About 150 students descended on the National University of Singapore's lecture theater 11 on October 17th to engage in a 2 hour exchange with a panel comprised of various members of the Singaporean political scene in a lively discussion on the current hot topic of citizen engagement in the new political landscape of post general election 2011.
The overall tone for the night was mostly affable in spite of some zingers being thrown. Here is one of the main highlights from the Top Guns forum that touched on a hot button current issue that Singapore is still talking about.
Amy Cheong and Race Relations
Mr. Walid Jumblatt of the NUS Political Science department posed this question to the panel: The way that Singapore practices multiracialism, views race as a problem that needs be managed and that is how the issue has been approached. The Amy Cheong incident reveals as Mr. Shanmugam called it, deep fault lines within our society. What can we do to move towards a policy that celebrates multiculturalism which celebrates diversity and will such a move take place?
Ms. Indranee Rajah opened by saying that Singapore has always been working towards that ideal. She pointed out that although the nation does have many racial fault lines, it is not peculiar to Singapore and is happening all over the world, citing the infamous Ku Klax Klan of America as a infamous example of public displays of racism.
"Will we work towards multiculturalism? My answer is that is what we have been working on since day one. But its just that the way society is, we will inevitably have those tensions that pulls us apart, so it is still a work in progress and you have to just keep on working at it." said Ms. Rajah.
Mr. Yee chimed in by affirming that he is an example of a product of the Singaporean education system. He had grown up under an education system that went out of its way to celebrate diversity and has made many friends who are Indians and Malays who all get along swimmingly with each other.
However, Mr. Yee raised the following issue for thought: "We have about 40% of people in Singapore that are not born in Singapore, that either become new citizens or are PR workers here; how do we make them experience what I experienced as a child? Many of them (the non Singaporeans) come with their own language - they come with their own culture and keep together and that's where sometimes of these problems come about."
Dr. James Gomez said that it was important to remember that a special rapporteur from U.N. had looked at Singapore's racial policies last year and had found them wanting. Dr. Gomez said that the rapporteur reported that the Singapore government does have "policy blind spots where we do have issues with structural discrimination."
Dr. Gomez concluded his response by offering his thoughts: "Perhaps part of the problem why we are close but distant is because our ethnicity is print onto us on a daily basis, on identity cards, we segregated in public housing, we do have the racial quota policies. We have ethnic self-help groups that are ethnically constituted. Even as we evolve and have new citizens who are coming across different countries. We need to kind of revisit also taking into account some of international observations about where the policy blind spots are with regards to how we as a country look at ethnicity and race."
Mr. Edwin Tong responded to Dr. Gomez by stating that he agreed with Ms. Rajah; That our racial tensions are still a part of us and that it is a situation that is not unique to Singapore. Mr. Tong said that Singaporeans should actively celebrate the multiculturalism of our society by actively living it. "Only then can we break the boundaries of the ethnic divide. I fully subscribe to the point of view, I think James mentioned it, that there are blind spots and we must work at it." Mr. Tong concluded by saying he agreed with Law Minister Shanmugam's previous parliamentary statement that the government must take affirmative action to overcome its blind spots.
Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam added: "I think Amy Cheong was made a scapegoat and some of our leaders have said worse things in the past. We do need to address that question whether there is any institutional racism or bias inherent in our system. We do say we have a meritocracy, but then the percentage of minorities who are selected as scholars is so small that surely we should do something to address that. One of the things I read coming up from the National Conversation, and it is something the Reform Party has long advocated: the elimination of race on your IC if you so wish. You should be able to select the category of 'Singaporean'. Perhaps we should have a commission of inquiry to look into it."
Ms. Poa rounded out the discussion by iterating that society needs to relook the way it deals with racial differences. She said that the current zeitgeist is hyper sensitive towards any comments about race or religion and that there is a bad tendency to overreact when it comes to instances that involve the 2 subjects. Ms. Poa added that the aggravated societal response, especially the online one, actually acts to aggravate existing tensions and that society seems to have forgotten how to live and let live.
"In any kind of society where there are differences in culture, there will definitely be conflicts, that's part and parcel of life. As long as we interact and communicate, there will be conflicts, we just have to deal with it in a mature manner and not in a knee-jerk reaction. My personal view about this particular case is that the punishment was a bit harsh. It could have been an opportunity to discuss this in a calm and mature manner about differences in practices in how we deal with them. This is getting to be a serious problem in our society. It's now not just differences between races but also nationalities. As we have more and more immigrants coming into society, we're finding that these differences are giving rise to a lot more violent reactions especially online about differences in living habits and culture. It is time for us to relook the way we have been controlling discussions about such differences and adopt a more positive attitude towards having more discussion to create better understanding, rather then just suppressing comments about such differences." concluded Ms. Poa.
Ms. Rajah then rounded out the discussion on race relations by saying that the nature of the internet makes it impossible to control a conversation. In fact Ms. Rajah pointed out that the internet tends to "amplify" the conversation because anyone can simply just join in the online dialogue.
Ms. Rajah concluded by saying that the most effective way to deal with racism in any society is to deal with the root of the matter. "It’s a question of people’s attitudes – that is the real root. You’re not going to solve the problem by saying, don’t put race on ICs. Because, if somebody was really, really racist, when a person of a different race comes to a job interview, you think they can’t tell if the race is not on the IC? Of course they can tell. You don’t need an IC to tell you that. The root of the problem is the person who is racist. And the root of that problem is the attitude that person may have been brought up with; how that person was educated...by parents...by school...by friends. That is the key. As a society we have to make sure that our society values each individual person for the difference in their ways and we value them for being Singaporean."