We need to talk about race issues, says minister

Janil Puthucheary speaking during a forum on race, following the screening of a CNA documentary "Regardless of race" on Aug 11, 2016.
Janil Puthucheary speaking during a forum on race, following the screening of a CNA documentary "Regardless of race" on Aug 11, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Singapore has enjoyed decades of racial harmony but some social observers interviewed in a new TV documentary said it may be superficial as Singaporeans still harbour stereotypes of other races.

Another reason given by Minister of State Janil Puthucheary is that people are hesitant and afraid to discuss race relations because of the fear of being seen as racist.

They are also afraid of offending other races, added Dr Janil, who is also the chairman of OnePeople.sg, a national body that promotes racial and religious harmony.

He and the experts were discussing the results of a survey showing that half of Singaporeans hold negative stereotypes of other races.

They believe, for instance, that some are more violent, less friendly or more likely to get into trouble.

The survey, however, found that almost everyone respects the other races and believes all should be treated equally.

About 2,000 people were polled in the Institute of Policy Studies survey, and they reflect Singapore's racial composition.

The survey was commissioned by Channel NewsAsia for its documentary Regardless Of Race, which airs on Monday.

Dr Janil told about 100 people at a forum, after its private screening last night, that Singaporeans need to discuss the issue of race openly.

It sparked a lively discussion on issues such as the perceived everyday privileges the Chinese majority enjoy and whether the Government's model of classifying people by race, known as the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) model, is outdated.

The participants noted that the Chinese were less likely to be the butt of racist jokes and more likely to have more choices at food courts. They were also less likely to worry about their actions being ascribed to their race, said social science graduate Sherilyn Chan, 22.

But, management consultant Michael Heng, 61, did not agree, saying: "There is no toilet reserved for me, there is no carpark space reserved for me.''

Several people, however, wondered why "such a big deal" was being made about race, because differences between races are part and parcel of daily life.

Others questioned why race was being discussed along the lines of the CMIO model because there are differences within each racial group. The Chinese have dialect groups such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew, while among Malays, there are Javanese and Arabs.

As for the CMIO model, Dr Janil acknowledged that while it is not perfect, it is needed to preserve racial harmony. It enables the Government to ensure a mix of different races in public housing and in schools, and prevent racial ghettos, he added.

"The CMIO is not there to divide. It's because we accept that when people look at each other, there is bias, prejudice," he said.

These internal biases cannot be fixed by policies, but by people engaging in honest conversations about race, carried out in good faith and with mutual respect. For this to work, people have to do their best not to be offensive and not to take offence, said Dr Janil .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'We need to talk about race issues, says minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe