From The Gallery

Making multiracialism a 'lived reality' in Singapore

A Eurasian MP, a Malay MP, an Indian MP and a Chinese MP walk into a House.

But unlike the proverbial coffee shop joke this might bring to mind, the four MPs from each of Singapore's races tabled a motion in Parliament yesterday that triggered a serious and substantive debate on reaffirming multiracialism in the face of the terrorist threat.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) were joined by 13 other MPs, in a debate that also covered the need to promote vigilance and to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

It was a debate marked by much common ground - uniting MPs across not just racial lines but also party lines, with four Workers' Party MPs speaking in support of the motion.

The most compelling moments in the 4 1/2 hour debate came when MPs told personal stories, some of which were deeply moving.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) recounted his university days in Britain - when he first understood what it meant to be part of a minority. Some shop owners would call him "Ching, Chang and Chong" - "regardless of my actual surname", he recalled. "They never did it with any sort of malice. It was always with a smile. It almost seemed normal to them."

Others referred to him as "a communist from the mainland or a boat boy from Saigon".

His encounters with casual chauvinism taught him to be more mindful of what Singaporeans who are minorities here might be experiencing.

Mr Leon Perera spoke of growing up in a three-room flat and playing with children of other races along the common corridor.

"We would run into one another's flats and spend time there playing, and then come out and run into someone else's flat," he said.

He remembers fondly playing with lanterns in his pyjamas with other children during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and a Chinese neighbour giving him free hair cuts. Children today do play with children of other races along common corridors, but "in truth not as much as I did back in the 1970s".

Mr Perera also recalled an instance of job discrimination, with the caveat that it was a rare incident: "Once, early on in my career, I wanted to hire someone of a particular race and a colleague told me that they had had bad experiences with employees of that race. I went ahead to hire this person anyway. That employee turned out to be outstanding and got promoted twice."

Mr de Souza spoke of Cik Zainap, a Malay woman who helped his mother look after him and his sister as they were growing up .

She became a part of the family, and, till today, Mr de Souza keeps in touch with her. His three children call her "Nenek", or granny, and she considers them her "cucu", or grandchildren.

His experience and that of others indicate a "big reservoir of trust... among the races", he said.

These stories form part of the "lived reality" - a phrase used by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam - of multiracialism at work in Singapore.

"What is the experience? Your experience, my experience, the experience of our people. You know the answer. We can agree on the whole that we are going in the right direction, but it is always a work in progress," said Mr Shanmugam.

Not all the stories paint a rosy picture, such as Mr Perera's story about job discrimination - and this is where the work is still in progress.

But MPs yesterday said it is important to allow - within limits - some of these stories about race or religion to be shared, because it fosters resilience. "If in our conversations, we speak only politely or in a politically correct way, it will not help us build and strengthen trust," said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC).

Stories of lived experiences are also a reminder that multiracialism is not a lofty concept. It is what happens every day in the life of each Singaporean, and individuals can therefore make a real difference to it - an empowering yet terrifying thought.

The concrete actions Singaporeans can take range from encouraging their children to mix with other races, to celebrating the festivals of each community together, to refusing to engage in chauvinist banter (including coffee shop jokes, if they are offensive).

If the bonds between Singaporeans of different races and religions are strong, then society will stay united when a terrorist attack happens. Singapore can avoid finger pointing or placing one community under the spotlight.

But this has to be worked on consistently, because, as Mr Shanmugam noted, "if you try to strengthen trust after an attack, it is too late".

Terrorists seek to strike fear within societies by convincing them that they are helpless in the face of the threat. Yesterday's sitting offered a forceful rebuttal with the message: Singaporeans are not helpless. Each can contribute to the fight against terrorism by helping to build a truly multiracial Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Making multiracialism a 'lived reality' in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe