Race-based policies serve function but are not immutable: Edwin Tong

Recent racist incidents here do not indicate that Singapore has become a racist society, but it cannot be assumed that what has been done so far to ensure racial harmony is perfect, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.

He added that there must be constant changes to further improve race relations in Singapore, though the nation is on an upward trajectory.

He was speaking at a virtual youth conference organised last Saturday by OnePeople.sg, the national body promoting racial harmony. About 200 people between the ages of 15 and 35 took part. Mr Tong reminded them of how the situation has improved since the 1964 race riots.

He acknowledged that existing policies related to race, such as the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) system of ethnic classification, or the group representation constituency (GRC) system to ensure minority representation in Parliament, may need to be revised or updated.

"Policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), GRC and so on serve a function. Is it the best? Perfect? No. But in the context of what we have, does it fulfil our purpose? Yes."

Mr Tong added that while the policies serve a function, they are not, and cannot be, immutable.

During a dialogue at the conference, Mr Tong said the CMIO model represents the vast majority of races here, but it does not take into account interracial marriages and relationships, which are a growing trend here.

And along with immigration policies, there might be mixing beyond the CMIO ethnicities.

"CMIO is built for us now. If we find that our society becomes enlarged, we have more intermarriages, when there is no longer a fair representation that CMIO can give us, then I think we have to relook or nuance it," he said.

"It may be having to add a few more (ethnicities) possibly, or that we find a different way of ensuring that we do have a recognition for each of these (races)."

The continued relevance of the CMIO model was raised in Parliament last month, with one argument being that it reinforces racial consciousness. Mr Tong added that policies must move with the times and must evolve. "If you talk to my colleagues in Cabinet, they will all agree. We don't want the policy as an end in itself. The end is a racially harmonious society."

The issue of racism has been in the spotlight, with a number of racist incidents in the past few months. A recent example was when Mr Dave Parkash was with his girlfriend in Orchard Road, and was harassed by a former polytechnic lecturer who told them it was a disgrace for a Chinese woman and an Indian man to be together.

Participants gave their take on various topics related to race, including concepts from the West, such as cancel culture.

During their presentations, some of the young people said cancel culture, while not purely negative, may be unhealthy if the person called out as racist becomes affected or fearful. Instead, society should not put too much pressure on individuals, and should give them opportunities to broaden their horizons, perspectives and their world views, they said.

Agreeing, Mr Tong said cancel culture on social media may impact individuals' mental health.

He also acknowledged that some forms of cancel culture, if done respectfully, may help to drive home the point that racist incidents cannot be tolerated.

"But when cancel culture becomes toxic, vitriolic, if it causes a mob mentality, it becomes malicious. I think that's when you draw the line."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2021, with the headline 'Race-based policies serve function but are not immutable: Edwin Tong'. Subscribe