In responding to potentially racist remarks, one could either adopt a positive approach that deepens mutual understanding or shut down engagement by telling someone who is offended to be less sensitive.
Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg, said learning the correct way to engage on such thorny issues was more important for Singaporeans than trying to determine the fine line between a harmless joke and casual racism.
"The key issue is how we decide as a society to deal with this as a whole. Do we shy away and pretend this problem doesn't exist? Or do we accept the fact that we should work on this together?
"We need an open mind on both sides - taking offence and giving offence," said Dr Puthucheary, speaking at a student conference discussing racial and religious harmony yesterday.
Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox
The Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education was responding to questions from students citing a recent incident in which freelance actor Shrey Bhargava shared a Facebook post to complain about being asked to portray a caricature of his own race.
In his post on May 27, Mr Bhargava said he was asked to speak in a thick Indian accent during an audition for Ah Boys To Men 4.
Dr Puthucheary said both camps of the debate had initially posted "extreme opinions, public postings of righteousness".
"The fact that there were some subsequent public views that talked about how to engage, how to talk about it, and how to learn is actually a very positive result," he added.
Dr Puthucheary was speaking at the third edition of the OnePeople.sg Model United Nations conference held at National Junior College.
Despite the event being held during the school holidays, it attracted more than 250 student participants, three times as many who came for the first edition in 2015.
Participants' ages ranged from 14 to 19 and they were from a mix of 32 secondary schools, junior colleges and international schools.
During the question-and-answer session at the opening ceremony, Dr Puthucheary also shared his opinion on a range of issues, such as the racial categorisation policy and Racial Harmony Day.
One of the participants, 16-year-old Chhavi Raheja said she learnt racism is a two-way street - the person who makes a racist comment is wrong, but the one who takes offence also has to raise the issue in a civilised way.
"There should be dialogue to ensure the same thing doesn't happen again," she added.