SINGAPORE – Dealing with smoke from the Hungry Ghost Festival as well as the lack of facilities for Muslims to pray and eat in some places were among racial and religious issues discussed at the National Youth Council’s (NYC) launch of its first civic conversations toolkit on Saturday.
For Mr Muhamad Tassri, 26, using the toolkit as a launchpad to talk about the Hungry Ghost Festival helped him realise that there are differences in perceiving whether the smoke and ashes from the burning of joss paper and incense is an issue, even among group members from the same race.
“One member said his neighbour who was also Chinese raised the issue to the town council... Another who had stayed in India for a few years said the Hungry Ghost Festival was fascinating and drew parallels with practices for ancestors there,” the final-year economics student at Singapore Institute of Management noted.
Said Mr Tassri: “There are instances of bias against Indians, or bias against Chinese or against Malays... So having these conversations with more people from various backgrounds, you can actually understand why they derive certain conclusions.”
The Forward SG Civic Conversations toolkit – a card game developed in partnership with education centre Bold at Work and non-governmental organisation The Whitehatters – guides Singaporeans on how to enter conversations with care and empathy while sharing their honest views on scenarios of interracial and interfaith interactions.
Speaking after the launch of the toolkit at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health Janil Puthucheary highlighted the need to go beyond tolerance in Singapore and have a true sense of appreciation that being a multicultural and diverse nation is a strength and marker of national identity.
In his speech, he said constructive dialogues on race and religion, which may be difficult and uncomfortable for some, will help Singaporeans move forward together.
He added: “We can criminalise racist behaviour, we can criminalise any type of behaviour, but it doesn’t necessarily hit the outcome that we want.
“We cannot legislate empathy, mutual respect and trust. These are things that we have to develop personal behaviours and spread from person to person, as role models, as teachers, as facilitators, as friends, as peers, and hope that good sense permeates our society.”
The toolkit was proposed by youth leaders Nazhath Faheema and Ahmad Firdaus Daud, who saw the need for more resources to facilitate respectful dialogues around thorny topics.
Ms Faheema, founder of youth advocacy group hash.peace, said: “Sometimes to catalyse conversations can be quite difficult for people who are not familiar with the issues and sensitivities, so we felt that a toolkit that can just get anybody who’s not even familiar with race and religion conversations to take part will be very useful.”
Case studies also help people to create a frame within which they can talk about their personal experiences, she added.
Saturday’s launch was attended by about 70 people aged 18 to 35 from self-help groups, including the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) and Eurasian Association, youth clubs and student unions.
Said Dr Janil: “It’s not enough just to say we have a meritocracy, we want a meritocracy. It’s how do you make that come alive. How you make that have meaning in what we do every day, and conversations like this are an important part of that.”
NYC said there are plans for more conversation cards on local-foreign interactions and inter-generational differences, which were flagged by over 25 per cent of youth in its sentiment poll as an issue affecting social cohesion.
Meanwhile, the civic conversations toolkit will be distributed through self-help groups such as Sinda and Mendaki, and student networks in institutes of higher learning.
Organisations can also sign up here.