ST webinar on race relations and harmony

Microaggressions do happen but must not be normalised: Minister

The ST Connect webinar on race relations yesterday included a discussion moderated by The Straits Times' Singapore editor Zakir Hussain (right), with panellists (from left) grassroots activist Hafez Sorouri Zanjani; Tamil Murasu news and digital edit
The ST Connect webinar on race relations yesterday included a discussion moderated by The Straits Times' Singapore editor Zakir Hussain (right), with panellists (from left) grassroots activist Hafez Sorouri Zanjani; Tamil Murasu news and digital editor Tamilavel; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong; Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah; and general secretary of advocacy group hash.peace Leonard Sim.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Some people at vaccination centres have refused to get a Covid-19 jab from a member of another race, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.

And Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah - who is an associate consultant and orthodontist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital - said some patients have asked for chairs to be cleaned because they were used by members of a minority race.

These were a few instances of racial microaggressions - slights or insults that are often encountered by people - that Mr Tong and Dr Shahira touched on yesterday at a panel discussion on race organised by The Straits Times.

Mr Tong said such microaggressions can happen daily in public spaces, schools and workplaces, and it is important to address these experiences before they fester and leave a bad impression.

He said: "We have to deal with these microaggressions... and this really is dealt with best by venue, places, and also making it part of the lived experience - have people socialise, have teams that come together.

"It has got to be organic, but I think it must also create the opportunities for such organic relations to build up and to cement."

Mr Tong and Dr Shahira were among five panellists at the ST Connect webinar on race relations, moderated by The Straits Times' Singapore editor Zakir Hussain.

The panellists agreed that microaggressions and racial discrimination exist in Singapore but added that the key task now is for individuals and organisations to address the issue and take steps to put an end to the problem.

For instance, Mr Tamilavel, who is the news and digital editor at Tamil Murasu, said he has had racial slurs directed at him many times by children when he is in lifts. The parents, he added, have done nothing on each occasion.

Such experiences, he said, stand in contrast to other instances of children being respectful and greeting him when they see him in the neighbourhood because their parents have taught them well.

Mr Tong said that the use of racial slurs against individuals is an example of how microaggressions occur every day in public spaces.

Another panellist, Mr Leonard Sim, who is the general secretary of advocacy group hash.peace, said there need to be more discussions on such racially discriminatory acts because they affect the mental health of the victims.

Mr Sim's organisation works with mental health advocacy group Mental ACT to help those who have experienced racial discrimination talk about their experiences.

He said: "You get conversations that are very real, very raw, an outpouring, sometimes, of grief, trauma, emotional hurt, and we're very lucky to have our partners at Mental ACT to help us and make sure they are okay and healing from these experiences.

"And what we at hash.peace get out of it as well is that you start to realise that we need to do more."

Mr Sim said workplaces need to get involved in efforts to address racial discrimination because people spend a lot of time at work.

Employers can organise programmes on discrimination and diversity that could help to change the mindsets of workers. The workers, in turn, can teach their children the importance of values like tolerance and understanding, he said.

Schools have a role to play, and Mr Tamilavel said the efforts have to go beyond celebrating racial diversity on Racial Harmony Day once a year. Children are by nature inquisitive, and it is important to open up channels for them to ask questions about other races without judgment or prejudice, he said.

Mr Tamilavel cited how his daughter had asked him about a Sikh boy who was wearing a turban. "She asked me: 'Why is the boy wearing a turban?' She didn't know what it was. So I explained that it is their culture. This kind of conversation is very important."

Grassroots activist Hafez Sorouri Zanjani, who was also part of the panel, said people could teach their children about their own cultures and beliefs so that they are well equipped to answer questions from their friends.

Mr Hafez, who has Persian roots, talked about how his peers asked him many questions about his cultural practices and the clothes that he wore. He did not always have all the answers, so he would go home and ask his parents for details.

"If children get a question about something, and if they are equipped to answer it, then I think that's perfect. Kids teaching kids," he said.

Mr Tong said racial microaggressions cannot be allowed to be normalised here. If that were to happen, people at the receiving end of discriminatory actions and words might feel like the situation in Singapore is a "lost cause", he added.

"And when we get to that stage, it becomes a slippery slope. So, these are all occasions where we have to be proactive, deal with it, inoculate against a situation.

"But when it does arise, it's got to be dealt with," he said.

Panellists on value of discussions, exposure


Over the years, we have come far. You just have to look at many other places in the world today, where racial, religious fault lines have threatened to break society apart. In that way, we have done well. And we must not forget that, even as we see each of these issues that come up from time to time, and there will be continually...

Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, even as we deal with all these issues that come up, but we do need to be refreshed in our approach.

MR EDWIN TONG, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.


There's a lot more public discourse on the lived experiences of people... and there are a lot more ways to tackle it. The youth are more attuned to it, they are willing to talk more about it, and they're willing to call it out in a more respectful manner, hopefully. And this is how we move forward to have more conversations, to build more relationships. These relationships cannot be underestimated.

NOMINATED MP SHAHIRA ABDULLAH, a National Youth Council member.


When you make friends, you learn about somebody else's culture... So when somebody says something to you about this particular group, you can say: 'No, I don't think so because I have a friend who's completely not like what you've described.' So when you make friends, you really start to dispel all the misconceptions, break all the stereotypes, and you really get to know them on a personal level. ''

MR LEONARD SIM, general secretary of advocacy group hash.peace.


Exposure is very important. The moment you expose kids to anything they are unfamiliar with, they become inquisitive, they ask questions. So the more we expose our kids, the more questions they ask, the better it gets. Of course, we must also have the right people teaching them.

MR HAFEZ SOROURI ZANJANI, a grassroots activist.


For the longest time, we've been trying to say don't talk about it... But the times have changed, and people do want to talk about it... Even the older generation, they're more accepting because this has been happening for a long time... And social media has amplified it. There is room for us to have a decent conversation.

MR TAMILAVEL, News editor and digital editor of Tamil Murasu.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2021, with the headline 'Microaggressions do happen but must not be normalised: Minister'. Subscribe