Call for deeper study into views on ethnicity

Poll shows need to tackle issues but observers point out topic is not so clear-cut

A new survey on ethnic identity has laid bare underlying inter-ethnicity issues that need to be tackled, said observers and organisations promoting inter-cultural activities.

But others said that the topic is not so clear-cut and called for a deeper analysis of the data.

They were reacting to an Institute of Policy Studies-Channel NewsAsia study which found that many of its 2,020 respondents do not participate in the cultural practices of those from other races.

It also found that respondents were less accepting of new immigrants of other ethnicities, such as Korean, and even less so if these new citizens are people from less-developed regions such as Africa.

On this, Mr Biren S. Desai, the immediate past president of the Singapore Gujarati Society, said it is keen to actively involve new citizens from ethnicities not common here in future. "We need to put in more effort to build a bridge," he said.

Mr William Phuan, the co-founder of Select Centre, a non-profit arts organisation which promotes inter-cultural dialogue, said he hopes to introduce more workshops in schools to teach students how to translate Tamil and Malay works into English as part of efforts to dismantle stereotypes.

Weighing in on the findings, social anthropologist Lai Ah Eng cautioned against reading too much into the results. She said respondents' acceptance of new citizens might have varied if they had been given specific situations or context when filling in their responses.

"Statistical evidence must be handled very carefully and needs more nuanced qualitative understanding of actual context, situations and issues when attitudes towards immigration and ethnicity are studied. I caution against simplistic use of statistics along numerical majority and numerical minority lines."

Ground sentiment was similar to the experts' views. Some people also called for a deeper analysis of the data, and to ask why the respondents said they felt the way they did on, for example, the topic of inter-cultural romances.

The survey found 74 per cent of Chinese respondents said they were more comfortable with their children dating Caucasians, compared with 59 per cent if their dates were Malay and 54 per cent if Indian. Undergraduate Soh Xing Huei, 21,suggested that one possible reason that Caucasians were ranked higher by respondents might be due to the general populace's "heavy exposure to Western culture and media" and thus the sense of "familiarity" with them.

On the same topic of inter-cultural dating, Malays and Indians had also indicated that they were comfortable with their children and grandchildren going out with Chinese and Caucasians.

Ustazah Kalthom Isa, 44, from the Religious Rehabilitation Group, said the results generally reflect an openness of Malays to date outside an ethnic group. She noted that there are no restrictions for Malays to date other ethnicities.

She said: "Muslims, however, must marry those with the same faith as them. So the other party should convert to Islam. We have many Malay-Muslims in the community with spouses of different ethnicities who have converted to Islam. There are others as well who wed through civil marriages if their partners were unwilling to convert to Islam."

The survey also found that younger Chinese and Indian respondents were less likely to understand the importance of certain markers which Malay respondents had largely perceived as important. These included traits, beliefs and practices associated with Islam, such as eating halal food, wearing the tudung and avoiding alcohol .

The study researchers had said this lack of inter-cultural understanding among young Singaporeans may be a result of fewer interactions and friendships across racial lines, adding that it is a trend that "bears watching".

Ustaz Zahid Zin, 33, chief executive of the Muslim Youth Forum, agreed. He said: "Every community and household has a part to play in creating a thriving inter-cultural environment and mindset. For instance, when I was young, I attended the weddings of my parents' friends in churches. Such exposure makes me more appreciative of my fellow Singaporeans and the other cultures here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2017, with the headline 'Call for deeper study into views on ethnicity'. Print Edition | Subscribe