From The Gallery

Frank talk on thorny issues is best way to find a way forward

Racial and religious discrimination has always been a difficult issue to tackle.

Yet, it needs to be handled deftly as the problem is a perennial one, even as measures taken have kept it at bay.

While heartfelt speeches reaffirm Singapore's commitment to an inclusive society, and facts and figures strengthen the arguments, straight and relevant answers are essential in addressing controversial issues.

This became clear during the debate on racial and religious discrimination at the workplace during yesterday's parliamentary sitting.

Three People's Action Party MPs raised their concerns.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) wanted to know, among other things, what proportion of employers have an inclusive or multiracial workforce.

While heartfelt speeches reaffirm Singapore's commitment to an inclusive society, and facts and figures strengthen the arguments, straight and relevant answers are essential in addressing controversial issues.

Minister of State for Manpower Teo Ser Luck, instead, pointed to a 2014 Manpower Ministry (MOM) survey, in which two out of three companies reported that they have fair employment practices.

Perhaps, his ministry has yet to compile the requested figures, and that is understandable. Mr Teo could have stated so outright.

Similarly, when Dr Intan later asked if "a detailed study on the racial make-up and overall inclusivity of companies as well as statutory boards" would be done, a simple yes or no would have sufficed.

When MPs ask a barrage of questions, specific queries might also get lost midway.

For instance, Mr Teo addressed several of the concerns of Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), including the effectiveness of penalties.

But Mr Zaqy's query on whether the reported cases of job discrimination were "mostly (against) minority Singaporeans" did not get any response.

Even when numbers were provided, they were not always clear.

Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), in asking about complaints received by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), wanted to know about the trend of alleged discrimination based on race and religion.

Instead of the trend over time, Mr Teo gave an average figure: Between 2011 and last year, fewer than 10 per cent of the 400 complaints received annually were related to race or religion.

Yet, according to previous reports, one in six of the 213 complaints received last year was about race, language or religion.

Each query may have been left unanswered for a host of reasons, including simply being overlooked amid the flurry of questions.

But, rightly or wrongly, leaving issues unaddressed could give rise to the impression that there is an aversion to talking openly about discrimination and other such thorny topics in official circles.

If such a perception takes hold, it could undermine the real, effective work being done by anti-discrimination watchdog Tafep, and the Government.

As Mr Teo noted, before 2014, Tafep took an advisory approach, counselling employers.

Since then, MOM has taken stronger action. Ten firms have received warnings for workplace discrimination based on race or religion, while another 12 had their work pass privileges for hiring foreigners curtailed.

In all the companies dealt with, there have been no repeat cases of reported discrimination - "a very positive outcome", Mr Teo said.

While results matter, so do citizens' perceptions as to whether the Government is wary of frank discussions on thorny issues such as discrimination.

It should be prepared to rise to the challenge posed by Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) to Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu, on whether the Government was "open to the idea of discussing such sensitive issues on a platform which has a wider public outreach and is more formal, such as the SGFuture Forum", referring to the government dialogue series.

Ms Fu replied that such issues are discussed in groups of youth leaders and school leaders, and conferences by the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and the Inter-Religious Organisation.

Yet, such conversations - among select groups that are already predisposed to harmony - have an element of preaching to the converted.

Addressing the doubters might also be necessary.

It might require more effort to win them round, but the process of doing so could help foster better understanding of the complex issues at hand, and how these have to be carefully managed in a society such as ours.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Frank talk on thorny issues is best way to find a way forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe