SINGAPORE - In responding to potentially racist remarks, one could either adopt a positive way that deepens mutual understanding or shut down engagement by telling someone who is offended to be less sensitive.
Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg, said learning the correct way to engage on such thorny issues was more important for Singaporeans than trying to determine the fine line between a harmless joke and casual racism.
"The key issue is how we decide as a society to deal with this as a whole. Do we shy away and pretend this problem doesn't exist? Or do we accept the fact that we should work on this together?
"We need an open mind on both sides - taking offence and giving offence," said Dr Puthucheary, speaking at a student conference to discuss racial and religious harmony on Monday (June 19).
He was responding to questions from students citing a recent incident when freelance actor Shrey Bhargava shared a Facebook post to complain about being asked to portray a caricature of his own race. In his post on May 27, Mr Bhargava said he was asked to speak in a thick Indian accent during an audition for Ah Boys to Men 4.
Production company mm2 Entertainment, in a response sent also on behalf of director Jack Neo's J Team Productions and other producers, said two days later that "it is not uncommon during auditions that casting directors decide to test the versatility of actors".
Mr Bhargava's post generated mixed responses. Some said he should have went to the audition knowing that the film would be based on stereotypes, while others said he brought up an important issue.
On a question of how to determine the fine line between a harmless joke and casual racism, Dr Puthucheary said any attempt to define (the line between racism and a joke) is never going to be successful.
"These are cultural norms that change over time. What might be acceptable 10, 15 years ago might not be so now, and vice versa," said Dr Puthucheary, who is Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Education.
"Far more important than the attempt at definition is an understanding of what constitutes appriopriate behaviour (in such situations)."
Dr Puthucheary said both camps of the debate had initially posted extreme opinions, public postings of righteousness.
"The fact that they were some subsequent public views that talked about how to engage, how to talk about it, and how to learn is actually a very positive result," he added.
Dr Puthucheary was speaking at the third edition of the OnePeople.sg Model United Nations conference held at the National Junior College. The three-day event was organised by OnePeople.sg.
Despite the event being held during the school holidays, it attracted more than 250 student participants, which is three times the attendance of the first edition in 2015. The participants' ages range from 14 to 19 years old and they come from 32 secondary schools, junior colleges, international schools.
During the question-and-answer session at the opening ceremony, Dr Puthucheary also shared his opinion on a range of issues, such as the racial categorisation policy and Racial Harmony Day.
Another topical issue discussed was that of religious fundamentalism. It was reported last week (June 13) that Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, 22, was the first woman to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for radicalism.
Dr Puthucheary said there are at least three things Singapore is doing to prevent fundamentalism from taking root here.
First, Singapore tries to be an inclusive society where no groups are marginalised. Second, there is a need to ensure that religious teachings are propagated by figures of authority. Third, laws need to be in place to make it unlikely for people to politicise extremist religion.
One of the participants, Ms Chhavi Raheja, 16, said she learnt racism is a two-way street - the person who makes a racist comment is wrong, but the one who took offence also has to raise the issue in a civilised way.
"There should be dialogue to ensure the same thing doesn't happen again," she added.