The woman who yelled at a partially disabled cleaner in a foodcourt was seen not only as a rude customer but also as an ugly Singaporean. She has since regretted her outburst and apologised. For this, she must be given some credit. If one refuses to acknowledge the harm of social prejudice, that would be indeed ugly. The foodcourt manager had, with a helpful intention, asked the cleaner if he would like to wear a badge indicating his disability. That, of course, was a misconceived idea. If anyone should wear a badge of self-description, shouldn't it be those who cause offence to others?
A gracious society, however, has no need of labels of any kind as that would only divide people. Rather than typecasting a person in a way that limits his or her role or how an individual is treated, society has to be willing to give all an opportunity to earn a place in the sun. Schools, where good practices of character and outlook are formed more easily than later in life, offer a valuable platform for the transmission of socially inclusive values. The more mainstream students come into contact with special needs children, the better the chances of the latter's acceptance by society at large in adult life as well.
Mindsets play a key role in Singapore's quest for inclusiveness. A recent survey on people's experiences of inclusion in daily life and early education is instructive. It found that while Singaporeans support the idea of inclusion in principle, many do not translate social ideals into everyday practice. For example, while most say that children with and without disabilities can study together, only half of parents polled were comfortable with having a special needs student sit next to their own child in class.
It is this gap, between the "talk" and the "walk", that needs to be bridged by individuals if Singapore is to make the transition to inclusiveness. This goes beyond creating hardware like ramps, lifts, parking spaces and toilets for the handicapped, often undertaken by the civic authorities. Inclusivity is also a personal and collective exercise in giving and taking. To gain social solidarity, one must be prepared to forgo something: this could take the form of space or some amenity that is given up so the elderly can live in the midst of young communities. Or it could be giving some of one's time by moving slowly on a path that the frail also share. Or it could be forgoing extra-fast service when being attended to by a young rookie or a person with special needs.
Another crucial test of inclusiveness is the extent to which choices are made about the nature of interaction one has with others who are different. Whether it is a special needs child, a senior with dementia, or a deaf and mute cleaner, any tendency to avoid or berate them would betray the shallowness with which one recites the pledge of being "one united people".