Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Speech Of The Day

Life lesson learnt in an HDB lift

Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram said in Parliament yesterday that parents must be the main role models for children to learn about graciousness and understanding in a multiracial society.
Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram said in Parliament yesterday that parents must be the main role models for children to learn about graciousness and understanding in a multiracial society.TNP FILE PHOTO

Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram yesterday related a personal encounter from his childhood to show how graciousness in the face of prejudice can help tackle issues like social unity. Here is an extract of his remarks during the Budget debate.

Some in this House may find it surprising that I have never felt like a minority in Singapore. Yes, it's true - and it's not because I'm delusional as I'm fully aware that the Indians are a minority in Singapore. But the reason I've never felt like a minority is (the result) of a life lesson I learnt in an HDB lift when I was about five years old. My mother had been walking me home from kindergarten to our one-room rented flat in Margaret Drive. We lived on the seventh floor and had entered the lift to go up. The two middle-aged Chinese women in the lift immediately pinched their noses as soon as my mother and I entered the lift. I tugged at my mum's sari and wanted to know what was going on. She gave me a look that said "Keep quiet and behave", and so I stayed silent.

When we got out of the lift, I asked my mother why the women had pinched their noses. She said: "Didn't you smell it, Ganesh? Someone had spilled something in the lift and it was very smelly." I insisted that there had been no such smell in the lift, to which she replied that it was probably because I had been hiding under her sari. That incident took place about 45 years ago, and her graciousness in the face of deliberate prejudice taught me a life lesson I will never forget. It shaped my deep appreciation for diversity and understanding in Singapore. Consequently, my childhood was spent running in and out of my neighbours' flats along the common corridor. I grew up thinking we were all the same - it didn't matter whether we were Malay, Indian, Chinese or Eurasian. And I suspect that a lot of us from that generation grew up in similar communities.

So when the Government introduced changes to the elected presidency late last year, I had thought that most Singaporeans would, like me, share similar views. The ethnicity of the president does not matter to me as long as he or she is qualified for the role, and deserved to be there. However, I soon realised after attending a few community dialogue sessions that the Singapore of today is very different from the one that I grew up in. I was shocked that the community that I belonged to had some serious and deep prejudices about sub-communities within the group, perceived divisions carved along the different dialects spoken.

Let me clarify that these views are held by a very small portion of our society but, even then, it is worrying. The Government has made great progress in fostering unity in the community, and continues to take the lead. But surely, the rest of the unity-building must be undertaken by members of the community? Parents must still be the main role models for children to learn about graciousness and understanding. Our young learn from us, and it is vital, now more than ever, that we step up and behave in a manner befitting citizens of a proudly multiracial society.

We live in an age where the world is becoming more polarised, and communities and countries are becoming more inward-looking. Singapore's strength and resilience as a nation have always centred on our multiracial unity. This foundation will be crucial as the nation moves into the next phase of rapid development. We will welcome more and more new Singaporeans and friends of Singapore who will join us in our transition to the economy of the future. We will need to give them time to adapt and understand our norms, and the values we hold dear to us. We will need to be gracious, compassionate and kind, as was my mother all those years ago. Because that's what Singaporeans do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Life lesson learnt in an HDB lift'. Print Edition | Subscribe