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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

Race, Language and Religion

The discomfort of race talk

Last week, I was asked by CNA to go on television to talk about race. This is the series helmed by Dr Janil Puthucheary. The producer asked if I would like to update the views I gave on its first televised series on the same subject five years ago. I said okay, and then I declined. I am a coward.

I told the producer that I wouldn’t like to have my views misinterpreted, especially since I would be speaking off-the-cuff and my mouth sometimes works faster than my brain. I know that there would be scrutiny of every single word or phrase for signs of some kind of bias – conscious or unconscious. Then the brickbats would come. Better to write your thoughts down, I thought. (I hope)

I got to thinking about this when I listened to a panel discussion organised by Lianhe Zaobao this afternoon. A speaker suggested it was better for people to withhold judgments about each other during discussions on race. No need for moralising, show-boating or virtue signalling. 

I wish that it was that easy. Every racial (not racist) comment can be rebutted or countered. If you don’t have statistics, you can use your “lived’’ experience. You will always, always have a ready store of anecdotes piled on one side of the fence.  Somehow, people think they are entitled to get “personal’’ when they believe their ethnic identity is being disparaged. 

It is damn hard to talk about race . The fact is, few people can stitch up a consistent position on race. If you take a certain position on a racial policy, then the expectation is that the position must feed into other aspects that have an ethnic dimension. 

Just ask Pritam Singh. So if the Workers’ Party says that the ethnic integration policy should be abolished, then why is it suggesting tweaks to the policy rather than attacking it at its root? Mr Singh had to admit that the abolition is an aspiration, rather than a demand. 

If people dislike distinctions made based of race because they only engender stereotypes, shouldn’t they be offended that academic results and a whole lot of other data are configured on that basis? Or do they think that ethnic self-help policies work better to uplift results, more than any other system not dependent on race? We don’t know, do we?

If political parties are opposed to the Group Representation Constituency position or having Non-Constituency MPs, then why are they still consistently contesting in GRCs and taking up NCMP seats? 

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The basic answer is that we all have to work within “the system’’, in the hope that we’re heading in the right direction. Nothing on the race front will happen if the G doesn’t agree or lead the way. Do you seriously think, for example, that the proposal for a reserved presidency rotated on race would have come up if the G didn’t tell the constitutional commission to think about a way to do this? 

I can’t help but remember the late Lee Kuan Yew levelling into former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan who called on the building of a democratic, just and equal society “regardless of race or religion’’ many years ago. Mr Lee asked if this meant abolishing the special position of the Malays enshrined in the Constitution – even though nobody brought this up. Mr Sadasivan’s motion on race was amended to acknowledge that the lot of the races had improved – and still needed work.

In the jostle for equality among the races, we have to remember that we are a product of our history, with sacrifices made by every community in varying degrees. The OB markers on race might have been widened, but I don’t think it is fruitful to tote up each community’s advantages and sacrifices.

But, hey, I might be barking up the wrong tree. Maybe we are not talking on a philosophical plane. Maybe we’re just hankering for equality of opportunities and just rewards. That’s why the ethnic integration policy is such a sore point among minorities who see their neighbours making so much money from selling their HDB flats in the resale market. It is a  price they pay, in dollars, not figuratively. 

Likewise, that’s why we are so het up about discrimination at the workplace, in terms of recruitment and promotion. It’s about earning power. Minorities think they have a harder time getting a job or a promotion compared to the Chinese, because Chinese bosses would rather hire people of their own race. Hence, Chinese privilege. 

The trouble is, this is more of a perception than something that can be easily proved. How many people would say that they didn’t get the job or promotion because they weren’t good enough? Far easier to pin the blame on an aspect you can’t control – your ethnic identity. It’s the new whipping boy. 

As for Singapore’s ultimate destination on race, the jury still seems to be out. At the very least, we want peace among the races, whether through mutual tolerance or harmonious interaction. Note that I said “at the very least’’. One way this is achieved is by making sure that Singapore still looks and feels the same on the ground, where racial proportions are maintained at the housing block level.  Familiarity is comforting. 

In recent time, however, I don’t think we’ve been very tolerant or harmonious. I don’t like how identity politics is making waves here, and how attempts to take a more moderate view, especially if you’re a minority, make it seem like you’ve committed heresy. 

It seems to me that the more we talk about race, the more ethnically conscious we become. And even more self-righteous. So some people think the former polytechnic lecturer who apologised on Facebook for his comments on mixed couples didn’t really mean what he said and should be made to repent in some way. We want to edit out his actions and hopefully cancel him altogether. We think this is true justice for his racist speech. It’s open season on racists! 

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Yet, what is racism these days? We use the term so widely that we even have categories such as casual, systemic and institutional racism. Where is the line drawn between the private/personal and the public realm? If a father does not like the idea of his daughter going out with someone from another race, is he supposed to keep his views to himself? Or should we “rehabilitate’’ or brainwash him into thinking “appropriately’’? By the way, this sort of feeling exists in every race, right down to the dialect group or village. Would we say the same, say, if the parent forbids the child marrying someone of a different religion? 

I tried to get the panellists to define racism. One said this needed to be done through some sort of consensus, another said it should be done but he couldn’t figure how to do so while the moderator suggested that racism is like pornography – you know it when you see it. I disagree with the last view. What is racist to one person might be honest speech to another. Or do we want to err on the side of removing race from speech, that is, tighten the OB markers? 

I’m afraid that the horse has bolted.

The panel said that people must accept a certain “level of discomfort’’ when race is discussed. That is true. The Chinese majority can’t be very happy with the term “Chinese privilege’’, making them feel as though they had engineered some institutional advantage over others. Yet the Chinese must recognise that being in the majority, they have to work harder to assure minorities that they have a place in the sun. It can be as simple as refraining from speaking in Mandarin in the presence of a non-Chinese. 

In the same vein, minorities must tolerate some ignorance when questioned about their culture and traditions, instead of assuming that everybody should know this. (Cue: blame the education system). I believe most questions are just that – questions. They might not be well put and frankly more embarrassing for the questioner than the questioned, but I doubt that most have a malicious intent. 

It is natural, for example, for anyone to expect that an Indian student wouldn’t be taking Chinese language as a mother tongue. Should the Indian student take umbrage? I think not. At the same time, it would be reassuring for the Chinese person to acknowledge his presumption. 

I, for example, have been interrogated about my heritage and language and get funny looks when I say that I have only eaten feng once in my life and didn’t get educated in a convent school.  

There is also no reason a non-Chinese shouldn’t ask about Chinese customs and traditions – and I am not talking about Chinese New Year. 

Many times, I have asked taxi-drivers for their dialect group and which part of China their ancestors came from. I get appreciative answers. I also get an education on what goes on inside temples, the different dieties and food restrictions imposed on those who practise Buddhism or Taoism or forms of ancestral worship. I once got a cabby to point out the familial pecking order of a funeral cortege which passed us on the road.

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It’s been a disconcerting year for race, for me. I thought we were starting to move away from viewing people through a racial lens. Instead, the races seem to be digging in and demanding an understanding or an acknowledgement of their attitudes. 

Social media might be throwing up examples of racist behaviour but it also has a way of magnifying and exaggerating content. I thought only the G could “cancel’’ people by attaching some label to them, but people have started cancelling each other too, shouting each other down. I only hope that the noise online is not reflected offline. 

We have so much to learn from each other about each other. Sure, it is not “necessary’’ as we can live within our own groups quite happily. Some of us even grow up without having a friend of another race and are none the worse for it, according to our own myopic view. 

If you are happy living this way, I’m not about to tell you differently. It’s not my business. I won’t call you racist. But I don’t think you’re a very interesting person to get to know.

Then again, why should you care what I think? 

Written By

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

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