Essential to flag race issues, but S'poreans must be careful assuming mantle of spokesman for community: NMP

Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong speaking in Parliament on July 5, 2021. PHOTOS: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - While it is essential that people in a multiracial society like Singapore highlight issues based on their views and experiences on race, they must be careful about assuming the mantle of a spokesman for the community too easily.

Such a position would be untenable, said Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas on Monday (July 5) during an adjournment motion filed by him on building racial harmony in Singapore. The motion allows an MP to speak on a subject for 20 minutes at the end of the sitting.

Mr Thomas was speaking in relation to a controversy in May over the misuse of a woman's wedding photograph as a standee for Hari Raya Aidilfitri decorations.

It led to a public apology from the People's Association (PA) and an offer to meet the woman, Ms Sarah Bagharib, and her husband - which it later walked back, citing disagreements with the couple over the point of the meeting and how they had characterised the incident.

On Monday, Mr Thomas said Ms Sarah had a genuine and legitimate complaint "primarily rooted in intellectual property rights".

"But I thought that things took a different turn when (Ms Sarah) made a call for feedback before her meeting with the PA, and when her statements started looking like they were intended to be on behalf of the whole Malay community and on matters unrelated to the originating incident," he added.

"It is invariably more complex to engage with a self-appointed standard-bearer, because even within a community, people have diverse experiences and views."

Mr Thomas pointed to how other members of the Malay or minority communities had disagreed with Ms Sarah's reading of the incident.

These included a Straits Times Forum letter writer, social media commentators, and former MP Zainal Sapari, who defended the PA's mission of promoting racial harmony.

If Ms Sarah's intention was to be the voice of her community when meeting and discussing with the PA, then the statutory board probably made the correct decision to disengage at that point, said Mr Thomas.

"It was still an unfortunate outcome, and I still hold out hope for an ultimate happy resolution."

He added he was saddened by Ms Sarah's subsequent move to make private the social media account that she used to first raise the issue and put out statements.

"I watched her online interview and I found her articulate and passionate. She said her motivation of raising this issue was to build a better home for her daughter, which I think is the correct spirit, even if her approach could have been different," said Mr Thomas.

"I hope she will not self-cancel and I certainly hope no one attempts to cancel her. And I invite her to return to the marketplace of discourse... perhaps one day with the PA, but generally, as well."

The NMP's citing of the incident was part of a larger point on the importance of communication, which he described as entailing "having responsible, mature dialogue, a willingness to speak up without fear, to share lived experiences, to propose how we can do things better, and an openness to listen".

Mr Thomas urged Singaporeans to be wary of "bad actors" and "opportunists", and stressed that public figures have a distinct responsibility when posting about race.

Two other thrusts of his speech centred on engagement by government and community leaders, and the calibration of policies.

On the calibration of policies, Mr Thomas urged the Ministry of Education to ensure that students in Special Assistance Plan schools - which emphasise Chinese language and culture - are exposed to and can build meaningful relationships with all minority groups in Singapore.

He also said the group representation constituency system has been successful in ensuring minority representation, as well as diversity not only in Parliament but also within political parties.

There is also a need to differentiate between criticisms of a political nature from criticisms of the GRC system's function of ensuring minority representation, said Mr Thomas.

"If there is a political concern about the GRC, then we should raise it as a political criticism. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater."

He then touched on the topic of Singapore having a minority prime minister one day, offering a different take on the oft-mentioned 2016 Institute of Policy Studies study which found that most Singaporeans were more accepting of a prime minister of their own race.

"The same survey also showed that Singaporeans were accepting, all above 50 per cent, of a PM of another race. So I would say that the results actually show that a minority PM could have a chance of leading a party to win the elections. And I am encouraged by this," said Mr Thomas.

He also proposed, on top of legal penalties for race-based crimes, the introduction of a rehabilitative regime similar to the Communal Remedial Initiative under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

This voluntary scheme gives those found hurting religious sentiments an opportunity to mend ties by taking part in interfaith activities.

"This will help to avoid hardening of views by offenders by building their understanding of other races and cultures," said Mr Thomas.

In response, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong agreed with the need to constantly work on Singapore's laws and policies, and said the Government would study Mr Thomas' suggestions carefully.

"Our policies are not set in stone, but must be refined to keep pace with societal changes... We will endeavour to seek consensus on the changes that we choose to undertake, so that policy changes and policy shifts can unite and not divide us," said Mr Tong, adding that such shifts would not come about "because of populist sentiments or from who shouts the loudest".

He noted that the goal was not for Singapore's ethnic communities to just "co-exist" or "tolerate" each other's existence.

"We certainly hope that people can embrace each other's differences, appreciate that we all have something unique precisely because we are different, and to stand in solidarity despite our races," Mr Tong added.

"We have witnessed many acts of embracement in the past year... as we stood together as one united people especially during the adversities presented by Covid-19. We want to continue this spirit of embracement, by facilitating and providing opportunities for individuals to join up their different talents for the common good."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.