Racism exists in S’pore but how do we mitigate it?

In a live interview with radio station CNA938 yesterday (June 10), Home and Law Minister K. Shanmugam spoke about the recent spate of racial baiting incidents in Singapore.

Last Saturday, a polytechnic teacher confronted an interracial couple in Orchard Road and said Indian men should not “prey on Chinese girls.”

A filmed recording of the meeting was posted on Facebook, which has since gone viral. His former students have also come forward to share their accounts of the now suspended lecturer making racist remarks and Islamophobic comments in class.

hindu prayer racism singapore
Image Credit: Livanesh Ramu via Facebook

More recently on Wednesday, Facebook user Livanesh Ramu posted a clip of a man performing a Hindu prayer routine on the doorstep of his house, while in the background a woman who appears to be Chinese bangs a gong with several repeated in a seemingly malicious retaliation.

On top of that, a woman named Catherine Beow Tan – also known as the female “Hwa Chong” – made headlines for making racist remarks against other commuters on the MRT train.

It was later discovered that she also had a dedicated YouTube channel that perpetuates racism and harassment, which has since been deleted.

Minister Shanmugam said it was “not entirely surprising” to see this growing trend of racist incidents. He later recognized that there will always be some level of racism in the community, which is inevitable for any multiracial society. He noted that Singapore’s rulers have always recognized the existence of racism here, which plays out in three ways: deep racial fault lines, outright racism and racial preferences.

“If you have preferences and you express them in the public sphere and express them and make them a standard for others, then I think that is crossing the line,” he said.

“You should cry (racist), you should frown against it and you should take action when he breaks the law.” Because it’s cancerous, it divides and it undermines the values ​​of our society. “

Racial harmony has seen tremendous progress, but are we going backwards?

He pointed out that many government policies have been shaped on the basis that there is racial preference and racism in Singapore.

“The question is, how do we mitigate this to ensure that meritocracy works and that people of all races have fair opportunities? »He stressed.

While racism is indeed rife here, he believes that Singapore’s racial harmony is certainly not a razor’s edge.

We’ve made huge strides, there is racial harmony (and) most people accept the norms of a multiracial society. The direction has been positive, but I put a question mark (continued) on recent events: are we in danger of regressing? It is a direction that concerns me.

– Minister K. Shanmugam

He added that while racism exists here or in any multiracial society, the frameworks and processes that have been put in place have helped to safeguard racial and religious harmony.

“We have a pretty strict framework in Singapore and the legal provisions are quite strict, but you can’t always see the law as a solution to every situation. “

“The legal framework is part of it, but government and society have to work hard to maintain harmony. You cannot just bring racial harmony and racial tolerance as acceptance just by having laws and enforcing them. Therefore, although laws are important in shaping the framework and the foundation, we must do much more and go beyond to achieve racial harmony.

Everyone must play a role in safeguarding racial harmony

singapore races
Image Credit: Singapore Policy Journal

The government undoubtedly has an important role in safeguarding racial and religious harmony, which is a cornerstone in Singapore.

However, Minister Shanmugam stressed that society as a whole – people and even institutions – also have a vital role to play in this regard.

It is not a subtraction for Singaporeans to say that I am Indian, Chinese or Malaysian. … Beyond these (sub-identities), we are also Singaporeans and it is a common identity. We need to emphasize this common identity even as we recognize (and) accept our individual identities.

We must have a common vision to build a system based on justice, equality and meritocracy, where everyone can feel equal and protected. The government plays an important role in articulating this vision.

– Minister K. Shanmugam

He went on to cite examples of how some Singaporeans tend to respond to racist incidents with racist remarks, which he finds ironic.

The government makes a point of denouncing such behavior because if it is not resolved, the next time the tables are reversed, the government could find itself constrained when it wants to take action.

“The rule of law means that the law applies to everyone – majority and minority – equally,” he said.

“Did we apply the law fairly? Do people believe that we apply the law fairly to all races? Is everyone protected? If they believe this, then people will say that I accept the application of the law. “

While it appears racism is on the rise, it’s important to understand that it has always happened, except that social media has now helped shed light on these issues.

“We shouldn’t leave thinking it’s new,” said Minister Shanmugam.

Racial harmony has progressed, but it’s also a work in progress

Singapore has always been regarded as an exemplary model in matters of racial and religious harmony.

“There is racism in Singapore, but we are a better society than most other multiracial societies that I know of,” said Minister Shanmugam, noting that our model has worked better than most.

However, there is nothing natural about our state of racial harmony and it is something that requires constant attention and support, otherwise we will risk losing what we have achieved so far.

Singapore has already suffered from race riots sparked by deep political and economic differences in 1964, tensions that contributed to the decision to separate from Malaysia in 1965.

To avoid the mistakes of the past, the government has included multiracialism in its major national policies, which has made it possible to build a fairly harmonious society.

For example, the government introduced policies based on the CMIO framework such as the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and the Reserved Presidential Election that ensures minority representation.

There is also the Ethnic Integration Policy, a program promulgated in 1989, to ensure a balanced mix of ethnicities in HDB areas.

However, some opponents have criticized the government for taking race into account when designing our electoral system or our elected presidency.

They claim that by doing this the government is in effect emphasizing racial differences. In a Facebook post dated June 6, 2021, Howard Lee argued that such “policies play (a role) in exacerbating racism.”

For example, former Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) member Teo Soh Lung mentioned in another Facebook post that the HDB’s ethnic quota is “discriminatory.”

In a 2015 BBC interview, Chief Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke at length about the policy of ethnic integration. He describes it as “Singapore’s most intrusive social policy”, but also considers it the most important.

hdb ethnic integration policy
Image Credit: 99.co

Once people from different ethnic groups live together, they don’t just walk down the halls and take the same elevator, he explained. “Children go to the same kindergarten, children go to the same primary school, because all over the world, young people go to school very close to their homes, and they grow up together.

As such, EIP has helped maintain racial and social harmony in Singapore by providing opportunities for social mixing among Singaporeans of different races.

Regarding the reservation of the elected presidency to minority candidates, critics said the policy goes against Singapore’s meritocratic values. In fact, hundreds of people demonstrated in Hong Lim Park days after the first Malaysian-only election which saw Halimah Yacob sworn in as president on September 14, 2017.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the issue as an example of how Singapore is proactively strengthening the institutions that support its multiracial and multireligious society.

He explained that it is more difficult for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected president by a national vote. “How would minorities feel if, year after year, the President of Singapore was almost always Chinese? In the long run, such a scenario would foment deep discontent and erode our nation’s founding values. “

He further explained that this decision gives the ethnic minority groups the assurance that their place in society will always be preserved.

We simply cannot deny that much has been done to protect our national cohesion, and we should not let racist incidents of Singaporeans pitting themselves against a fellow Singaporean undermine our belief.

When such racist incidents surface, most Singaporeans judge quickly and leave a hasty comment about the person (s) involved. Such negative online speech generates more negative reactions and does not bear fruit.

Instead, we need to make concrete suggestions on how to improve racial harmony in Singapore in order to prevent similar incidents from happening again in the future.

Multiracialism is not yet perfect and we need to take pragmatic steps to get there gradually. It is important to note that the government is always open to comment and alternative policies – this is what parliaments are for.

If we are to continue to live in harmony, we must carefully manage racial and religious issues, not leave them to chance. What is also important is that we recognize the continued existence of racism at the individual level and work hard to address it.

Ultimately, each generation must play its part in maintaining racial harmony and it is an ongoing job for us to find this important balance.

Featured Image Credit: Bloomberg

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