Race, Language and Religion

The media dance on race discrimination

From britannica.com

I know a lot of people are all agog over the Raeesah Khan saga and the adverse properties of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. I am too. But something caught my eye despite the mass of text surrounding the two topics in the media. It is this news report published in TODAY on Monday December 6.

‘Positive aspects’ in S’pore’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination, but areas of concern remain: UN committee.

It’s a United Nations committee’s concluding observations on whether the Republic had been keeping up with its treaty obligations to eliminate racial discrimination. Singapore signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd) in 2017. 

Given the intensive discussions we’ve had on race so far this year, I was interested to see what outsiders say about the Singapore approach to racial harmony. I supposed I should be prepared for the UN findings to be funnelled through a racial lens…

Singapore’s record doesn’t look good given the list of “areas of concern”. According to TODAY, it was concerned about reports of racial profiling by police and how minorities were statistically more likely to suffer chronic illnesses. It also noted that the Government’s Home Ownership Plus Education (Hope) scheme, which provides low-income families with two or fewer children with financial aid, affects the “reproductive health’’ of  Malay women who want more children.

While the committee acknowledged attempts to give vulnerable groups more support to limit the gap between the haves and the have nots, “these measures are insufficient to address structural discrimination against ethnic minority groups’’. It wants foreign workers to have “freedom of movement’’, noting the restrictions imposed on them because of Covid-19.  It wants the practice of deporting foreign maids when they get pregnant or contract infectious diseases to end. 

Among the positive aspects it lauded was Singapore’s move to introduce the reserved presidency to ensure the representation of minority groups – which I have never agreed with, by the way. 

It gives us something to ponder over – and I suppose there will be no end of argument over whether the UN Committee concluded rightly or wrongly. I wondered if the committee did due diligence in understanding that different countries have different approaches to race because of their history and culture. Should we start dissecting every aspect of our life with an eye on ethnic equality, without regard to the consequences that such an approach will lead to or whether it would be useful in fostering harmony among the races?

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The foundation of the UN Committee’s observations  is that everyone should be treated equally, given the same opportunities, and given help should any minority member not achieve the same outcomes as the majority, for whatever reason. It’s a call for affirmative action on the part of the State.  

I checked other Singapore media (English language) to see if they had published the UN report. They hadn’t. I had to assume that they considered the report “not news’’ or somehow detrimental reading for people here. Or maybe, they were in the midst of getting responses from the Government. In TODAY’s report, it said it had queried the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. I haven’t seen a response and it has been a week since the report was made public. 

Given that we are awaiting anti-discrimination laws and a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill, what does the G say, for example, towards this recommendation that “the legislation should include a definition of racial discrimination that covers all grounds of discrimination in line with Icerd. This includes any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin’’ ? 

But my point isn’t just about whether there is an official response or not, but how the media seems to be dancing over this Icerd meeting that was held in Geneva in Switzerland. The Straits Times, for example, published only one item, Singapore addresses United Nations committee on efforts to eliminate racism, on November 19. 

It quoted faithfully from the text of the speech made by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Maliki Osman that was released by MCCY, relating Singapore’s efforts and how, in recent time, racial motivated incidents have been “condemned at the highest levels and investigated, and action has been taken within existing laws’’. 

The ST report also said that the “UN country rapporteur for Singapore, Mr Marc Bossuyt of Belgium, recommended Singapore impose a moratorium on the death penalty to find out if it would cause a rise in criminality” and that the UN  committee also raised other issues “including the law against fake news and the prosecution of activists, among others.’’ I have no idea if this information was based on a interview with Mr Bossuyt because ST never said how he came to be inserted into the news report. 

What was interesting was that besides the State’s report, ST also said that “several’’ civil society groups had submitted shadow reports. Then it studiously ignores this glaring need to follow up on what was in them, nor even what these groups are.

On the other hand, TODAY had this: Civil society groups highlight several policy areas including housing, healthcare in racial discrimination reports to UN. It transpired that five civil society groups had actually given a joint statement to the media the day before. The organisations are Anti-Racism Coalition (Singapore), Community Action Network, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Transformative Justice Collective. You can read what they said and decide for yourself whether they are substantive arguments. 

So we have the State’s version and the NGOs’ version. Reading the report on committee’s conclusions, it seemed to have placed much store on the NGO reports, which highlighted the different treatment/outcomes for ethnic groups. Whether it is about policing, chronic health diseases, rental housing or reproductive rights, they said the minorities have it worse. Some reports were backed by statistics, others were based on anecdotal evidence. 

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I know that the media has a filtering role. That it must make decisions on what to publish or not. It’s up to editors to decide whether something is worth reporting. It might well be that ST ignored the joint statement because of fears of polarising the population over issues that they might not even have thought about. But in deciding only to go with the minister’s speech,  it just opens itself to the usual jibe about being the Government mouthpiece. (Frankly, I wouldn’t even have mentioned the civil society groups if I knew I wasn’t going to follow up on them). On the other hand, TODAY appears to have ignored the State’s position, neglecting to publish Mr Maliki’s position to the committee. 

What gives? 

 I am tired of trying to get a complete picture of what is happening from the Singapore media. I have to read too much. But I am also grateful that I have choices, and can counter check the reporting in the hope that one media will pick up from where the other didn’t. 

I am guessing that the topic is somewhat of a hot potato for the media to grapple with. But to earn the appellation of mainstream media or MSM and as a “trusted source”, it must mean giving readers the complete picture instead of just one side of the story. People do not have the time to read up everything on the issue to understand the myriad facets, Nor are they all professional readers who can tease out the nuances in reporting and the different editorial slants. 

I may not agree with all that the NGOs said, but I appreciate that they are taking the time and energy to champion their causes. I can understand that their reports would focus on what they see needs correcting, than what is already correct. Likewise, the State must have its say too because it is supposed to represent a consensual, if not a majority view, going by our political system. With information laid out, we, the citizens, can decide what we should think. In my case, I have said often that I belong to that naive/idealistic group which wants to move eventually to a race-blind society without rocking the boat too much in the meantime with rants and taunts about racism, real or perceived.

With so many sources available on the Internet, the MSM should think deeper about how to play this role. It’s difficult I know because the news cycle is relentless, giving editors no time to breathe and take stock of how they should deal with “hot potatoes’’. But if MSM does not do so, then someone else will enter the picture and dominate the space as the complete and unbiased news provider. 

Maybe someone else should. 

In the meantime, MCCY, how about an answer to the Committee’s report? 

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Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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