Singapore's young view multiracialism differently, says Janil Puthucheary

 Volunteers Thomas Liew, 35, a senior manager in business excellence and Nurul Fatimah, 18, a polytechnic student.
Volunteers Thomas Liew, 35, a senior manager in business excellence and Nurul Fatimah, 18, a polytechnic student.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - The way today's young view multiracialism and multiculturalism is different from how they were envisioned 50 years ago, said Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary on Wednesday (Nov 1).

Still, it is important to understand how the younger generation feels about these values, he added.

Though racism today is talked about more in terms of stereotypes and representation rather than about safety and security, it is no less an important issue, he added.

Dr Janil, who is chairman of OnePeople.sg, a charity that promotes racial harmony, made the point at its 10th anniversary dinner.

He said people no longer worry whether they can walk safely through different parts of town because of their race. But they worry about jokes and how many actors are representing their race on television.

"It's an aspiration to a higher type of inclusion, and that shift of aspiration speaks about how much we've done and about far we've come as a country," he said.

Although the anger and outrage the young feel when those aspirations are not met may initially look trivial compared with the dangers of the past, these new issues cannot be ignored, said Dr Janil, who is Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information as well as Education.

"If not, the next generation will feel disenfranchised and will not believe in our model of multiculturalism or multiracialism. We must treat their aspirations for a deeper harmony with the same vigour and respect as the social issues of the past. We must tackle them and do something about them."

He added: "We have come a long way as a country and as OnePeople.sg over the last 10 years, but our need to tackle racism and our model of multiculturalism and multiracialism - to make sure the next generation understands why we place so much emphasis on this and on getting this right - this mission has not changed."

Dr Janil was speaking to more than 500 people, including community and religious leaders, volunteers and donors at Shangri-La Hotel.

His organisation, previously known as the Central Singapore Joint Social Service Centre, was set up in 1997 to coordinate the resources of the community development councils and self-help groups.

It took on the role of promoting racial harmony in 2001 with the People's Association and in 2007, was renamed OnePeople.sg.

It has since been working with schools to build shared values and grow a pool of youth ambassadors and facilitators to spread the message of religious harmony and lead programmes. The group has grown to about 160 facilitators, up from 10 in 2007.

It also works with community groups and ethnic and religious institutions to foster community cohesion. Dr Janil said the organisation will continue to widen its network and build partnerships with more groups, especially youth groups, and work to create safe spaces for people to discuss difficult issues.

The dinner raised about $501,000 to fund the charity's programmes and activities.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the dinner's guest-of-honour, launched a commemorative book of research articles on ethnic diversity in Singapore.

The 504-page book, titled "The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic: Many Cultures, One People", covers aspects of the history, religion, language, value systems and diet, for instance, of various sub-ethnic groups.

Excerpts may be made available as a resource for schools and community and religious groups, through exhibitions or digital e-books.

Mr Thomas Liew, 35, a volunteer for the past 10 years at the charity, facilitating small group discussions, said it is heartwarming to see young people today are well-read and concerned about race and ethnicity issues and about Singapore.

"Raising awareness about these issues is important because we cannot be complacent about our peace and stability brought about by racial harmony," he said.

Polytechnic student Nurul Fatimah, 18, said she has been on the receiving end of distasteful jokes in school, which came as a culture shock after studying in a madrasah for many years before that.

The youth advocate at OnePeople.sg, who plans events for other students, said she does so because she believes racial harmony is something fragile that should be protected.

"We don't have racial riots and people may take racial harmony for granted. A problem no matter how small can build into a bigger problem, so we can't ever let our guard down," she said.