. Or maybe we just didn’t know what was happening on the other side.”

Former national sprinter Canagasabai Kunalan and his wife, Madam Chong Yoong Yin, in their home on June 17, 2021. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mr Lionel de Souza, 78, a former cop who worked as a community liaison officer in Geylang during the 1964 racial riots, recalled how Singaporeans volunteered in droves for “goodwill committees” as well as the Vigilante Corps to help keep the peace in volatile areas during curfew hours.

Comprising an equal number of Chinese and Malay volunteers, they and Mr de Souza would patrol their beat in Kampung Kim Hong and talk to residents in coffee shops and town halls to help dispel suspicion between the different Chinese and Malay groups that were then segregated in different villages.

“There were allegations that people on one side were shooting fire arrows at the other, and rumours were flying everywhere,” said Mr de Souza of the situation then.

Mr Lionel de Souza, 78, a former cop who worked as a community liaison officer in Geylang during the 1964 racial riots, recalled how Singaporeans volunteered in droves for “goodwill committees” as well as the Vigilante Corps to help keep the peace in volatile areas during curfew hours. Photos: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY and Lionel de Souza

Singapore has since come a long way from those dark days of violent racial conflict, having taken early steps as a newly independent nation to abandon colonial-era race-based policies, and pledging to not let racial fault lines divide society.

Following its independence, the young Republic embarked on a unique path among nations of the time as a multiracial and multicultural country, one that affirms its ethnic diversity as a strength and recognises the rights of minorities.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, stressed that multiculturalism is fundamentally why Singapore became an independent country.

Because of Singapore’s diverse society and the dynamics among the major cultural and ethnic groups, the topic of race is present in every discussion, every issue, and every policy.

“You need to then understand our social context, our historical context and our future in order to have a dialogue about race productively in Singapore,” said Dr Janil.

Yet, the topic of racism has returned to the fore once again following recent events, including the street confrontation between the Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer and an inter-ethnic couple as well as other viral videos of racially-charged encounters.

Activists, community organisers and academics whom TODAY spoke to agree that the conversations of race need to move forward productively in the age of social media where tensions are inflamed easily.

And when the heat surrounding the recent incidents fades away, some good may emerge from these episodes if Singaporeans can understand the experiences of others and engage with each other in good faith, several said.

Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore (NUS), underscored the importance of identifying biases and stereotypes that people may have and how that contributes to others’ lived experiences.

“Some of this will look ugly, but if we can start addressing them bit by bit, with understanding, there is a good chance we can move forward.”

WHAT IS RACISM?

The Oxford English Dictionary today defines racism as acts of prejudice, discrimination and antagonism by a person, community or institution against a person or people based on their race and ethnic identity.

And by this definition, racism is usually experienced by people from minority racial groups that are subjected to such acts of discrimination.

Before 2020, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary primarily defined racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”.

It was also defined as “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles”.

This secondary definition was refined to “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another”, following the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States last year.

Regardless of which definition is best, the debate of what racism is, and what makes an action or speech racist, has also emerged in Singapore in recent days.

Among recent incidents surrounding race, the debate was loudest in the case of Ms Sarah Bagharib, who had called out the People’s Association for using a cutout of her wedding photo — sans the couple’s faces — as part of Hari Raya decorations without her permission.

Netizens were split on the issue. Some claimed that the matter is not a case of racism but one of cultural insensitivity. Others were wont to point out that racism does not exist in Singapore, which prides itself on its multiracial society.

Another viewpoint was that the blunder was made because of a lack of understanding of the Malay culture that had stemmed from ignorance that needed to be dismantled.

As Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, put it, two narratives have emerged about the state of race relations here — one says Singapore is racially harmonious, and another says that it is still not quite there.

For race discourse to be productive, Singaporeans from all walks of life must first be able to establish that racist acts are not condoned by society, said Dr Nazry.

Because of Singapore’s diverse society and the dynamics among the major cultural and ethnic groups, the topic of race is present in every discussion, every issue, and every policy. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

The Singapore Government has taken the approach that racism exists here, Dr Janil emphasised.

“What we want to be sure of is that our policies, our systems, our approach, is to understand that there is racism, and we must always push against it,” said Dr Janil, who is also the chairperson of the non-profit OnePeople.sg (OPSG)

Comparing indicators of racial and religious harmony from 2013 and 2018, a study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OPSG in 2019 found that while racism exists, it is not widespread in Singapore.

Lead researcher Dr Mathew Mathews said about 10 per cent of Chinese respondents in the study and around 20 per cent of minorities said that they had experienced racial tension in the 2018 study. There was little change from the results of the 2013 findings.

“When asked about specific incidents, most cited they had felt insulted at how perhaps social/mainstream media had portrayed their race or cultural practices – so there is certainly some racism here, but it is not rampant,” said Dr Mathews.

WHY SOME STILL CONSIDER IT TABOO

On the other hand, some people felt that the recent spate of racist incidents is an indication that racism in Singapore not only exists but has been gathering speed for some time, though hidden from view because of a lack of discourse and the difficulty in detecting unintentional and unconscious forms of racism.

Dr Peter Chew, a senior lecturer of psychology at the James Cook University, explained that overt racism tends to be low in Singapore due to the function of laws that protect racial harmony here, such as the Sedition Act.

The Act makes it illegal for anyone in Singapore to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population.

Laws like these do well to keep overt racism in check but also have an effect of quieting discourse about race, he said.

A 2016 CNA and IPS study, which was also led by Dr Mathews, found that two-thirds of respondents felt that discussions of race could lead to tension.

Raising such issues may be deemed “too sensitive”, and so issues about race and culture tend to be thought of as private matters rather than meant for broader conversations, said the researcher.

Agreeing, Mr Gosteloa Spencer, founder of community group Not OK SG, said this could be due to generations of Singaporeans suppressing talk of racism, discrimination, and racial inequality for fear of creating rifts among the different ethnic communities.

He believes it is this inhibition that led to casual racism, where people make jokes, off-handed comments, or exclusionary body language based on race. These acts also often go unnoticed and unaddressed.

“Just because it’s casual, does it make it okay to pass a racist comment?” he added. “Racism is racism, no matter what form it takes.”

Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder and editor of Minority Voices, which serves as a platform for minorities who have faced discrimination to come forth and share their experiences, said the concept of racial tolerance that is entrenched in the Singapore identity has also been problematic.

“Over time, this tolerance runs out… as can be seen from the recent acts of racism on social media. We need to move away from tolerance to acceptance and celebration.”

But while Singaporeans may have held back on talking about race in the past, some said that this is rapidly changing in the age of social media, where racially charged incidents can be quickly shared online and go viral.

And these incidents also encourage others to speak up and to call out racist acts publicly.

Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder and editor of Minority Voices, which serves as a platform for minorities who have faced discrimination to come forth and share their experiences, said the concept of racial tolerance that is entrenched in the Singapore identity has also been a problematic one. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

‘SAFE AND BRAVE’ SPACES… NOT JUST BEHIND CLOSED DOORS 

Earlier this month, Mr Jose Raymond started the Call It Out SG movement with three others to raise awareness of issues pertaining to race following the slew of racist incidents here. “This is simply a case of minorities saying that enough is enough and that racism is inexcusable,” he said.

“Perhaps in the past, when minorities faced racism, we didn't have the tools to articulate ourselves properly or the courage to call it out. Now we do,” added the former Singapore People’s Party chairman.

The movement urges people to call out instances of racism that they see, and has gained momentum in the light of the recent incidents.

On the flipside, while the process of publicly calling for accountability and boycotting if nothing else seems to work, has become an important tool of social justice, Mr Spencer said it is difficult to control the extent of it and make sure things do not go out of hand.

Associate Professor Daniel Goh, an NUS sociologist specialising in race relations, said: “We should do it in a respectful way that seeks to educate each other and deepen intercultural understanding, and the large part of the burden should not fall on the victims or members of ethnic minorities to do so, members of the ethnic majority should do so too.”

For more severe forms of discrimination, such as getting fired from a job, physical violence, or the shaming of ethnic minorities in a classroom setting, for example, victims should call for institutional and legal redress, said the former Workers’ Party (WP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP).

Referring to the parliamentary replies to WP’s Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap earlier this year on the issue of the tudung, Assoc Prof Goh said the authorities rely on “back channels” for discussions and resolutions, and to manage racial relations in a pragmatic and careful way.

But the Government would have to adapt to changing trends in internet culture, social media and social justice. He noted that for younger generations of Singaporeans, the internet and social media make up “the natural space for their articulation (on issues of concern)… not back channels”.

Responding, Dr Janil, who is from the ruling People’s Action Party, said there will always be a need for both public discussions and private dialogues.

“It is not an either-or. Race is a multifaceted issue,” he said.

OPSG, for example, has moved its activities online in the course of the pandemic. Despite the usual people-to-people nature of its engagements, it has been able to maintain participation rates and in some cases, reach out to new spaces for people to be involved in.

Aside from safe spaces, CIFU’s Mr Imran also urged the creation of “brave spaces” for people to confront their own views while listening to the experience of those at the receiving ends of racism.

“A brave space involves the willingness to interrogate our own assumptions and take a stand to correct our inability to see privilege and other blindspots that we have. A safe space opens up the conversation. But a brave space ensures that the conversation becomes transformative and not a mere exchange of stories,” he said.

POLICIES WHICH SHAPED SOCIETY

In its history, Singapore has relied on a panoply of policies to maintain a harmonious state, and to ensure minority representation in the highest echelons of governance.

The Housing and Development Board’s Ethnic Integration Policy, for example, helps to ensure a balanced mix of various ethnic communities in public housing estates and prevent the formation of racial enclaves.

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme, along with the reserved presidential election, was implemented to enshrine minority representation in leadership positions and Parliament.

These policies and laws are part of what builds a brand of “active and inclusive multiculturalism”, as described by then Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in 2017.

The key is not to dilute or weaken the various cultures in the hope of developing a single, common culture, nor is it to strengthen each separate culture.

The Housing and Development Board’s Ethnic Integration Policy helps to ensure a balanced mix of various ethnic communities in public housing estates and prevent the formation of racial enclaves. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

But following the recent spate of racist incidents, some people have also questioned whether it was still useful to retain the traditional Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) framework, the foundation on which many policies have been based upon.

As of 2018, more than one in five couples who tie the knot are in mixed marriages, according to official statistics.

Dr Janil said that the CMIO framework is a policy tool and should not be conflated with the goals of multiculturalism in Singapore. Any social policy or social intervention that is based on a racial categorisation will need such a framework, he added.

Experts said what is needed is a keener interest in each other’s cultures, which is something that has to be established from young.

Mr Mohamed Irshad, former Nominated MP and founder of interfaith group Roses of Peace, said: “As a country, we can do a lot more in educating people about the various cultural nuances across various ethnic groups.”

ROLE MODEL SOCIETY HAS TO FIND ITS OWN WAY, AGAIN

In 2013, former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong gave a lecture to the Singapore Academy of Law on the growth of multiculturalism in Singapore. Mr Chan, now 83, said at the time that if demography is destiny, then Singapore’s destiny is to be a multicultural state.

“If its citizens are unable to share a common space suffused with shared values, the people will forever be unable to forge a nation that can survive and prosper,” Mr Chan said then.

After decades of being held up around the world as a role model society for multiculturalism and multiracialism, Singapore seems to be at a crossroads — and it now needs to find its own way again, having blazed the trail for others. 

Surely though, it is doing so from a position of strength, several academics whom TODAY interviewed said. While some believe that the recent incidents reveal deeper issues that need to be addressed, there is little doubt that inter-racial ties in Singapore are built on a solid foundation, and Singaporeans also need to be careful to ensure that societal fault lines are not exploited by nefarious forces within and outside the country.

Looking back, media consultant Ian de Cotta, 62, attributed this foundation to the kampung spirit which had its heyday in the aftermath of the 1964 racial riots.

“Our neighbours’ doors were always open, even at night, and people would just walk in to chit chat and have coffee,” he said. “This kampung spirit that was so deeply rooted in our people was something that worked in Singapore’s favour.”

Agreeing, Mr Kunalan added: “To live harmoniously like in the kampung... there must be understanding and there must be forgiveness.”

With Singapore’s kampung days long gone, the younger generations would do well to remember the adage as they find their own way forward.  

Related topics

racism religion race ethnicity society People's Association

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