Internalising Our Diversity

multiracial singapore
 
The procession would wind its way through our kampong, passing through the road in front of our house where we would excitedly gather and watch. Being a kid then, I was frighten too by the noise and the festivities, of the “rocking chairs” which were believed to be possessed by invisible spirits, carried on the shoulders of devotees, and the atmosphere of intense adoration and worship of higher powers.
 
Being so young, I did not understand fully what this Taoist celebration was all about then. Moreover, my family was Catholic, and we were told that it was not wise to know too much about other people’s faiths. And so, we were just spectators from the side, as far as trying to understand the religious practices of others was concerned.
 
Still, I was enchanted and filled with a sense of wonder whenever Thaipusam came along, or Qing Ming, or Deepavali, or Hari Raya, or Christmas. This was because at these times, there would be this sense of celebration, where neighbours would share greetings and food, and dress up and visit each other. For us, being Catholic, there would be Christmas songs throughout the month of December, for example, and our neighbours did not mind. In the same way, we didn’t mind their processions, or the incense they burned, or the songs or music they played.
 
Life was very colourful, and while we may not actively inform ourselves of the details or teachings behind the practice of each religion, there was nonetheless this tacit and mutual understanding and admiration for the different practices of our different faiths.
 
Now, while I am no longer a practising Catholic, and not one who subscribes to any religion, I find that we have nonetheless lost something in that passage of time since I was a boy.
 
And that something is this, shall we say, sense of innocence – of the wonder of such religious practices. This perhaps is because of the world we now live in. The distrust of religion and its adherents is very palpable nowadays. 
 
In Singapore, the ongoing debate over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab at the work place shows how much the state is adamant that none of our religions or its devotees stand out too much. 
 
“Every community when it presses for its own concerns, must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it,” Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said last Tuesday
 
“That is the reality of living in a multi-racial, multi-religious society that we all have to internalise.”
 
It is indeed a balancing act for the government – and our society - when it comes to such matters, and one can understand the concerns. At the same time, however, one also wonders if we are not being overtly too cautious when it comes to allowing Singaporeans the freedom to express their religious beliefs.
 
“Internalising" the reality of living in a multi-racial, multi-religious society must surely include the actual living with and living amidst diversity. "Internalising" is not and must not just be an intellectual knowing or awareness. It must include the actual living and experiencing of such multi-ism.
 
 
And it is in such a practice that there will be deeper understanding. "How others might see it" surely must include the facilitation of this deeper understanding through things beyond an intellectual knowing.
 
Sadly, over time, the public parades and processions of earlier days have somehow died or been disallowed, although we do have the getai during the Chinese seventh month. You no longer see the Catholics, for example, holding parades on feast days  of saints through the streets, and the playing of music with drums and bongos at Thaipusam festivities which are no longer allowed, or hear the call to prayer from the mosques in the evening. 
 
“[Recognising] the multiracial nature of our society, mosques here agreed to turn down the sound of the azan (call to prayer) and turned their speakers inward,” said Mr Mohd Guntor Sadali, the editor of the Malay newspaper, Berita Harian in 2004.
 
Is the absence of these and more, sometimes by decree, a good thing? Does it help us “internalise” our multi-religious environment? These are questions which will arise from time to time, and perhaps more frequently, as our society becomes more diverse (through immigration and inter-faith, inter-ethnic marriages, for example), and each segment jostles for space to express itself in various ways.
 
The good thing about Singapore and Singaporeans is that we have had 50 years of racial and religious peace. And credit must be given to the government for this, although some things could have been done differently which arguably could or would have reaped more benefits for us as a society.
 
The challenge for the next 50 years is for us to be able to go further than these prescribed methods of maintaining such peace and harmony. And this must include allowing a more visible diversity of religious expression. 
 
We cannot meaningfully internalise religious diversity if we do not come into contact with such diversity on a regular, daily and natural basis. How will our children know what true diversity is? How would they know why their friends observe different religious practices if they do not come into contact with these at a deeper level of interaction?
 
And this is something which we perhaps should ponder on: how much of our religious practices are now hidden away, instead of them being visible and openly celebrated? 
 
It is only when we are able to accept and live among such practices that we would have truly build a society which understands, at a deeper level, the human desire for something greater than itself.
 
And perhaps, in time to come, we may once again see the public parades, ceremonies and festivities – and even idiosyncracies - of our different religious communities openly and proudly take place – and how we, as citizens of this tiny island, can celebrate the different colours and shades of who we are – whether we are believers or not.
 
Then we would have truly internalised our diversity.
 
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