SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 outbreak has stressed Singapore's social faultlines and increased tensions between foreigners and locals, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said during a dialogue on race on Saturday morning (May 30).
She cited certain locals' "visceral reaction"to recent reports of foreigners gathering at Robertson Quay, drinking and flouting social distancing rules.
"When that video came out friends told me that yes, (there were also) expatriates in Singapore Botanic Gardens (gathering) and so on. It is not just restricted to one place, but somehow when we see a group of people that look different from us, there is a visceral reaction," said Ms Fu, noting that before police investigations had been completed, there were already calls for foreigners to be deported.
Speaking to 150 participants at a dialogue on race relations that explored how Covid-19 has thrown up issues of race, racism and xenophobia to the fore, Ms Fu stressed the importance of social cohesion during times like this.
"In the worst of times, it is easy to blame someone who is different from ourselves, when it is due to race, religion or nationality. What we must realise is that viruses do not discriminate, people do," said Ms Fu.
She cited as an example the case of the self-proclaimed 'sovereign' woman and how the locals' instinctive reaction was to label her as a foreigner even though she was Singaporean.
This fourth session of the Regardless Of Race dialogue was organised by OnePeople.sg - the national body promoting racial harmony - and interfaith initiative Roses of Peace in partnership with SMU Apolitical, a political association at the Singapore Management University (SMU), and The Straits Times. The dialogue took place online on video conferencing platform Zoom.
Topics raised included how xenophobia and racism manifest during a crisis and how they can be tackled.
With Covid-19, race and other contentious issues have resurfaced as well, said Ms Fu, including those involving religion and the disparity between the haves and have-nots.
For instance, Singaporean Chinese were beaten up in the UK and Australia because of racist sentiments over the origin of the virus.
Another example offered was that when home-based learning was instituted, not every family could afford a laptop for each child or provide a conducive home environment or internet access for it.
The other panelists who took part in the dialogue were Dr Augustine Pang, professor of communication management (practice) at SMU, Mr Zakir Hussain, news editor at The Straits Times, Ms Fahima Farha, vice-president of Roses of Peace and Dr Alicia Altorfer-Ong, board president of Sunshine Initiative Singapore, a society that seeks to protect sex workers.
The session was hosted by Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, who chairs OnePeople.sg.
The Regardless of Race series seeks to get more Singaporeans involved in honest, open conversations on sensitive issues surrounding race and encourage ground-up efforts to address them.
The speakers talked about the role of the media and crisis management communication in either enhancing or undermining resilience during Covid-19, as well as some of the ground-up efforts being taken.
Discussions among the panelists cannot be directly attributed as they come under Chatham house rules.
Ms Fu spoke about how Singapore has been addressing the faultlines that have developed through the work done by the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony, Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, National Integration Council and other religious and community groups.
She also called for people to find innovative ways of engagement and interaction, and take action in areas that they care about, such as countering vitriolic posts and sharing positive stories instead.
"Help extended during difficult times will be remembered and will define us for years to come. So this is our chance to prove what kind of people we are," she said.