Let’s talk about Race

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Absence is silent and for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. The last in a series of three on issues I strongly believe deserve a heightened awareness, this one is uniquely Singaporean, on race. Earlier pieces explored the ongoing regional Refugee Reality little of us are aware of and the Rape of Nanking, a forgotten but crucial chapter in history. Today, I take a few steps backwards and come closer to home, where we (arguably) live and breathe oblivion – I first hope to clarify that the intention of this piece is not to accuse but to encourage a more mature consensus.

*For the benefit of the rest of this piece: Racism refers to the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Our late Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam composed the National Pledge that we recite day after day in school as students. The National Pledge encompasses not only the aspirations of our pioneers for Singapore as a nation, but also a promise within society about how we would treat one another as fellow Singaporeans. We pledge, I quote, “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” At a panel discussion as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the original draft of the pledge was quoted as the opening to the discussion. Once more, I quote, the earlier National Pledge started with, “We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves to forget differences of race, language or religion to become one united people.” Understandably, it was edited by our late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to omit the “unrealistic goal” of forgetting differences.

The underlying tension with regard to race lies in the differences (in tradition, culture, language, amongst others) of races. For quite a while now, our concept of ‘multiracialism’ has revolved around what Mohammed Imran (a Singaporean interfaith activist) calls the “4 ‘F’s” – Food, Fashion, Festivals and Face. From my days in primary school, I recall the costume-swapping festivities in Racial Harmony Day Celebrations and the Match-The-Dots activity sheets associating the “4 ‘F’s” to the 4 “main races” (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others). Kudos to our National Education, as every Singaporean child who has undergone primary school education would be able to quote the horror of the 1964 Maria Hertogh Riots amongst others to illustrate the gravity of preserving “racial harmony” in Singapore. This model of “racial harmony” has effectively allowed for the co-existence of races in Singapore but also unintentionally allowed for brewing racism.

In the recent panel discussion on race, playwright Alfian Sa’at recounted his experience of having his play, “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)”, receive an ‘M-16’ rating. The play takes place in a fictional country very much like Singapore in terms of its political system and meritocratic principles. The crux lies in that the majority and minority races of this country are swapped – the Chinese, a minority and the Malays, a majority. Then, in the course of the play, touchy issues with regard to subtle structural racial discrimination are raised. He remarked that the receipt of the rating surprised him because a “rating system originally devised to deal with immaturity towards sexual content and coarse language” was now used as a defense against racial discussions. The rating system, a tool for government intervention to regulate conversations and protect public good, now reflected Singapore’s “fear towards discussions of race”. It is as if constructive conversations about what “racial harmony” truly means are muted, ironically, in the name of “preserving racial harmony”.

The result, then, is that racism occurs along with our superficial understanding of different races (recall the “4 ‘F’s”). We create judgments and stereotypes, then silently reaffirm them with observations from our everyday. Simultaneously, blanket sanctions (like rating systems) initially formulated to guard against ‘hate speech’ are now confused to suppress ‘speech about sensitive issues like race’ altogether. It will be little surprise, then, to find the rifts between races slowly widening from the prejudices we form but do not talk about.

We can do better.

The danger in not talking about race and racism is the lack of understanding towards the grave consequences of the latter. The consequences here refer to more than the racial riots that we were taught, but the social problems resultant from our subconscious prejudice. For this, I thank the play “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)” for my heightened awareness. The plot of the play follows a political party campaigning for leadership of a GRC. This political party consists of 3 Malays and 1 Chinese; the Chinese lead, Catherine, was regarded as a “token” in the party to show “proportional representation of the community’s needs”. In the play, Catherine expresses cumulated frustration towards the futile efforts of “self-help Chinese groups” – the incredibly slow progress of the Chinese community in the play was a result of limited resources passed down from generation to generation. She illustrates, at one point, that for a long time in history just as wealth had been passed down in the Malay families through generations, generations of poverty had been passed down for the Chinese families. Her fellow politicians try to explain to her that the social problems of the Chinese are a “community problem” rather than a national one, dismissing Catherine’s plea for the nation’s people to be regarded as “one human race” so that the Chinese community can be liberated from the psychological traps built by prejudices.

We learn from history that the cruelest of conflicts can arise from the sense of superiority based on racial (or other) backgrounds. Years ago in Singapore, the Chinese were the immigrants whose character was doubted as a result of British’s fear. Yet today, our sense of insecurity has similarly gripped us, allowing the future of those with differing religious or racial ba grounds to be restricted by our imagined future if they are allowed to prosper.

Our nation should celebrate the achievement of racial understanding in a broad sense – that we have standardized the recognition of our differences from a young age and drilled in the minds of our children the gravity of friction surfacing between races. Until we mature as a society to shift this consensus, though, we will always be socially privileged or disadvantaged based on the fact that our race is a majority or minority respectively. That, in itself, is the manifestation of our existing racism. I imagine that the landscape of Singapore’s “racial harmony” will, one day, allow Singaporeans to live their everyday not being “reminded that they are a minority race” as Mohammed Imran said and perhaps, we could begin with Alfian Sa’at’s suggestion of anti-racism campaigns. The difficulty lies in that such moves would require us to acknowledge the presence of racism in our society. We have to admit that we make irrational conclusions about behaviors and habits based on race and that these irrational conclusions influence the future of fellow Singaporeans unfairly. What happens, then, to our pledged “justice and equality”?

Let’s raise ‘race’ in conversations, I challenge you.

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