SINGAPORE - Recent racist incidents here do not indicate that Singapore has become a racist society, but they are a reminder that the country cannot assume the policies to ensure racial harmony over the years have been perfect solutions, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, on Saturday (July 24).
He added that there must be constant changes to further improve race relations in Singapore, but the nation is on an upward trajectory.
"Much as we want to deal with the racist incidents that have occurred, much as we believe that we have a lot more to do, we must also look at how far we have come, and must appreciate the context in which our race relations have made it work for us in Singapore," said Mr Tong.
He was speaking at a virtual youth conference organised by OnePeople.sg, the national body promoting racial harmony. The conference involved about 200 young people between the ages of 15 and 35.
He reminded the audience about how the country's situation has improved over the decades, since the violence and division of the 1964 race riots, which caused deaths, injuries, and destruction of property.
Mr Tong 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 in the future.
"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.
The EIP sets quotas for flats owned by each racial group in a block or precinct. Early this month, the policy drew debate in Parliament between Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and National Development Minister Desmond Lee, and others.
Mr Singh had said then that his Workers' Party aims to remove the EIP one day, but not before Singapore becomes a race-neutral society. Among the reasons he gave was the economic loss to minority sellers who may have to lower the asking price of their flats because of the EIP.
At the conference on Saturday, Mr Tong said: "The policies are designed to deliver for us religious, racial harmony. Some of these policies, whether EIP or GRC, there will be rough edges, but can we have a discussion on what else we can do? How we can make it better? Of course.
"We must always be prepared to listen, to evaluate, to change necessarily. And what's important is to build consensus, to strike an equilibrium between government and people, which evolves and takes into account new norms and new aspirations of people."
Weighing in on the CMIO model during a virtual dialogue at the conference, Mr Tong said the model represents the vast majority of races here, but it does not take into account interracial marriage and relationships, which are a growing trend here.
And along with immigration policies, there might be mixing beyond the CMIO ethnicities, he added.
"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)."
He added that the CMIO model is not just needed for the NRIC, but also to ensure that other policies and schemes such as the EIP remain workable.
The continued relevance of the model had also been raised and debated in Parliament last month, with one argument being that it reinforces racial consciousness.
"We can remove things like the CMIO... but does that change who we are? So I don't think the categorisation (of CMIO) drives the fact that we are therefore segmented. I don't think we're segmented," added Mr Tong on Saturday.
Instead, policies must move with the times and must evolve, he reiterated.
"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 cast into the spotlight recently, with a number of racist incidents over the past couple 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 that it was a disgrace for a Chinese woman and an Indian man to be together. He said Mr Parkash was "preying on" Chinese women.
Young people at the conference gave their take on various topics related to race, such as tackling racial prejudice, and applying concepts in Singapore that come from the West, such as majority privilege and cancel culture. The latter refers to ostracising and shaming people on social media, for stating unacceptable or inappropriate views.
When Mr Parkash uploaded the video of the incident on social media, many netizens had strongly criticised the former lecturer.
During their presentations, some of the young people said cancel culture, while not purely negative, may be unhealthy if the person who is criticised for being racist becomes affected or fearful of the backlash.
Instead, society should not put too much pressure on individuals, and should educate them and 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 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."