Yawning Bread. July 2007

Racial Harmony Day




Ground level void deck of a block of flats. Cheap stage with dirty red carpeting. Woman in pale green singing a Chinese song.

There were about 50 people in the gathering, almost all Chinese, save for 5 or 6 Indians. No Malays, if you exclude the 2 women with hijabs ("tudung" in Singapore) who were behind the counter serving halal food. The Indians were taking the halal curry, the Chinese generally went for the Chinese food.

Most people were busy eating. Few were paying attention to the woman whose singing was, in any case, quite bad. Perhaps it was better to let food distract from the discomfort on the ears.

Welcome to your constituency's Racial Harmony Day celebration.

It encapsulates everything that is wrong about Singapore. Top-down slogans are translated into meaningless events by servile minions. A handful of people, very likely drawn from the Residents' Committees, feel obliged to attend "to show support". It wouldn't do, after all, to invite the member of parliament as guest of honour to give a speech and have no one in the audience to applaud, would it? So make sure there are people! Who find themselves sitting through a boring speech and intolerable singing.

Nobody, but nobody, asks what all this has to do -- really -- with the encouragement of racial harmony.

* * * * *

That tolerance and respect for ethnic differences is critical for civil peace is not in doubt. There are recurring examples from around the world of intractable domestic conflicts over race and ethnicity. The question is: what is the most effective way to promote tolerance and respect?

I shan't bother to explain in detail why the government's fitful approach is unconvincing, for surely, it must be obvious to anyone who can think.

For schoolchildren, the approach tends to take the form of instruction about the different cultural habits of various ethnic groups, and class excursions to mosques and temples. Nobody seems to ask whether such an approach reduces ethnicity to costumes and ceremonies, or whether it falsely instills a notion of culture frozen in time and internally homogenous. When people are taught that outward group characteristics are essentially permanent and generalisable, are they also more likely to think that psycho-social characteristics are so too? That people of the other race are all "like that" and will always be "like that"?

Furthermore, doesn't the whole exercise end up stressing ethnic identification rather than breaking it down?

Chineseness is like this?

For adults, it's even worse. Since they can't be marshalled into classrooms, state instruction then takes the form of artless advertisements over television, and events built around slogans and MP-worship. Cynicism about the entire message would be the most likely result.

It's necessary to start from first principles. Why, in some societies, do ethnic differences lead to conflict? Always, the answer is the same: Enough people identify strongly with their ethnic group, but one or more minorities feel excluded by the majority and unfairly treated. It shouldn't be too difficult to see, then, what we need to do to lessen the chance of ethnic conflict in Singapore. We need to address these two factors head on, both institutionally as well as through social attitudes. Reduce ethnic identification and ensure no one feels excluded or given the short end of the stick. Not by the state, not by fellow citizens.

To identify with one's ethnic group is natural; the question is: to what degree? For all of us, our identities are multi-layered and situational. Since it is fluid, it is possible to shape people's sense of identity to lessen their reliance on ethnicity as a marker and strengthen other markers, e.g. Singaporeanness, for example.

It goes without saying that this is best done subliminally, for any overt attempt will be met with suspicion and resistance. Nobody likes his pre-existing sense of identity interfered with, which means slogans, preachy advertisements and Racial Harmony Day events are the worst possible ways to do it.

One of the best ways, at least while people are young, is through team sports. Provided participation is colour-blind, belonging to a team fosters group loyalty that cuts across ethnicity. The intensity and passion of competitive team sports is what is needed to push the normally strong identification with ethnicity into the background. Moreover, sports engenders the habit of overlooking ethnic differences in favour of merit (albeit merit in very defined, sport-specific ways), which should carry over into other spheres of life.

That is perhaps why, when people speak of how they learnt to see past ethnic differences, very often we hear them say, "we played together as kids."

Do we do enough of that? Are our schools integrated? Or do our classrooms and sports activities tend towards ethnic segregation -- rugby, water-polo and basketball for Chinese boys, football for Malay boys, hockey for Indian boys? 

Outside of sports, socialisation is hampered by language differences. Among schoolchildren, we too often see them splitting into racial groups, speaking Chinese, Malay and Tamil within their own group. Among adults, we see Chinese preferring to speak Chinese even when individuals from different races are present.


Our schizophrenia about language -- sometimes wanting to boost English, other times wanting to play up "mother-tongues" -- has led to this state of affairs, where we don't actually speak any of the languages well enough to impress anyone internationally, but we speak them well enough and often enough to alienate each other domestically.

As discussed in the box alongside, even when we want to speak of the economic value of knowing a second language, we still refer to the latter as "mother tongue". A language doesn't have to be your mother tongue to be useful. It's sad that we keep relating things to race even when it is not called for.

Playing together, socialisation, and the language issues that underlie it can only go so far. We can't know everybody. We can't like everybody. Singapore is not a small town. There will always be people who seem strange to us, whose habits might inconvenience or annoy us. Inevitably, the tendency to impose one's standards on others will rear its ugly head.

This is when we need to remember the first principles again. Conflict begins when one side starts to feel unfairly treated.

It goes without saying that the state has to act fairly, but equally important, ordinary people have to act fairly too in their daily lives. This requires an inculcation of an ideological principle: the humanity of the other person is equal to oneself and the principle of fairness overrides that of loyalty to your own group or adherence to your standards.

Malayness is like this?

More importantly, this principle cannot be divorced from a more fundamental liberal principle: that people are free to be different, not just collectively, but individually. Malays shouldn't have to behave "Malay" or even be Muslim. Chinese don't have to speak Chinese or even care to call themselves Chinese. A demand for intra-group conformity is incompatible with respect for inter-group tolerance and respect.

Yet, the fact is, we spend plenty of resources promoting intra-group conformity. Not just the state. The mosques do it. Event organisers do it. Sales clerks who automatically speak to you in Chinese if they see that you look Chinese and refuse to switch to English in reply to your English question -- even when they would speak English to non-Chinese customers -- do it. It shouldn't surprise us that the intolerance that is valued for preserving group homogeneity easily spills over into inter-group relations.

We have many petty fascists in this place to contend with. And we have very few among us who would champion the principle that we have to act fairly towards others even if they are very different or offensive to us.

It is only when we all hold that principle dear -- and practice it -- that we can be more confident in our racial harmony. Instead we're wasting our energies making speeches, doing costume shows, karaoke and big buffets.

Yawning Bread 


'Mother tongue' or 'second language'?

Just a week ago, on 15 July 2007, the Straits Times reported the Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew's remarks about the importance of knowing languages. In this globalised world, he said, "two languages for Singaporeans will give us a cultural and an economic advantage."

"With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse, the mastery of Chinese language and our understanding of Chinese culture are sought by many people across the world."

To parents whose children find the going difficult, he said: "'My advice to all parents: Never mind how much trouble your children are having in primary and secondary school. Get them to catch the sound, sentence structure and words."

"They don't have to score an A or A star, even a B or C, but they have a sense of the language. So to all parents and young students, whatever the difficulties you face, just keep on. Don't lose touch or you will lose something very precious."

His point is valid. Ability to handle languages is a very useful asset, something that I can see quite acutely precisely because I don't have that ability. Imbibing the music and the rhythm for a language helps one re-master it later on even if one fails at it in school. A surprising amount of Chinese comes back to me fairly quickly after 3 days in China, I've noticed.

But what struck me was the way Lee addressed the issue all the while referring to "mother tongues". The Straits Times headline also read, "Mother tongue gives S'poreans an edge: MM "

It's quite unnecessary. The principle is that of the usefulness of second and third languages. Even cultural familiarity is something that is acquired. It is not inherent in you simply due to the colour of your skin.

Why do we speak in such unthinking ways, constantly foregrounding race and ethnicity even when we talk about the economic value of second languages?