Youth quiz ministers and MPs on race, elected presidency

Sembawang GRC MPs (from far left) Vikram Nair, Ong Ye Kung, Khaw Boon Wan and Amrin Amin at the post-National Day Rally dialogue for youth, which covered topics such as race, terrorism and the economy. Also discussed were proposed changes to the elec
Sembawang GRC MPs (from far left) Vikram Nair, Ong Ye Kung, Khaw Boon Wan and Amrin Amin at the post-National Day Rally dialogue for youth, which covered topics such as race, terrorism and the economy. Also discussed were proposed changes to the elected presidency.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Future generations of Singaporeans are likely to be more integrated and race-blind, and may no longer need to be classified by race.

But for now, "we are far from ready for that", said Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung during a panel discussion at a youth dialogue in Sembawang yesterday.

Responding to questions from two students on how to tackle racism and the usefulness of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others model of racial classification, Mr Ong said there are still Singaporeans who want to be known by their race.

"How do we overcome racism? We let you grow up.

"(With) every generation we are becoming much more integrated," he told around 120 students, undergraduates and young working adults.

The dialogue covered topics raised at the National Day Rally such as terrorism, the future economy and the elected presidency.

Even as younger generations become more race-blind, it is still important to remember one's racial and cultural heritage, said Mr Ong, an MP for Sembawang GRC.

"Singapore needs to build an identity of our own, but we can't do so without each of our races remembering who we are and contributing to that identity," he noted.

Fellow Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair said the purpose of racial classification is "not to emphasise race and religion, but to ensure that it is not forgotten about".

He cited Housing Board estates where the ethnic quota ensures Singaporeans have neighbours of all races. This builds familiarity and understanding, he said.

Aside from race, participants also discussed, among other things, proposed changes to the elected presidency, which were set out in a report by the Constitutional Commission made public last week.

One key recommendation is to ensure a president of a minority race takes office from time to time, by setting aside an election for candidates from a particular race if no one from that race has been elected for five consecutive terms.

Participants said changes to the system to encourage minority representation would need to be carefully drafted and should be about making sure the most suitable candidate is elected.

Such a rule should be framed in a way that does not make it seem like affirmative action, said participant Russell Soh, 21, after the dialogue.

"We need to know that there is minority excellence," the political science undergraduate said.

"Maybe in the future, when issues of race become less contentious to us as Singaporeans, then the framework may not be necessary, but for now it's good to have it there as a means of ensuring minorities are represented in the meantime," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2016, with the headline 'Youth quiz ministers and MPs on race, elected presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe