Yawning Bread. July 2006

Racial Harmony Day




Apparently there was something called Racial Harmony Day last week. Pity I wasn't told in advance; I would have brought out my racy harmonica.

That's right. Nobody takes these things seriously except the government and its army of earnest civil servants. And the mainstream media.

The New Paper conducted a survey of 100 students aged 13 to 17, and reported that 30 of them (30%) "either thought a Malay was the same as a Malaysian, or didn't know the difference."

In another question, the teenagers were asked this:

John Fernandez is a Tamil-speaking Indian-Christian. From this statement, is it possible to identify his 
(1) race, 
(2) language, 
(3) religion, and 
(4) nationality?

34 of the pupils could not determine Fernandez' race from the text, a figure which the newspaper considered uncomfortably high. However,

... 91 students did identify his religion correctly.

Students were also confused about his nationality. There were 29 students who faltered here, with some incorrectly stating he's Indian or confidently but wrongly assuming he's Singaporean.

Why this level of ignorance or confusion among students?

-- The New Paper, 22 July 2006, 
"Poll of 100: One in 3 don't know"

The newspaper's point was that this reflected a very poor level of awareness of race, religion and nationality. It was implied that  ignorance lays a very poor foundation for racial harmony.

At a completely intellectual level, I find the New Paper's conclusion problematic. Both the Malay/Malaysian question and the John Fernandez question were dependent on a certain way of seeing, and thus, all that these questions measured was whether the 100 teenagers adopted the same way of seeing the world.

* * * * *

Let me take the Malay/Malaysian question to begin with. If we used some other country as reference, we would find the typical Singaporean unable to distinguish in watertight ways the difference between Thai ethnicity and Thai nationality, nor between Filipino ethnicity and Filipino nationality. In our minds, they blend one into the other.

In reality, there are Thai and Filipino nationals who are of minority ethnicities, but this knowledge does not compel us to insist on a distinction between ethnicity and nationality.

Yet, the New Paper's question demands that precise distinction between Malays and Malaysians, and then finds fault with our kids when they do not see it. Why?

Some might argue that whereas there aren't two different words that could be used to denote Thai ethnicity and Thai nationality, in the case of Malay and Malaysian, there are. Thus, they can be given separate meanings, and our kids should know that.

Yes, but then, why don't we insist on a similar bifurcation of "Han" and "Chinese" since two words exist too? Why are we unperturbed by the possibility of confusing the Chinese (Han) with Chinese nationals, and perturbed about confusing Malays with Malaysians?

Others might argue that it is because not all Malays are Malaysians, and not all Malaysians are Malays. But that is also true of Thais and Filipinos. In fact there are Singaporeans of Thai and Filipino origin, just as there are Singaporeans of "Malay" origin (and the reason why I put the word in quotes will become clearer later).

The Malays are a majority of Malaysia's population, so a certain conflation of the term "Malay" and "Malaysian" is quite understandable. Yet we seem to be unduly picky about this distinction. Why? I would suggest 2 non-exclusive possibilities, neither of which is considered safe to print by our mainstream press.

If our Malay minority do not see a sharp distinction between being Malay and Malaysian, some might think there is reason to worry about split loyalties (though why there is no such worry when we sometimes get so confused about Chinese and Chinese, does seem strange).

If our non-Malays do not see a sharp distinction between being Malay and Malaysian, some might worry that the non-Malays might treat our Malay minority as outsiders and fifth columnists, a degree of suspicion that cannot be good for our social fabric.

At the same time, our officialdom goes out of its way to make non-Malays Malay. Many Singaporeans are descended from Boyanese, Achehnese, Bugis and Javanese immigrants. The identity cards of the older generation tend to show these classifications. But the younger generations' tend to say "Malay" [1]


What I am pointing out here is that there is nothing objective about terms like "Malay", "Chinese" and "Indian", and it is absurdly dogmatic to insist that ethnicity (or "race") must have no association with nationality. Politics has a lot to do with how we have constructed these terms. If people don't give you the "right" answers, it may not mean they are ignorant; it may mean that they do not subscribe to, or are blissfully untouched by the politics of naming.

In short, is it necessarily wrong to conflate Malays with Malaysians? Or is this insistence on a distinction more an echo of Singapore's troubled relations with Kuala Lumpur?

* * * * *

In the John Fernandez question, the teenagers were asked to discern from the text the subject's race, religion, language group and nationality. To a degree, success in this would require the ability to decode the term "Indian-Christian", which frankly speaking, is a very odd term.

The question required the kids to decode it along the lines of Singapore political jargon in order to obtain Fernandez' race and religion. If one decoded it based on analogy with similar terms in the English language, e.g. "Syrian Christian" [2], "Greek Orthodox Christian", "Roman Catholic", one would have arrived at Fernandez' religion, but would still fail to unlock his "race". If Fernandez had been Roman Catholic, would his "race" be "Roman"?

So perhaps it's no surprise that 91% of the kids could figure out that Fernandez was Christian, but only 66% could guess that the binary term also indicated his race. Perhaps the 34% who couldn't were smarter than the New Paper, decoding "Indian-Christian" in the normal way of the English language rather than the politically motivated Singapore way.

* * * * *

More generally, I am troubled by the fact that the New Paper thought it important for our kids to be able to classify people with ease. More, to classify people using the politically-mandated classifications of Singapore: race, religion, language and nationality.

After all, there are plenty of other ways to classify people, all valid in certain circumstances (while the politically mandated ways are not universally or always valid). For example when it comes to religion, it may be a lot more useful to classify people this way: religiously-politicised, strictly-observant religious, loosely-observant religious, nominally religious, non-religious, anti-religious. And as I have discussed in an earlier article [3], ethnicity is more meaningful than race, yet we never talk about ethnicity here.

But why is it important for our kids to know how to pigeonhole people?

The New Paper may be suggesting that unless one can first classify people, one would not be able to treat them with appropriate consideration - thus the connection with Racial Harmony Day. But this too is problematic, because if "appropriate consideration" is determined on a group basis, then we must be relying on stereotype. "Muslim", for example, means very little. Some are strictly observant, while others wear strapless tops and minimal skirts, earn their living singing in lounges and are happy to let patrons buy them a beer.

The bottom line really, is that it is quite possible to show courtesy and consideration to others without first classifying them. In fact, we should show respect to others based on how they as individuals want to be seen rather than how we choose to see them. And how people want to be seen quite often does not fit into the regimented boxes that our state ideology has set out.

Some students themselves made the same point to the New Paper.

However, some students feel the differences shouldn't be highlighted.

Sec 3 student, Ng Yi Ming, 15, said 'We don't have to look at people by their 'groupings' but we should look at them by their characters.'

Sec 4 student Ibrahim Abdul Karim agreed. He said 'It is not important. In Singapore, every one is equal and our differences should not be highlighted.'

-- The New paper, 22 July 2006,
"Poll of 100: One in 3 don't know"

* * * * *

But don't pop the champagne yet. Such idealistic notions are a world away from reality here. As I am all too aware, what we have is not a case of Singaporeans having evolved beyond classification to show consideration and respect to everybody as individuals. The more likely reason that some Singaporeans are poor at classification is because to them, anybody outside their own group is a nobody, hardly worth the time of day. Why classify that which you don't intend to give a further thought to? Why learn about others' customs and sensitivities, when they will make no difference to the thoughtless way you're going to treat them anyway?

We've all heard about schoolkids forming race-delimited cliques. Even when kids of different ethnicities come together, the Chinese-speaking ones continue to speak Chinese among themselves as if the others do not exist.

But it's really hard to beat what I saw a few days ago on Mobile TV [4].

It was a contest among teams of professional chefs. I thought it was a bit strange because the teams came from diverse culinary disciplines: Chinese, European, South Indian and so on. I mean, how does one compare across such different traditions? But that's not the point of my story.

The teams had to whip up creative dishes for a panel of judges - and there were at least 6 or 7 of them, a few Chinese, 1 or 2 White guys, an Indian guy and a Malay woman in a headscarf. At this point I said to myself, how much exposure has the latter judge had to non-Muslim cuisines? How qualified is she to be a judge? But again, never mind, it's not the point of my story.

The point of the tale is this: when the Chinese chefs presented their dishes for comment, the Chinese judges spoke to them in Chinese. You can assume then that the other judges would have no clue as to what was being said by their fellow judges to the Chinese contestants.

It was not as if the Chinese judges were incapable of speaking English. When the non-Chinese chefs presented their dishes for tasting and comment, the Chinese judges were perfectly able to express themselves in English.

These were adults. And this was on television. Around the same time that we had Racial Harmony Day. 

Yawning Bread 


Why do we need to know people's race? And what do we mean by race?

In my view, race is pretty meaningless, but this exercise below is for you of prove it to yourself. Look at each face and see if you can determine his "race". You'll soon find yourself all at sea.

I don't have any answers for you to check against, unfortunately. What I can tell you, in [footnote 5], is which country each is from.


















  1. See also the article Who is Malay? 
    Return to where you left off

  2. The term "Syrian Christian" refers to the community in India, primarily Kerala. If you thought that Syrian Christians were Syrians (i.e. from the country of Syria), you're wrong.
    Return to where you left off

  3. See the article Race and ethnicity: the Singaporean perspective 
    Return to where you left off

  4. Mobile TV is the service that beams TV programs into taxis, buses and (soon, maybe) trains. Many of the shows are taken from Mediacorp's usual broadcast channels.
    Return to where you left off

  5. 1. Mexico; 2. Botswana; 3. Israel; 4. Korea; 5. Ecuador; 6. Japan;
    7. Turkey;  8. Mali; 9. Vietnam; 10. China; 11.Laos; 12. USA;
    13. Russia; 14. Thailand; 15. Brazil.
    Number 10 is Chinese? some may ask. I'm not kidding you. I've chosen a well-known face. His name is Tian Liang and he's a championship diver.