I grew up in a Housing Board flat. The recent discussions on the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) led me to reflect on the impact growing up in a public estate may have had on my own social growth.
My more vivid memories include a provision shop run by an Indian man that was my regular stop after school. Then there was the sound of the kompang nearly every weekend announcing that one of my Malay neighbours was getting married. And, from time to time, there would be banners surrounding fluorescent lights which I immediately recognised to be the funeral wake of a Chinese person.
Subconsciously, these experiences made me aware that there were differences between me and my friends of different races that were more than skin deep.
More importantly, being aware of these cultural differences did not drive us further apart. We grew to enjoy these differences.
My work today requires me to work closely with people from many different nationalities and races. Whether it is an academic from Turkey or a public officer from China, it has been easy to befriend them. They, too, are grateful for my openness to their perspectives. Many have said this seems to be a common trait of the Singaporeans they have encountered.
I hope that history will say that what enabled Singapore's success and survival was a DNA characterised by an openness to different peoples, values and ideas.
As a maturing nation, Singapore's private and public actors can do more to shape the narrative on race. We should work collectively to set a high bar for "racial neutrality" in the Singapore DNA.
Racial neutrality, as an opposite of racial inequality, should mean that everyone, regardless of his appearance and history, is recognised equally for his contribution to the progress of the nation.
Ethnic integration should mean that any community within our borders can be proud of its heritage and have the confidence to express its values authentically.
While the EIP has helped, it is not without its drawbacks. And, if the policy is not properly refined, it may end up having the reverse effect of creating resentment between different ethnic groups.
One possible tweak might be to broaden it to take in the ethnic ratios of an entire constituency rather than a single block.
Cultivating the ability to empathise well with those from a different cultural context requires more than just a sound national housing policy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven that residents in Singapore of all races and nationalities can be counted on to work together to overcome hidden enemies.
Ethnic diversity within a small geographic area is a source of strength. It makes the nation vibrant, open and able to empathise. It makes Singapore a city of the future.