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Dare we talk about race?

We’ll be having a series of “safe’’, “curated’’ conversations about sensitive topics such as race, under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Before you give a big yawn at the idea of another such “conversation’’ because you think it will lead to “nothing’’, I suggest we think about what merely airing thoughts on such topics can do. 

Minister Edwin Tong wants to promote discussion but worries that this might degenerate into a cancel culture with groups denouncing each other. As usual, the blame is being put on pernicious Western values invading the minds of the young, who see themselves as social justice warriors with right on their side. 

He is right to worry because everyone is getting super-sensitive about slights and slurs about race. Older people might find it prudent to shut up for fear of worsening the situation but younger people believe they do so because they are earnest about ideals of justice and equality being applied, well, equally. 

One popular option which cuts across age groups seems to be to file a police report, using catchall phrases such as maintaining social harmony and preventing discord among the races. I wonder how many such police reports have been filed in recent years.

I think most people, especially minority groups, agree that some discussion on race is needed and argue for parity of treatment. They probably have to, because it is the politically correct thing to do to point out supposedly misgivings and mistreatment even if they personally have none. 

At the risk of raising the ire of readers, I will give a list encompassing their concerns which, I must acknowledge, could be the minority view of the minorities. It is, of course, not exhaustive.   

So here goes:

  1. They perceive some institutional discrimination against them that would affect their chances of living better, despite a survey that shows most think otherwise. 
  2. They think that there is a more primordial discrimination against them by the majority Chinese employers, even though the Fair Consideration Framework forbids hiring by race.
  3. They feel excluded from general conversation as the majority tend to speak Mandarin to each other, without realizing that a non-Mandarin speaker is in their midst. 
  4. They dislike being singled out as groups with a disadvantage, whether in terms of school scores, dietary habits or drug consumption rates, arguing that they could be the result of socio-economic conditions. 
  5. They might think that some positive discrimination should be in place, but they don’t like it when it is institutionalized, like race being a component of the presidency. 

This is not to say that some in the majority community do not have their pet peeves, including expressing dismay at the ultra-sensitiveness of minorities even though no malice was intended. But while champions of minority races seem to believe they have right on their side, it is NOT politically correct for the majority Chinese launch a response especially since they have been put into a position of privilege by the fact of mere numbers. 

That used to be the fear of the late Lee Kuan Yew, that there will be a drastic pushback from the Chinese who themselves can cite a series of “wrongs’’ done to them in the past, like closing Chinese medium schools, although present generations have not been handicapped, at least materially, by them. Given their sheer strength of numbers, which government or political party, can choose to alienate them? 

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So having a conversation is a good way of bringing all sides together instead of having a slanging match conducted via social media and police reports. 

To be frank, I hate talking about race. I dislike the idea of categorising people according to ethnic group and I think the CMIO category will become increasingly irrelevant with inter-marriages. I also hold the G responsible for increased race sensitivity, even as it believes that western elements are to blame. 

Mr Tong also said that the discussions will seek to educate participants. “I don’t presume that everyone who comes to such a dialogue fully understands, and I think knowledge and education is a precursor to a robust discussion.’’

Here is where I would sound a note of caution. What form will this “education’’ take? The G must also acknowledge that its own ethnic activism, like Group Representation Constituencies and HDB ethnic quotas, are factors that contributed to greater race sensitivity.  Too heavy a hand would have people wondering if the G was trying to co-opt people to its point of view on the appropriateness of its policies. 

Far better, I think, to have education in the form of race data, something which the G is loath to give citing the usual “sensitivity’’. Safe discussion must be based on the facts, and not entrenched ideology. In our pursuit of justice and equality, the key question should be : who has been left behind and what solutions, if any or even race-based, should be thought through? The end point must be an increase in the common space, not further entrenchment of silos, and the evolution of a Singapore identity that supercedes all community distinctions. 

So let us have a look at the data on household income based on race, to see if the community self-help groups have managed to fulfill their functions after so many years, or whether the job should be turned over to a secular or non-ethnic group. Let’s have some numbers on minority citizens who have had problems selling their flats because of the HDB ethnic policy. 

Let’s be frank about the composition of Government scholarship holders to see if there is multi-racial representation among the people who are likely to helm the machinery of Singapore in the future. 

What about the racial composition of primary and secondary schools and the barriers to entry, such as language or cost of school fees and enrichment programmes? And since the importance of multiculturism will be infused into the school curriculum, let’s think through how this should be done.  

I would expect – and want to hear – some extreme voices to better understand their point of view. A safe space cannot be an enclosed space with OB markers drawn so tightly that frank views cannot be exchanged. Conversations should not be shouted down by suggestions that someone is not interested in promoting racial harmony, or has a political or religiously-motivated agenda. If conversations turned into confrontations based on the facts, that is when the G should come into the picture as a mediator or even to acknowledge that some good points have been raised.

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I think it would be quite tough to “curate’’ these conversation  because it would likely veer into religion (why are mosques offered land at lower rates?), language (promote Singlish as the social glue) and gender (let Muslim women decide if they want to wear the tudung to work). I bet that the old hoary chestnut of loyalty, in reference to Malays in the armed forces, will be raised again. 

Is it worthwhile to turn over these old issues?  I believe so because the younger people haven’t yet had a chance to talk about them. What would seem to them as past “wrongs’’ to be redressed would have to be examined in the circumstances of the time, and how it has contributed, positively or negatively, to today’s Singapore. Older Singaporeans have been over them time and again. And while some might not be convinced by the status quo, there is still a sense that all must make sacrifices to ethnic identity and culture to achieve a common good. 

I wish Mr Tong the best in this endeavour. 

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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