S'pore making headway to become a race-blind society, but more needs to be done: Panellists

Forum Majulah: Regardless of Race panellists (from left) Shahida Sarhid, Faridah Saad, Cho Weihao, Irshath Mohamed and Mridula Kumar. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - Singapore is not yet a "race-blind society" that is free of prejudice, but the country should continue working towards this ideal by taking small yet significant steps such as raising awareness of racial discrimination.

Making this point at a forum on race that aired online on Monday (Aug 9), panellists also suggested having safe spaces for constructive discussions on the issue and relooking some race-based policies.

The idea of a post-racial society, where racial prejudice no longer exists or is no longer a major social problem, is a "utopia" that Singapore needs to keep working towards, said Ms Faridah Saad, who was one of the three panellists.

But this goal will always be a moving target, and people have to confront some of their own racial biases and preferences, added Ms Faridah, the president of Mendaki Club, which is affiliated with Malay-Muslim self-help group Yayasan Mendaki.

Another panellist, Ms Mridula Kumar - a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduate and a volunteer with self-help group Sinda's Youth Club - stressed that a race-blind state is Singapore's goal.

The country is already taking "baby steps" towards this goal, she said, but noted policies such as the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model of ethnic classification remain, and that people here still see differences along racial lines.

"Where we should be headed to is more of something where we bond over our similarities, our strengths, and we see races as equal counterparts in Singapore society," said Ms Mridula, who is president of NTU's Tamil Literary Society.

The forum, held in conjunction with National Day and titled Forum Majulah: Regardless Of Race, was jointly organised by Berita Harian (BH) and Tamil Murasu (TM), with the support of The Business Times.

The issue of racism has been thrust into the spotlight, following several racially motivated incidents over the past few months.

In May, a 55-year-old Indian Singaporean woman was subjected to racial slurs and kicked in the chest while brisk walking in Choa Chu Kang. Police are investigating the attack.

In June, a polytechnic lecturer harassed a couple from different races on Orchard Road, saying it was disgrace for a Chinese woman and Indian man to be together. A video of his remarks drew widespread criticism.

Last week, an online photo of a National Day banner depicting an Indian Singaporean man and his family drew comments from people who questioned their origins.

Residents in Tanjong Pagar GRC and two MPs in the constituency - Minister Indranee Rajah and Minister of State Alvin Tan - have criticised the racist and xenophobic comments, saying they do not represent what Singapore stands for.

Panellist Cho Weihao, an investment director at a technology company and a grassroots leader, said he was shocked and disappointed to see the hateful comments about the photo.

He stressed that their comments do not represent the views of the majority of Singaporeans, and said a drawback of social media is that it can amplify such negative comments.

Mr Cho also told forum moderators, BH correspondent Shahida Sarhid and TM journalist Irshath Mohamed, that the widespread use of social media, with information easily accessed and shared, has contributed to a sense that Singapore is seeing more cases of racism.

"We are becoming more aware of race and racism... we are having the moral courage to actually speak up," he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also increased awareness and sensitivity towards race and racism, he added.

The panellists spoke about casual racism, where a person's cultural differences - such as forms of dress, cultural practices, physical features or accents - are made fun of or criticised.

Ms Faridah said what seems like a joke to some might be seen as a hurtful racist comment to someone else. "They may have said it a matter of factly, they may have said it even jokingly, but obviously... as someone (who) that comment is directed to, I would feel very differently."

Ms Mridula said that in Singapore's context, what is seen as racist depends not just on how sensitive a person is towards such comments, but also the relationship between the people involved.

Some people may be more understanding, and not allow a friend's casual racist comments to affect their relationship as they know no harm or discrimination was intended, she said. "But to really make racist remarks or prejudiced comments based on an overarching understanding that you have of that race, I think that is where racism comes about."

Bringing up his experience in the United States, Mr Cho said he had faced racial discrimination when applying for a job because of his "Chinese-sounding name".

He brought up the concept of the "airport test" in recruitment, which refers to how comfortable one feels sitting next to a person waiting for a flight, and how it can be used to determine if one should be hired.

Linking the concept to race, Mr Cho said: "It's basic human instinct, something very challenging to tackle."

Ms Faridah, a public servant, said she was fortunate to not have seen any overt racially discriminatory practices in her workplace. She also noted that more firms in Singapore see diversity of talent as a resource and competitive edge to get ahead.

Asked about Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which place a heavy emphasis on Chinese language and culture and generally have fewer non-Chinese students, Mr Cho said that a higher proportion of their students live in private estates and do not have the chance to mix with their peers of other races.

In his experiences working with young people, Mr Cho said there is generally a greater appreciation of race and racism among them.

But young people from neighbourhood schools tend to have a more "granular understanding" of race and racism and are more adept at handling such issues, he said, pointing to his own experience as a neighbourhood school student who played football and learnt about different cultures with others who lived in public housing.

On the surface, SAP school students know racism is wrong, he added.

"But to delve a bit deeper, try and poke holes and peel the onion, you realise that they do have certain beliefs, and they are less adept at handling different issues on race," he said.

Ms Mridula said one way to improve race relations would be to encourage more open conversations between different parties.

She held up platforms on social media where people from both minority and majority groups voice their opinions to have a respectful conversation that leads to better understanding of one another.

These conversations should start from a young age, she said, urging schools to continue teaching students how to be respectful to different races.

"Old habits die hard. You can't change someone's mindset when they're like 60 years old, and I think schools are a very protected space, (so it is) very ideal for us to inculcate those good conversation habits and to respect and treat other races equally," she said.

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