Lingering images from Malaysia's bruising May 5 General Election symbolise the new highs and lows reached by the country's complex brand of race-based politics.
At one end, there was the moving video of the sea of supporters at an opposition Pakatan Rakyat rally breaking into the national anthem Negaraku, with Chinese waving Parti Islam SeMalaysia flags with the white orb and green background, and Malays bearing the rocket flag of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.
At the other extreme, there was the screaming headline on the front page of the right-wing Malay newspaper Utusan Malaysia, "Apa lagi Cina mahu" (What else do the Chinese want?), as the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition recoiled from the desertion of Chinese voters.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has since moved away from racialising the election outcome, but looking at the messiness of the polls from the other side of the Causeway, the thought would have crossed many Singaporeans' minds that the People's Action Party had done the right thing all along by containing race-based parties and communal politics.
Malaysian politics "makes the GRC system look good", a friend quipped on Facebook.
The 25-year-old group representation constituency system, criticised in some quarters for creating giant wards favouring the incumbent government in electoral contests, requires political parties to field multiracial teams of candidates. This requirement, at the very least, is its strength - it ensures minority representation and prevents candidates from making potentially divisive appeals or put-downs on the basis of race.
But it would be wrong to make the leap from this point to generalise that Singapore has achieved better interracial relations. Instead, we should take a good look in the mirror and see the limitations of our model and attitudes towards ethnic differences.
My own feeling is that after nearly half a century of independence and as a comfortable majority, Chinese Singaporeans are no longer as sensitive to the culture and concerns of minority groups as our forefathers. A generation ago, many Chinese could speak simple Malay, having come of age at a time when Singapore and the Malay peninsula had a kind of port city-and-economic hinterland relationship and traffic between the two was much more fluid.
Last October, when then National Trades Union Congress employee and Singapore permanent resident Amy Cheong directed her profanity-fuelled online rant at void deck Malay weddings, I found it offensive, as did many Singaporeans.
Then I realised that despite such festivities being a ubiquitous sight in HDB heartlands, I myself did not know why Malays held their weddings in void decks, as opposed to the restaurant wedding banquets typical of the Chinese. I had never thought to ask, nor had I ever attended a traditional Malay wedding.
Several Malay Singaporeans have since posted online cultural explanations of void deck weddings. Back when they and other ethnic groups lived in kampungs, Malay weddings would be held in a courtyard and the whole village would be invited. Traditionally, neighbours would help out, from cooking to receiving guests. The communality of kampung life still holds a lot of resonance for Malays, and so weddings are held in the open areas of HDB void decks.
There are other examples of ignorance bordering on insensitivity. Younger Chinese Singaporeans may be guilty of asking Malay classmates and colleagues out for meals or eating in front of them during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. They may also not know the difference between Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji though both are public holidays - the first celebrating the end of Ramadan, the second recalling the Prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail and also signifying the end of the annual haj pilgrimage made by Muslims worldwide.
One would think that the acquisition of a common language, English, would enable questions about inter-ethnic differences to be asked and answered. The lack of desire to broach those questions in the first place is telling. Sociologists like Geoffrey Benjamin have long noted that Singapore's CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) model of multiracialism, while maintaining identification with a particular race, stresses only key aspects of that culture which are not incompatible with nation-building and disciplines one into looking for similarities with other groups rather than differences.
Thus, for example, the potentially discriminatory caste system in India - where birth determines your social rank - is not upheld as a marker of Indian-ness here because it clashes with Singapore's meritocracy. More contentiously, the Chinese identity had to find substantiation through the compulsory study of Mandarin because there were otherwise too many Chinese dialects spoken.
The biggest good that has come out of this is national integration, so much so that one can detect quite easily a new immigrant who did not grow up here. The introduction of bilingual education in English and one of three main mother tongues - Mandarin, Malay and Tamil - was nothing less than social re-engineering to find maximum common ground. CMIO created a new society free of the baggage and clutter of the old, and helped post-1965 Singaporeans to travel light.
But it also means that we do not really comprehend diversity because it has either been flattened out, appropriated or ignored. Just as I do not know what makes me Hokkien or Peranakan, I do not know what makes someone else Tamil, Malayalee, Sikh or Chindian beyond superficialities like skin colour, a turban or the sound of an unfamiliar tongue.
It is true that the increasing use of English will make us more similar than different, but something valuable in our heritage is also lost in the process. There will always be parts of who we are that can only be conveyed in Hokkien or Mandarin or Malay or Arabic. Genuine multiculturalism requires the openness and curiosity to explore these differences.
If it feels to us that in Malaysia there is too much talk about race - good and bad - perhaps the problem with Singapore is that there is not enough of it, beneath a veil of politeness broken by periodic online invectives and the filing of police reports.
I hope that this little red dot too can be expansive enough to not just accommodate, but appreciate the diversity in our midst.
I wish there were more serious, honest and meaningful conversations about ethnic-related issues, not just among community leaders behind closed doors, but among classmates, a taxi driver and his passenger or between neighbours. And that once we have achieved an understanding, like family members, we can laugh at our differences.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 19, 2013
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