I cannot agree more with President Halimah Yacob who rightly pointed out that there needs to be deep and ongoing everyday conversations on what it takes to maintain multiracial harmony in Singapore (Students urged to speak up against racial stereotypes; Aug 29).
Racial harmony programmes, though well-intentioned, merely help to essentialise ethnic differences.
School children, for example, cannot achieve real social cohesion and harmony simply by turning up at their schools in their ethnic costumes unless they mingle outside as well.
Similarly, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian performances and activities at cultural festivals and national functions are not a sign of racial harmony as they do not reflect the natural settings in which these ethnic groups interact on a daily basis.
Real interaction cannot come about by chance. It has to be carefully nurtured by the state and its citizens, so that mutual understanding and trust will develop among the residents.
Importantly, all the stakeholders should work towards de-emphasising our respective Chineseness, Malayness, Indianness and so on, and strive to focus on our similarities so as to forge closer interaction.
It bears repeating that everyone should contribute towards expanding the settings where people of different ethnic groups, cultures, creeds and origins can meet, and learn to not just tolerate each other's lifestyles, religious beliefs and cultural practices, but also understand, appreciate and celebrate them.
When people with dissimilar backgrounds and viewpoints meet, they become comfortable in each other's presence.
The advantages are obvious, because an inadvertent, even innocent, remark relating to a community's practices can be perceived as insensitive and trigger unintended consequences.
This vital ingredient for our survival is something that cannot be done overnight, but must be carefully inculcated among the young at home and in school.
It is, therefore, up to all of us to cast our prejudices aside and work together. This is the surest way to achieve greater cohesion, integration and racial harmony.
With divisive forces at work in today's fragmented world, this is now more important than ever.
V. Subramaniam (Dr)