A Singaporean may not be Chinese, Malay or Indian: Panellist

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam (centre) moderating a dialogue with panellists (from left) Zulayqha Zulkifli, Wendy Zeline, Mohamed Irshad, Joseph Schooling, Ellamaran and Michelle Tay. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans need to be open to the fact that there is no single “Singaporean” look, said Ms Wendy Zeline, who runs popular social media account Afro.sings with her siblings.

The 27-year-old permanent resident with roots in Tanzania was speaking at the People Association's (PA) first dialogue on inclusivity in multicultural Singapore on Saturday (July 23).

"There is kind of no look to being a Singaporean because we are essentially a land of a lot of immigrants," said the 27-year-old, adding that frequent statements about her family not appearing to be Singaporean had prompted them to think about what that meant.

They started Afro.sings to talk about their lives growing up in Singapore.

Ms Zeline was one of six panellists, including Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling, who fielded questions from an audience of over 250 people spanning polytechnics, universities and volunteer groups.

Mr Schooling himself is no stranger to having his citizenship doubted because of his ethnicity, he told media, citing an incident when his late father spoke in a mixture of Malay and Hokkien "just because people didn't believe that I was a true blue Singaporean".

He said: "Eurasians are less than 1 per cent of our population but still very much a part of this nation. That blew my mind because in no way, shape and form did I ever think that my dad had to come out and do that."

The dialogue at Raffles Town Club was attended by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong and moderated by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.

The other panellists were PA Narpani Pearavai Youth chairman Ellamaran, inter-faith initiative Roses of Peace founder and president Mohamed Irshad, Singapore Kindness Movement head of partnerships Michelle Tay and PA Mesra Youth sub-committee chairman Zulayqha Zulkifli.

Allowing different communities to express their identities, practice their cultures free from discrimination and not letting any minority be taken advantage of is a core part of Singapore society, said Mr Tong in his opening speech.

To protect Singapore's multi-ethnic, religious identity, the Government has not left social cohesion to chance, said Mr Tong, citing laws and policies such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to guard against actions that undermine religious harmony and Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) to avoid ethnic enclaves.

To protect Singapore's multi-ethnic, religious identity, the Government has not left social cohesion to chance, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

At a separate inter-faith discussion on the same day, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee reiterated that the EIP, which sets quotas for flats owned by each racial group in a block or precinct, can cause pain as it might not be easy for minority groups to sell their flats due to the quota. The Government is looking to address these issues.

Still, the policy is important in ensuring that Singaporeans from different races, different cultural backgrounds and different religions are brought together to interact, which is an important condition for social harmony.

"If, in our estates, you do not even get to interact, then how do you even start that ground conversation about understanding each other?" said Mr Lee at the dialogue by inter-faith movement Humanity Matters, which centred on incense burning by different faith communities.

Such interactions are important for finding common ground and increasing appreciation for cultural diversity.

He said: "Dialogues like today's session allow us to ask questions to each other, in a safe space, and... gives us a deeper understanding of one another's beliefs and practices... to counter the misinformation that increasingly circulates online to stoke anger and unhappiness."

In the same spirit, final year National University of Singapore student Cassandra Yip hopes to strike discussions with friends who are naturalised Singaporeans to get their perspective on building Singapore up after attending the PA dialogue.

Prior to the event, the 22-year-old environmental studies student had already found that conversations on topics such as the death penalty or the treatment of migrant workers helped her appreciate different views.

Said Ms Yip: "I think it's important to get their perspectives, and their ideas and their lived experiences to influence what we can do together."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.