Iswaran urges respect for different views on racial issues

He also notes soul-searching by Singaporeans following recent acts of racial insensitivity

Transport Minister S. Iswaran said at a seminar on interracial harmony yesterday that Singaporeans still hold steadfastly to the ideas of building and fortifying the common space, while still allowing different cultures, languages, and religions thei
Transport Minister S. Iswaran said at a seminar on interracial harmony yesterday that Singaporeans still hold steadfastly to the ideas of building and fortifying the common space, while still allowing different cultures, languages, and religions their own space to thrive. The seminar at the Jamiyah Islamic Centre in Geylang was held in a hybrid format, with some participants attending virtually.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Different perspectives about racial issues from people of different races and generations must be acknowledged and respected, and never discounted or dismissed, said Transport Minister S. Iswaran yesterday.

"If we are to continue to grow our common space, its foundation rests on taking seriously these diverse viewpoints which reflect the lived realities of Singaporeans," he said during a seminar on interracial harmony.

He added that Singaporeans today still hold steadfastly to the ideas of building and fortifying the common space, while still allowing different cultures, languages and religions their own space to thrive.

"But as our society evolves, so too will our perspectives on race and on ethnic race policies, with differences arising from our lived experiences," he said, adding that these experiences include perceived job discrimination by people of different races and a rise in inter-ethnic marriages.

Enlarging the common space was a theme of the two-hour seminar organised by charity organisation Jamiyah Singapore. It was held at the Jamiyah Islamic Centre in Geylang.

The seminar - titled Whither Racial Harmony in Singapore: What more should be done? - was moderated by Dr Isa Hassan, senior vice-president at Jamiyah Singapore.

The event comes after the many conversations on racism and racial sensitivity in recent months that were sparked by incidents such as a Chinese man kicking an Indian woman in the chest while uttering racial slurs in May.

A month later, a video of an interracial couple being confronted by a Chinese man for not dating within their own races went viral. The man, who subsequently lost his job as a polytechnic lecturer, has apologised for his behaviour.

Mr Iswaran said that with the quest for racial harmony deeply imprinted in the national DNA, many Singaporeans were deeply perturbed, if not outraged, by recent acts of racial insensitivity.

"And they have sparked an important national conversation on the state of racial harmony in Singapore, and soul searching on the values we stand for as a society."

One of the seminar's panellists was Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He related his experience growing up in a kampung, where a well was shared by people of different races and ethnicities - including Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

"What was it that that well symbolised? A common space we owned, it was about ownership," he said at the event, which was held in a hybrid format, with some participants attending virtually.

Fellow panellist Bryna Sim, social media editor at Today, talked about how her biggest lesson on racial harmony began when she met her Punjabi husband in university, after spending her younger schooldays without much interaction with people of other races.

Some of the unpleasant racist encounters the couple experienced - which she had recounted in a commentary last month - came as a shock to her.

"The idea that race was seen as a barrier to love and marriage was shocking and new to me," she said.

Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ong Keng Yong, who is also executive deputy chairman at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Singaporeans must move from tolerating one another to understanding and appreciating why different practices and customs exist across cultures.

Making a similar point, Professor Kirpal Singh, director of the Centre for Educational Leadership at the Training Vision Institute, said: "I think what we lack in Singapore is probably loving.

"When we can safely say that we've now arrived at a point where we love what the different communities do, that would be a real milestone in the evolution of our national Singaporean identity."

Professor Hussin Mutalib, a political scientist and senior director at Jamiyah Singapore, asked for the racial majority in Singapore to do more to address the feeling of vulnerability among minorities.

While the majority should shoulder some of the burden, context and proportionality were important when racist incidents happen, he said.

"When we get all these racist slurs and so on, do not exaggerate, do not take things out of proportion, and then relate to other things which were not the original sin of the offender.

"If the offender shows some remorse, let's accept it - I think it takes strength of character from minorities to do that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 18, 2021, with the headline 'Iswaran urges respect for different views on racial issues'. Subscribe