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Recognise superdiversity in S’pore to overcome stereotyping

Recent discussions on gender stereotypes have prompted various commentaries deploring the ideological hold that social categorisations have on Singaporeans. Through examples of racialism and negative stereotyping, Dr Nazry Bahrawi implores us to break out of our little boxes.

Recognise superdiversity in S’pore to overcome stereotyping

NUS sociologist Daniel Goh has critiqued school events such as Racial Harmony Day as offering an essentialist and superficial perception of racial distinctions. TODAY File Photo

Recent discussions on gender stereotypes have prompted various commentaries deploring the ideological hold that social categorisations have on Singaporeans. Through examples of racialism and negative stereotyping, Dr Nazry Bahrawi implores us to break out of our little boxes.

In a similar vein, Ms Nur Diyanah Anwar suggests that our official racial groupings are too rigid and pose a barrier to assimilating new citizens. However, both articles stop short of elaborating how exactly we may break out of or move beyond such potentially oppressive social “corrals”.

As it turns out, much work in the social sciences has been aimed at addressing this. One solution lies not in denying or subverting these social categories such as race and gender, but in recognising the heterogeneity and mutability within them.

There is a consensus within academia that categorisations such as gender and race are socially constructed. For example, modern biology has largely proven that there is no biological basis for the different racial groupings we see around us.

Any genetic and phenotypic variation such as skin colour exists on a continuum across the entire human population, without sharp boundaries between races.

Similarly, many behavioural differences between the two genders have been attributed to socialisation processes. That is, we learn as children what boys and girls ought to be doing.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that social scientists view labels and identities such as race as a form of false consciousness that have no value. Many sociologists such as Mr Zygmunt Bauman acknowledge how these labels can have an empowering and affirmative function for individuals within these social groups. Race might serve as an important collective identity for a community of people, through which they seek political rights and security. Race is real in our lived experiences and affiliations. The solution to avoiding oppressive stereotypes is, therefore, not in abandoning our labels and identities.

The key point is that there is no objective reality to categories such as race. To sociolinguist Suresh Canagarajah, they are constructs that are always open to reconstitution and relabelling. They often change. And the reason categories often change is because social circumstances are never stable and always in flux.

As sociologist Steven Vertovec observed of British society the past three decades, the changing nature of global migration has brought with it a transformative “diversification of diversity”. It has introduced a whole range of social variables into the British demographic, so it is no longer sufficient to see diversity only in conventional terms of ethnicity and race.

In Dr Vertovec’s words: “To understand and more fully address the complex nature of contemporary, migration-driven diversity, additional variables need to be better recognised by social scientists, policymakers, practitioners and the public. These include: Differential legal statuses and their concomitant conditions, divergent labour market experiences, discrete configurations of gender and age, patterns of spatial distribution, and mixed local area responses by service providers and residents.” Dr Vertovec thus coins the term “superdiversity” to underscore this newer form of heterogeneity within British society.

ARE OUR SCHOOLS DOING ENOUGH?

The same implications are applicable to Singapore today. The fact is that tremendous diversity existed within each of the three official races at Singapore’s independence in 1965. And this diversity has only expanded as new generations of Singaporeans began experiencing higher levels of education and connectivity with the wider world, adopting their official mother tongues and English.

For example, the languages our grandparents are proficient in are entirely different from the ones we now use every day. The surge in immigration since the 1990s has further added to this mix. Practices within the same racial group can be as different as chalk and cheese between my grandparents, my generation and new citizens. And yet, most of us claim to be Chinese, Malay or Indian despite these variations.

As Dr Bahrawi has demonstrated, the average Singaporean’s understanding of diversity and multiculturalism is somehow overly simplistic and incompatible with our lived realities. It is this misconception of diversity that leads to stereotyping and eventual cross-cultural misunderstandings.

The most obvious way to enrich our understanding of different social groupings in Singapore is, of course, through education. While the current social studies syllabus for primary and secondary schools does teach pupils about group identities in Singapore society, I am unsure if the curriculum goes far enough to raise critical awareness of diversities within groups. There is also no clear requirement for subjects such as General Paper to tackle the issue.

On the other hand, National University of Singapore sociologist Daniel Goh has critiqued school events such as Racial Harmony Day as offering an essentialist and superficial perception of racial distinctions. My own experience as a junior college teacher often found students wanting, not only in their familiarity with the cultural practices of other races, but also their tacit acceptance of race as a monolithic and timeless social category. Students have little knowledge of the historical and political circumstances that led to our racial and language policies today. The educational gap applies not only to concepts of race, but other social categories such as gender and age. This does not bode well for a society with an increasingly complex make-up.

It is only when Singaporeans understand the diversity among us can we eventually move away from stereotyping others in everyday life. Recognising superdiversity in Singapore, and teaching it, is one solution.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Luke Lu is a Singaporean PhD candidate at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication, King’s College London. He taught General Paper in a Singapore junior college for four years.

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