Go beyond superficial activities for Racial Harmony Day

Last Saturday was Racial Harmony Day and many schools commemorated the event (Practise racial harmony every day, says President Halimah; July 21).

After interactions with my schoolgoing nieces and nephews, I am concerned that the approach to Racial Harmony Day celebrations in schools is dated and does not consider current social developments.

The focus of the day's programme appears to be similar to what it was when I was a student years ago.

Students are encouraged to dress in ethnic costumes and learn about the 1964 racial riots through performances and videos.

I am not insinuating that reminders about the riots should stop. But they should not take centre stage.

Times have changed and society has evolved from those days of violence. We can acknowledge that society is generally stable and Singaporeans are now mature and rational enough not to take race issues to the streets.

Instead, more emphasis should be placed on other pertinent issues - stereotypes, compromises, subtle racism and moving beyond a tolerance for different races.

Group discussions, dialogues and role playing realistic scenarios are examples that can generate challenging, probing but necessary questions among students about racial harmony.

They should learn that it is a work in progress and not perfect yet, and not something that has already been accomplished.

Students today desire a more genuine discourse on race issues, instead of superficial celebrations to mark Racial Harmony Day. Schools should not short-change them.

On this note, schools should also be mindful of longstanding activities linked to this day, such as the donning of ethnic costumes, lest it is perceived as cultural appropriation. A glance at Instagram showed students treating it more as a photo opportunity, rather than an act of genuine cultural appreciation.

If that was indeed the predominant mindset among students, then the activity has lost its meaning.

Teachers have a responsibility to explain the objective of such activities, instead of just going through the motions.

Let us go beyond such superficial activities. Instead, we should get children talking and having robust conversations about thistopic.

It is not easy, but they will grow up gaining a better appreciation of race relations. Only then can we truly foster racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

Sean Lim Wei Xin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2018, with the headline 'Go beyond superficial activities for Racial Harmony Day'. Print Edition | Subscribe