SINGAPORE - Singapore can improve racial harmony by harnessing its diversity as both strength and enhancement, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong during a dialogue on race relations on Saturday (Dec 19).
Creating a safe space for constructive discourse and getting Singaporeans to work together across racial lines were other suggestions outlined by Mr Tong in his keynote speech in the dialogue series titled Regardless Of Race.
About 100 people participated in the session, the fifth in the series, via video-conferencing. It was organised by OnePeople.sg - the national body promoting racial harmony - and the Eurasian Association, in partnership with the Mothership.sg website.
"How do we translate our multiracialism into a strength?" Mr Tong, who is also Second Minister for Law, asked in his keynote speech.
"How do we strengthen the diverse threads which make up the Singapore tapestry, so that each thread - each race, religion, culture - is strong on its own, (and) the overall tapestry you weave together is not only stronger than the sum of its parts, but also beautifully enhanced by its diversity?"
He cited Singapore's hawker culture, recently recognised by Unesco for its significance, as a true microcosm of the nation.
"A diverse range of stalls, serving people from all walks of life, who are seated side by side, some even sharing tables... It's quite simply the most physical, tangible and daily representation of 'regardless of race, language or religion'," said Mr Tong.
He added that the real test of the maturity and resilience of Singapore's racial harmony would be measured by how it responds to spiky or thorny issues emerging between races.
"The more we are able to nurture constructive public discourse on race-related issues, the better it will be," said Mr Tong, while noting that the evolving nature of such discussions may sometimes cause discomfort among older generations.
"We must feel, first of all, safe discussing without being 'called out' or 'cancelled'," he added. "We may have different views… on what are the perceived racial inequalities that might exist in a workplace, or what are some of the instances of casual racism.
"(But) we must chart a path forward which has a common understanding as to what is acceptable and what is not."
Between and across racial lines
Earlier, Mr Tong shared responses to an Instagram poll he conducted to unearth race-based issues of interest to people.
"Many of the respondents felt it was important to learn and accept each other's differences and backgrounds. It's easy to say we tolerate, we embrace, but I think we must also take the positive step to... understand these differences (and) why there are differences, and then we can begin to better respect them," he said.
"The second point that came through was that it was important to emphasise unity, and forge a common identity as one people."
Respondents were also "very concerned" about being inclusive in how race issues are discussed, Mr Tong added, adding that social media was the "marketplace" for such considerations.
"This shows that our people remain fundamentally committed to the vision of building a multiracial society, where everyone is equally fairly treated."
The dialogue session also included a panel comprising Mr Vincent Schoon, vice-president of the Eurasian Association; Ms Bhavani Dass, general manager of the Indian Heritage Centre; former Institute of Policy Studies researcher Zhang Jiayi; and Mr Hafez Sorouri Zanjani, a grassroots leader and youth advocate at OnePeople.sg.
Their discussion centred on differing generational attitudes towards conversations on race and interpretations of racism.
Both panellists and attendees provided several anecdotes contrasting their parents' perspectives with theirs. One participant shared how his parents held differing views from him on whether Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.
Participants cannot be named, in line with guidelines set by the organisers to encourage frank discussion.
Mr Tong said that the more Singaporeans work, play and live across racial lines, the more they would be able to see beyond race and instead see a colleague, neighbour, friend or classmate.
"What would be useful is for individuals and groups to reach out across racial lines and collaborate on projects," he added.
He also said Singapore's four self-help groups - the Chinese Development Assistance Council, the Singapore Indian Development Association, the Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community and the Eurasian Association - were exploring new ways to better support and service the community at large, beyond the racial lines they were initially formed along.
Mr Tong said the Government remained committed to nurturing strong partnerships with the people, by providing advice, guidance and networks to realise ground-up initiatives.
"We believe strongly in co-creation and working with the community," he said. "I think it's the lived experience, the ideas on the ground that are most useful."