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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Race Matters - Singapore perspective

Nov 13, 2007

RACE MATTERS - Saying the right things can't be wrong
By Janadas Devan, Senior Writer

I WAS in Xiamen a couple of years ago. Standing in line to board a plane for Singapore, I found myself behind a Chinese Singaporean family, jabbering away in a mixture of Mandarin and English. I knew they were Singaporean because of their accents and also because one of the children in the party was waving his Singapore passport. They didn't know I was a Singaporean.
As we were waiting, a group of Chinese cut the queue and muscled their way ahead of us. An elderly woman in the Singapore party, the grandma I presumed, turned to me and huffed: 'These Chinese, they don't know how to behave.'

I laughed and said something pompous along the lines of: 'Oh well, they haven't quite been socialised yet in the ways of modern urban societies.' Whereupon, the Singapore party, judging from my accent, guessed I was a Singaporean too, and piped up in fugue:

'These Chinese don't know how to...' 'In Singapore, we...' 'Chinese are all right, but we Singaporeans...' And so on and so forth.

I was amazed. Mr S. Rajaratnam's vision - 'We, the citizens of Singapore ...regardless of race, language or religion' - is a substantial reality, after all. I discovered that in Xiamen, of all places, in Fujian, the province from which the forefathers of many Chinese Singaporeans came.
That is why the findings of a recent survey of Singaporean attitudes on race and religion - conducted, appropriately enough, by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) - did not surprise me totally.

The survey found that almost all Singaporeans were comfortable with Members of Parliament of races other than their own. An astonishing 94 per cent of Chinese said they would not mind an Indian as prime minister and 91 per cent said they would accept a Malay.

Equally significant, more than 95 per cent of each race said they were comfortable with neighbours of other races; and equally high percentages expressed acceptance of colleagues of other races in the workplace.

The differences in attitudes among the three major races were not statistically significant. But if one discounted the survey's sampling error, Malays seemed marginally more tolerant than the others. Between 98 and 100 per cent of Malays said they accepted MPs of other races, 97 and 99 per cent said the same of neighbours of other races, while 95 and 97 per cent said that of fellow workers of other races. If the survey is to be believed, there is no 'race problem' in Singapore and Malays are the best adjusted to the country's multiracial milieu.
But were the survey's findings totally accurate? On the one hand, they did gel with the findings of some previous surveys. For example, a 2002 Ministry of Community Development and Sports study found seven in 10 people would share their personal problems with close friends of other races and 97 per cent believed it was good to have mixed-race neighbourhoods.
On the other hand, there are studies which present a less flattering picture. A pre-Sept 11, 2001 Institute of Policy Studies survey, for instance, found three in 10 saying they would feel uncomfortable being in a place full of people of other races.

Also, there have been many reports of school children of different races not mixing. 'Dark-skinned' children are evidently the butt of jokes and teachers have said they have difficulties overcoming the prejudices some parents instil in their children.

The truth probably lies somewhere between all these various findings. Mr Rajaratnam's vision has not been realised wholly or in full measure, only very substantially. Indeed, the fact that Singaporeans like to believe the vision has been realised more than it has been is revealing. Let me explain.

Ms Lynn Lee, who wrote the Straits Times story on the RSIS survey, quoted academics and grassroots leaders expressing scepticism about its findings. The findings gave a snapshot of people's 'preferred attitudes', not their actual behaviour, some said. Others felt the survey's respondents may have given 'politically correct' answers.

Both criticisms were probably justified - but also off the mark. It is likely many did indeed give 'politically correct' answers, especially about politics and race, for the findings did not square with what politicians, ruling party and opposition alike, who have their ears to the ground, knew. But what was significant here was that so many did precisely that - voiced 'politically correct' answers.

Some years ago, one of Martin Luther King's chief aides in the American civil rights movement was asked on television if the United States was less racist now than it had been in the 1950s. He replied: 'Yes, definitely.'

Few people today - even racist White Americans who prefer segregated schools and housing - would look at themselves in the mirror and admit, even to themselves: 'Yes, I don't like Blacks. Yes, I believe in segregation. Yes, I am a racist.' That is progress, the civil rights veteran said, very significant progress.

The first thing one should do with bigots is shut them up. The most dangerous among them - the ones looking to instigate riots - should be thrown in jail. After a couple of generations of such zero tolerance, one will find the soft bigots, the casual chauvinists, shutting themselves up. That is progress, very significant progress.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the majority of Singaporeans who say they are comfortable with colleagues of other races are sincere. But it is difficult to believe all 95 per cent who say that practise what they believe. One need only walk into a local bank to suspect they do not. Apart from DBS/POSB branches, one would be hard pressed to find Malay or Indian bank tellers in other local banks. Ditto if one walked into a Malay establishment in Arab Street or an Indian one in Serangoon Road. Singapore is not yet the totally race-blind paradise that Singaporeans have pledged themselves to create.

But that 95 per cent believe enough in the Pledge to offer 'politically correct' answers means almost all Singaporeans know what is acceptable and what is not in race relations in the public sphere. It means all the measures the state has adopted to promote racial and religious

harmony - HDB race quotas, GRCs with minority representation, a Religious Harmony Act that promises religious bigots secular fire and brimstone, the Presidential Council for Minority Rights - have succeeded in creating a pronounced bias in favour of pluralism.

Yes, many probably did express 'preferred attitudes' in the RSIS survey. But that they knew what those preferred attitudes were is occasion for thanksgiving. In this as in other foundational matters, what one professes publicly is important. It sets the tone.

In Malaysia, they don't wait to look in the mirror privately; they say publicly, without apology, waving a keris, 'Ini Tanah Melayu'. In Singapore, even the chauvinists do not dare tell pollsters, or look in the mirror and say to themselves, 'Ini Negeri China' or whatever. Big difference.
Incidentally, that Singaporean family I met in Xiamen, the kids were not from Raffles Institution or St Joseph's or MGS, schools that have always had many minority students. I asked. They were from Special Assistance Plan schools.
Not bad.

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