Are we ready to talk about race?

05 Dec 2020

Straits Times, 5 Dec 2020, Are we ready to talk about race?
Since it was set up seven months ago, Instagram page @minorityvoices has gained 10,200 followers. Through its 170 posts, which detail individuals’ experiences of racism and discrimination in Singapore, the account has attracted hundreds of responses, as users weigh in on these stories.

Platforms like this show how discussions about race are already taking place, said grassroots volunteer Swedha Rajaram. However, she has concerns about how inclusive such conversations are.

The 24-year-old, who works in the tech industry, said: “Would the uncle under the block go to Instagram and follow an account called @minorityvoices, where minorities talk about personal things like bullying as well as larger structural things like job discrimination?

“I understand the caution. The question that often comes up is where is the line, where is the out-of-bounds (OB) marker?”

She is not alone.

The past few months have seen an uptick in conversations on race – online as well as offline.

Why now?
By and large, Singaporeans have tended to tread cautiously or tiptoe around discussions on race, given the sensitivities surrounding the issue.

For some, this extends to addressing incidents of discrimination in a more low-key manner, preferring to change perceptions that may be held by schoolmates, colleagues and neighbours in a more gradual or subtle way.

But the younger generation seems more inclined to address and have difficult conversations on these issues openly, observers note.

One factor is the immediacy of social media and its widespread use, which means many users are quick to flag and call out incidents of bias.

Another factor: the global discussions that are taking place on the subject – such as the Black Lives Matter movement in America and talk of majority privilege.

Both factors have generated a backlash from some quarters.

Singapore’s general election this year also saw the topic surface, when Facebook posts by Workers’ Party candidate Raeesah Khan – now an MP for Sengkang GRC – on foreigners flouting safe distancing rules became the subject of police reports. Ms Raeesah had asked if the law differed for “rich Chinese or white people”.

Her remarks drew pushback from some, and she apologised on July 5, saying she had no intention to cause social division and wanted only to raise awareness about minority issues.

Ms Raeesah was issued a stern warning in September after the police concluded their investigations.

In an online rally on July 8, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that younger Singaporeans have different perspectives on the issues of race and religion, saying that these are valid and need to be taken into account, as this generation will one day inherit the country.

However, he noted that such matters can cause umbrage, and should therefore be handled delicately.

The issue was also touched on by President Halimah Yacob a month later, at the opening of Parliament.

She said the willingness of young people to talk about issues like race was a positive development, but urged restraint and mutual respect in such conversations, as these “will always be visceral subjects”.

Risks and rewards
Observers agree on the need for more open discussion on the topic, saying that while there are risks, conversations that are well guided could result in better understanding of the concerns of people of different races.

Given how sensitive the issue of race continues to be to many here, there is a danger of unregulated online conversation leading to destabilising outcomes for society, said Singapore Management University (SMU) associate professor of law Eugene Tan, who added that platforms where participants’ identities are not known can be dicey.

“That would be throwing caution to the wind and a potential recipe for trouble,” he said.

“The virality and virility of an inappropriate remark made online must not be taken lightly.”

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser shared these views, adding that online circles tend to become echo chambers.

“People tend to take potshots, and mutually encourage one another to do so; while those with opposing views are cancelled out, leading to their dropping out of the circle altogether,” he said.

In spite of these reservations, observers say there are benefits to having more open conversations.

One approach, suggested by SMU’s Prof Tan, is to enable participants to speak freely but also responsibly in relatively controlled environments where everyone is prepared to consider, with an open mind, perspectives that are different from theirs.

Ms Zarina Yusof, executive director of non-profit community group AMP Singapore, feels such safe spaces will help bridge the gap between groups that may have polarised views on the subject.

“We should be thinking of a platform to bridge different groups,” she said.

“It has to be in a controlled environment, and discussions should have some structure – be closely guided and facilitated.”

NUS’ Prof Tan suggests having more data from reliable sources form the basis for such discussions, and for goals to be set on where they should lead to.

An informal opinion poll by conversation engagement platform OPPi of more than 500 Straits Times readers on race found a strong interest in the topic; many felt there should be more open discussions, but with some caution.

Some of these conversations are already taking place., a national body that seeks to strengthen racial harmony, has worked with various partners, including the media, to organise a series of recent dialogues.

At these sessions, instances of racism and discrimination and how they can be better tackled are often discussed.

Guiding the conversation
Can Singaporeans have such conversations in a way that does not just air grievances or raise tensions, but takes the discussion forward and throws up solutions?

An observer says framing of the issue, and medium, can make a difference.

Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, suggests having professionals trained in mental health issues be involved in conversations on race, so that discussions can be approached from a care and therapy lens.

They could also involve the arts, like literature and films, which Dr Nazry, a board member of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, said can allow people to engage with difficult issues with more nuance and sensitivity than at public seminars.

One way to ensure such discussions are productive is to recognise that discrimination happens in Singapore, said Dr Nazry.

Instead of rejection, there should be an acknowledgement of lived experiences of discrimination, no matter how difficult it might be to hear.

“Racial issues cannot be viewed in isolation from other facets of social inequality, including economics and gender,” he said.

“The recognition of such intersections can allow us to be holistic when trying to craft policies or solutions.”

Ms Swedha added that discussions on race should go beyond a “basic and tokenistic” level.

She cited how some of her Indian friends’ classmates made disparaging remarks about them, only to approach them a day before Racial Harmony Day to ask for help to tie a sari or for some muruku.

She said: “It’s important not to take the most palatable parts of our culture, try it on for a day, then discard it when you have no use for it.”

Observers are in agreement that, to take discussions on race forward, there is a need to move beyond tolerance of differing views and towards understanding and appreciating such differences.

Opposing views should be given airtime and, in discussions, goals should be set to resolve issues or problems that have been identified, said NUS’ Prof Tan.

These differences mean that race will remain a sensitive topic, given how they can easily arouse unhappiness and generate misunderstanding or even incite confrontation, added SMU’s Prof Tan.

He believes Singapore’s good progress on racial and religious ties should give it the confidence to “embark with cautious optimism” on more robust discussions.

“Precisely because race, religion and language are sensitive issues, all the more we need to engage them for better social cohesion,” he said. “It requires us to be mindful and to ensure that any discussion is done with respect, patience, and according dignity to all participants, even if there are disagreements with their positions or perspectives.”