More needs to be done to promote inter-cultural understanding, say NGOs and community groups

SINGAPORE - A lot more work needs to be done to promote inter-cultural understanding and cultural nuances between ethnic groups here, said several bodies promoting inter-cultural activities and discussions.

For instance, Mr William Phuan, the co-founder of Select Centre, a non-profit arts organisation which promotes intercultural dialogue, said he is hoping to introduce more translation workshops in schools to teach students how to translate Tamil and Malay works into English for reading and exchange across cultures. It is part of the centre's larger efforts to break barriers and stereotypes.

The groups were reacting to findings from an Institute of Policy Studies and Channel NewsAsia report which found, among other things, that despite high levels of interest expressed in inter-cultural exchanges, a fair number of its 2,020 respondents do not participate in the cultural practices of those from other races.

This led researchers to say that Singapore is "still not the multi-cultural nirvana that some would expect".

The survey also found that respondents were less accepting of people of other ethnicities, such as Korean or Filipino, and even less so if these new citizens are people from less-developed regions such as Africa.

On this, Mr Biren Desai, the immediate past president of the Singapore Gujarati Society, said its members are keen to actively involve new citizens of ethnicities not commonly found in Singapore in their integration efforts in future.

The society holds eight events every year, ranging from a kite-flying festival to a funfair, which more than 1,000 Singaporeans and new citizens take part in each time.

Weighing in on the findings, social anthropologist Lai Ah Eng said respondents' acceptance of new citizens might have varied if they had been given scenarios, specific situations or context when filling in their responses.

The questions asked included how acceptable it was for a new citizen of a particular ethnic background to be viewed as "truly Singaporean". Respondents had to choose from four options: "unacceptable", "somewhat unacceptable", "somewhat acceptable" and "acceptable".

Professor Lai added: "Statistical evidence must be handled very carefully and needs more nuanced qualitative understanding of actual context, situations and issues when attitudes towards immigration and ethnicity are studied. I caution against simplistic use of statistics along numerical majority and numerical minority lines."

Ground sentiment was similar to the experts' views.

Some people also called for a deeper analysis of the data, and to ask why the respondents said they felt the way they did on, for example, the topic of inter-cultural romances.

The survey had found that 74 per cent of Chinese respondents said they were more comfortable with their children dating Caucasians, compared with 59 per cent if their dates were Malay and 54 per cent if Indian.

Undergraduate Soh Xing Huei, 21, said that although she has no ethnic preference for who her future children should date, she suggested that one possible reason that Caucasians were ranked higher by respondents might be the general populace's "heavy exposure to Western culture and media" and the resulting sense of "familiarity" with them.

On the same topic of inter-cultural dating, Malays and Indians had also indicated that they were comfortable with their children and grandchildren going out with Chinese and Caucasians.

Ustazah Kalthom Isa, 44, from the Religious Rehabilitation Group, added that the results also generally reflect an openness to date outside an ethnic group. She pointed out that there are no restrictions for Malays to date people of other ethnicities. "Muslims, however, must marry those with the same faith as them. So the other party should convert to Islam. We have many Malay-Muslims in the community with spouses of different ethnicities who have converted to Islam.

"There are others as well who wed through civil marriages if their partner was unwilling to convert to Islam."

The survey also found that younger Chinese and Indian respondents were less likely to understand the importance of certain markers which Malay respondents had largely perceived as important. These included traits, beliefs and practices associated with Islam, such as eating halal food, wearing the tudung and avoiding alcohol and not touching dogs.

Researchers had said this lack of inter-cultural understanding among young Singaporeans may be the result of fewer interactions and friendships across racial lines, adding that it is a trend that "bears watching".

Ustaz Zahid Zin, 33, chief executive of the Muslim Youth Forum, agreed. He said: "Every community and household has a part to play in creating a thriving inter-cultural environment and mindset. For instance, when I was young, I attended the weddings of my parents' friends in churches. Such exposure makes me more appreciative of my fellow Singaporeans and the other cultures here."