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Social media a ‘game changer’ in tackling racism but offline dialogues are just as vital: TODAY webinar panellists

SINGAPORE — The prevalence of social media platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic has become a “game changer” by allowing young Singaporeans to call out and discuss racist episodes. These are topics that the generations before them would have avoided, an interfaith activist said during a TODAY Live webinar on Friday (Nov 12).

Social media a ‘game changer’ in tackling racism but offline dialogues are just as vital: TODAY webinar panellists

From left: CNA presenter Elizabeth Neo, TODAY correspondent Ng Jun Sen, Mr Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, founding board member of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, and Assistant Professor Laavanya Kathiravelu from the Nanyang Technological University at a webinar organised by TODAY.

  • The first of TODAY’s Live webinar series on Nov 12 looks into the topic of racism
  • A panellist who is an interfaith activist said social media has allowed younger users to call out or discuss racist episodes
  • A sociologist said online users need to understand that “there may be many sides to a particular issue”
  • The question of older generations being racist, Chinese privilege and media literacy were also discussed

 

SINGAPORE — The prevalence of social media platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic has become a “game changer” by allowing young Singaporeans to call out and discuss racist episodes. These are topics that the generations before them would have avoided, an interfaith activist said during a TODAY Live webinar on Friday (Nov 12).

Mr Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, a founding board member of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, said that typically after someone shares a racist encounter on social media, someone else would confirm that such scenarios can happen because they have encountered something similar as well. 

“Eventually, it snowballs to the point where we can’t hide it anymore and we have to talk about it openly,” Mr Imran said during the second edition of the webinar series.

The first edition was held last year in November and December.

Friday’s session was streamed at 8pm on TODAY’s Instagram and TikTok accounts. The topic for the first instalment of this year’s four-part webinar series was on racism and how Singapore can move beyond tolerance to being a society that does not judge people by their race or ethnicity.

The event, which was moderated by CNA presenter Elizabeth Neo, was also attended by Assistant Professor Laavanya Kathiravelu, a sociologist from the Nanyang Technological University, and TODAY correspondent Ng Jun Sen, who has written extensively on news related to social affairs. 

On Friday, TODAY also published some of the findings from its  youth survey that are related to the webinar’s topic. 

The report, which was written by Mr Ng, found that 64 per cent of respondents believed that the level of racism had increased during the pandemic, and that about two-thirds of Malay and Indian respondents said that they had experienced racism in their lives.

It also found that 81 per cent of the respondents felt that social media had amplified such incidents. 

Despite the usefulness of social media as a tool to stand up against racism, Mr Ng said during the webinar that it is also a double-edged sword since it has played a part in “amplifying some of these incidents”.

The virality factor of some of these social media posts has stirred up racist feelings much faster than in the past.

However, some fresh perspectives have also emerged. “New commentators, who are not the usual types the media features, have come and lent new takes on an old topic like this,” he added.

Asst Prof Laavanya said that social media also lets marginalised groups of people get themselves heard, “because not everyone's voice is valued equally”.

THE OLDER GENERATION AND RACISM

Aside from discussing the use of social media, the panellists also touched on a range of other topics that included questions from viewers about educating the older generation on racism.

Mr Ng said that it would be helpful to understand the source of their beliefs and try to address why things have changed. 

Mr Imran, citing the evolution of language as an example, said that certain words used in the past may no longer be acceptable now despite their benign origins.

For instance, there is a word that the older generation uses that they may not see as racist because the root of the word refers to someone who comes from Kalinga, a historical region of India. 

“Over time, it evolved into something that's pejorative... and one should not use that term,” he said.  

Asst Prof Laavanya said that one way to speak to older Singaporeans who are perceived to be racist is by asking them whether they mean to cause someone to “feel hurt or harm”. 

“We need to have conversations, because you cannot convince someone by saying, ‘You're wrong’,” she said. 

“But you have to listen to where they're coming from and try to understand why they have certain opinions, and convey to them that these might be harmful under certain circumstances.”

Mr Imran also said that it would be wrong to dismiss the older generation because they do have “a lot of wisdom” to offer younger Singaporeans. 

“(They) lived through a difficult period (during the nation-building decades) and saw how racism had panned out. We need to listen to those stories and draw lessons and wisdom from that generation.”

FINDING SAFE SPACES TO TALK

The panellists also said that education would go some way in helping to advance the discussion on racism in Singapore.

For a start, Asst Prof Laavanya suggested that young Singaporeans need to be taught media literacy, particularly when it comes to social media, so that they understand not to take everything they see as fact or truth. 

That way, they can understand that “there may be many sides to a particular issue”, she said.

She added that getting schools to teach students to understand the struggles of different communities would also help foster better relationships between different races.

“What are the struggles of a Chinese-educated Singaporean when we switch to an English language medium? How do women who wear a tudung (headscarf) get stereotyped?

“I think a deeper engagement of issues would be one way in which we could go about this.”

Mr Imran agreed that the points Asst Prof Laavanya raised are topics that Singapore’s education system needs to teach.

However, he expressed some concerns about whether schools will be “catching up” by opening safe spaces for young people to engage on topics such as racism, since discussions are also taking place offline in person-to-person interactions. 

“Are we guiding and discussing it in a way that is productive outside the social media space?”

CHINESE PRIVILEGE

One topic that was raised by a viewer was on the issue of Chinese privilege, and whether it was true or baseless.

Asst Prof Laavanya said that there was a lot of discussion about it, but people might have different definitions of what it means.

“First, I want to put it out there that Chinese privilege doesn't mean it's against Chinese people,” she added.

Rather, it is about in-built structures in society that might favour a particular group, similar to privileges for certain genders, age groups or even positions in a family.

“I think we should think about whether we have structures that favour certain groups and don't favour others. That's perhaps a way to start thinking about it,” the sociologist said.

However, she contended that it is a touchy topic because not every Chinese person has the same amount of privilege.

Mr Ng then questioned whether the word “privilege” suffers from a bad reputation because of a lack of understanding of what it means. 

Mr Imran said: “I think we cannot use it as a conversation stopper.

“If I disagree with Jun Sen, I cannot just say, ‘You know, you should not talk about this because you have Chinese privilege’.

“I think that's where the problem is — when we use it indiscriminately without understanding and to stop a conversation. Then it defeats the whole purpose of unpacking (how privilege favours certain groups of people).”

The second part of the webinar series will go live on Nov 19 at 8pm, where TODAY supervising editor Yasmine Yahya, podcast host Sam Jo and principal research fellow Mathew Mathews will discuss attitudes towards LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people. 

Related topics

racism racist social media Chinese privilege education media literacy

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