From the gallery

Confronting unpleasant truths in journey towards inclusivity

Inclusiveness was the theme of yesterday's sitting, from MPs celebrating the achievements of Singapore's Paralympians to highlighting the importance of ensuring a minority president from time to time.

These were not just exercises in feel-good rhetoric. Rather, both revealed some real and uncomfortable aspects of Singapore's social fabric that could otherwise be easy to overlook.

As Singapore strives to be an inclusive home for all, it is important to go beyond abstract aspirations and look at concrete gestures, as well as real sentiments on the ground.

The afternoon started on an uplifting note, with the House paying tribute to the achievements and spirit of Team Singapore's Paralympians.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu acknowledged not just medallists Theresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu, but all 13 members of the contingent by name. The House gave a standing ovation to the nine athletes who were present.

Among the seven MPs who spoke in honour of their achievements, however, Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong made a sharp point about how true inclusivity should go beyond gestures, raising the issue of how prize money is unequal for Olympians and Paralympians.

"More than cash payment, it is about inclusion," said Ms Chia, who uses a wheelchair.

"If we persist in having two different standards of treatment between athletes and para-athletes, we reinforce the erroneous perception that people with disabilities are not able, and strengthen the barriers against building an inclusive society."

The public, too, can do its part as active spectators - spectators draw advertisers, and advertisers draw sponsors, she noted. It was a sobering reminder that support and inclusion should take concrete form too.

Even more striking was the candid way in which MPs and Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about a racial issue that is seldom spelled out: underlying tribalism, especially among the majority race.

This was during the debate on constitutional changes to the elected presidency, with one of the key proposed changes being reserved elections for ethnic groups from which there has not been a president for five consecutive terms.

If yesterday's speeches were anything to go by, the debate - which continues today - is providing an opportunity for the House to confront the state of race relations here in a more direct manner than usual.

When race-related issues are raised in Parliament, the usual line is simply that Singapore's racial harmony is hard-won, fragile and crucial to preserve.

Yet, even while underlining such fragility and cautioning against complacency, politicians have often stopped short of admitting that the threat comes partly from within: that racial preferences persist, not least among the Chinese majority.

But yesterday, Ms Tin Pei Ling (Macpherson) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) were among those who admitted that Singapore still has some way to go in race relations.

"Prejudices are real," said Ms Tin, citing a 2014 study by the Institute of Policy Studies in which 62.8 per cent of respondents felt there was about the same or more racial prejudice in Singapore than when compared with five years before.

Non-Chinese were four times more likely to feel racially discriminated against regarding a job or job promotion, compared with the Chinese.

"And if we really walked the ground, one would know that within certain segments of the population, there is a racial preference for president and in a specific order," she said.

It was a diplomatic phrasing of an awkward truth - one so well understood that Ms Tin did not need to get more specific.

Dr Tan noted how human nature is "imperfect". "When we have imperfect human beings taking part in a closely contested election with racial differences, the outcome can be less than perfect," he said.

Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said bluntly: "The real challenge is to ensure minority representation in an electorate where the Chinese community dominates."

Referring to a recent survey by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies, he said: "Surveys and statistics have shown how, despite all our efforts at forging a common Singaporean identity, the current reality in Singapore is that the tribal tendency remains a factor - people still tend to drift towards their own kind."

He added: "This finding has caused discomfort to some Singaporeans. I, myself, did not find it pleasant reading." In the survey, less than 70 per cent of Chinese respondents found a Singaporean Malay or Indian acceptable as president.

Yet it is precisely such unpleasant truths that must be confronted on the road to inclusivity.

When the idea of reserved presidential elections was first raised, with the release of the Constitutional Commission's recommendations, there was a range of reactions.

Some were understandable, such as the worry that presidents elected in reserved elections might not command the same respect from citizens - a worry that Dr Yaacob himself raised again yesterday.

Some were less pleasant. One common online argument went thus: There is no racism in Singapore, so reserved elections are unnecessary.

But as Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) pointed out yesterday: "We cannot assume that we have arrived as a nation and all inter-communal issues have been resolved forever."

In surveys or in ground sentiment, racial prejudices and preferences still persist. Denying this - as some have done - does not aid the push for inclusivity.

The frankness that characterised yesterday's debate thus struck a welcome note, one which hopefully persists as the debate continues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Confronting unpleasant truths in journey towards inclusivity'. Print Edition | Subscribe