Multicultural living might be passive, as when one merely tolerates diversity. Living multiculturalism, however, is active. It is about embracing the variety of experiences that a multiracial society can offer. The difference between the two characterises Singaporeans' attitudes towards race.
Many pay lip service to multiracialism. After all, the very rationale for the independence of Singapore was a quest for a multiracialism that could break free of an entrenched political economy of racial privilege. The adoption of meritocracy as the basic principle of economic success strengthened the idea of multiracialism. Shared experiences, street food, national icons and Singlish all have contributed to making multiracialism an unremarkable feature of contemporary Singapore life.
Reality, unfortunately, lags behind ideals at times. This is reiterated by a Channel NewsAsia- Institute of Policy Studies survey which shows that, while Singaporeans strongly support multiracialism and meritocracy, there are contradictions beneath the surface. Almost half of them recognise that racism can be a problem and are aware that there are a significant number who are at least mildly racist. Even more worryingly, Singaporeans reveal a sharp contrast between accepting other races on a casual and social level, and preferring their own race in personal and political settings. What this could mean is that multiracialism is fine so long as it does not intrude into the two defining realms of the individual: his private existence, where he is sovereign; and the political sphere, which sustains his identity.
Living multiracialism must go beyond token multiculturalism. This entails the willingness of people to invite those from other races home for a meal, or allow children or grandchildren to play with kids of other races. Reassuringly, Singapore has begun that journey. About 70 per cent of respondents in the survey found outright discrimination unacceptable, such as not hiring someone because of race or religion, or insulting others because of race. That they viewed such acts as racist and not normal shows that Singaporeans do not pretend that divisive ethnicity does not exist in their midst.
Personal mindsets and habitual interactions must not revolve around race but must draw on the larger and shared legacies of heritage, history and culture. That is the only way Singapore as a whole can remain strong. If parents believe that this is the future they want for their children, they must inculcate the values of an inclusive society at home, not least by example. Civic nationalism will come naturally to the young when parents think of Singapore as a nation for all its people, regardless of race and religion. Schools will succeed in reinforcing the message only if it is there in the first place. Multiracialism weathers the elements best when its roots are planted early on in life.