We need to talk about race issues, says Dr Janil

SINGAPORE - Singapore has enjoyed decades of racial harmony but some social observers interviewed in a new TV documentary said it may be superficial as Singaporeans still harbour stereotypes of other races.

Another reason given by Minister of State Janil Puthucheary is that people are hesitant and afraid to discuss race relations because they fear being seen as racist.

They are also afraid of offending other races, added Dr Janil, who is chairman of OnePeople.SG, a national body that promotes racial and religious harmony.

He and the experts were discussing the results of a survey that shows half of Singaporeans hold negative stereotypes of other races.

They believe, for instance, some are more violent, less friendly or more likely to get into trouble.

The survey, however, found that almost everyone respects the other races and believes all should be treated equally.

About 2,000 people were polled in the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey, and they reflect Singapore's racial composition.

The survey was commissioned by Channel NewsAsia for its documentary Regardless of Race, which airs on Monday night.

Dr Janil told about 100 people at a forum after its private screening last night, that Singaporeans needed to openly discuss the issue of race.

It sparked a lively discussion on issues such as the everyday privileges the Chinese majority enjoy and whether the Government's classification of people by race, known as the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) model, was outdated.

Some of the participants noted the Chinese were less likely to be the butt of racist jokes and more likely to have a wide range of choices at food courts.

The Chinese were also less likely to worry about their actions being ascribed to their race, said 22-year-old social science graduate Sherilyn Chan.

But management consultant Michael Heng, 61, did not agree the Chinese enjoy privileges, saying: "There is no toilet reserved for me, there is no car park lot reserved for me.''

Several people, however, wondered why "such a big deal" was being made about race, because differences between races are part and parcel of daily life.

Others questioned why race was being discussed along the lines of the CMIO model because there are differences in each racial group.

The Chinese have dialect groups such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew while among Malays, there are Javanese and Arabs.

As for the CMIO model, Dr Janil acknowledged it was not perfect, but was needed to preserve racial harmony.

It enabled the Government to ensure a mix of different races in public housing and in schools, and prevent racial ghettos, he added.

"The CMIO is not there to divide. It's because we accept that when people look at each other, there is bias, prejudice," he said.

These internal biases cannot be fixed by policies, but by people engaging in honest conversations about race, carried out in good faith and mutual respect.

For this to work, people have to do their best not to be offensive and not to take offense, said Dr Janil.

The survey also found that Singaporeans seem to have a misplaced caution towards other races, preferring to err on the side of caution over being seen as racist.

One in four is afraid of being labelled a racist if they spoke up on seeing someone of a different race doing something wrong.

These situations include when someone is mistreating a woman, or if shouting or crying from a neighbour's home is heard.

Instead, Singaporeans tend to prefer calling the police instantly.

More than half the respondents say it is hard to discuss race issues, and more than six in 10 think it will offend someone or cause unnecessary tension.

But these issues are too important to be left unsaid, said Dr Janil, who was leading the discussion in the TV documentary.

IPS researcher Mathew Mathews said race relations researchers are of the opinion that Singapore's racial harmony was superficial.

About one in five does not think a person is racist for not hiring someone based on race. Also, around one in three thinks it is not racist to refuse to share a seat, say, on a bus, with a person of another race.

Such personal biases and prejudices are inherent but should be guarded against so that they do not become racism at a societal level, said former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin in the documentary.