SINGAPORE - In their zest for pursuing ideals like social justice and rooting out discrimination, it can sometimes feel like young people want deep-lying societal issues of inequities and inequality to disappear overnight.
While this is positive, the reality is that Singapore needs to consider an approach and pace of change that is acceptable by society at large, said Senior Minister of State for National Development and Foreign Affairs Sim Ann on Saturday (July 24).
"We need some patience," she told participants at a dialogue on the Chinese community's role in Singapore's multiculturalism, jointly organised by government feedback unit Reach and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.
She urged young people who are passionate about contributing to a better, fairer society to step forward and put their ideas into action.
Ms Sim was part of a panel comprising Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations Tan Aik Hock, lawyer Hee Theng Fong, actor Tay Ping Hui, and moderator Ho Sheo Be, political editor of Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese Media Group's NewsHub.
The panel was conversing in-person at the SPH auditorium in Toa Payoh while audience members dialled in via the Zoom platform.
In her opening remarks Ms Sim, who spoke mostly in Mandarin, explained concepts familiar to young people today - such as cancel culture, which has been defined by some as an avenue for seeking justice when failed by traditional institutions, but also viewed by others as mob-style vigilantism. She noted that cancel culture also includes championing the cause of vulnerable or disadvantaged communities, including racial minorities.
Relatedly, woke culture refers to a political awareness of social injustices such as racial or gender discrimination, said Ms Sim.
Having impacted societal relations and college campuses in the United States, the influence of cancel and woke culture can also be in seen in Singapore - in part with the Internet transmitting ideas quickly, but also because concepts like social justice and discrimination have universal appeal.
"One could swap out the 'white' in white privilege and replace it with another majority race when discussing race and racism outside of the US. This is how Chinese privilege came about," said Ms Sim.
On white privilege, Mr Shanmugam pointed out that even after the US ended slavery - rooted on the basis of skin colour - differences in institutional treatment of whites and African-Americans continue to persist.
"Some people are now taking that and applying it to Singapore," he said. "If you tell a significant number of Chinese Singaporeans that they enjoy Chinese privilege, they will be perplexed and they will be upset. Because for them, they gave up their university, they gave up Chinese schools, they gave up what is common in every other society when one race is 75 per cent - that (their) language dominates."
At the same time, Mr Shanmugam noted that in every society, being part of the majority brings certain advantages. "But that is not, in my view, the same as privilege. Privilege and structural racism are different from the natural advantages that come from being part of the majority, and some of the disadvantages that come from being part of a minority."
He added: "The majority have to be sensitive. Even when you don't intend to be insensitive, well-meaning words, well-meaning gestures may be offensive at times."
Ms Sim also observed that in Singapore, discussions about such concepts are almost exclusively in English, while the Chinese-educated and Mandarin-speaking group remains less aware.
"There aren't even widely known translated terms in Chinese for cancel culture or woke," she said. "Furthermore, when it comes to issues to do with race, our Chinese community tends to be reluctant to speak about it."
This gap in the discourse on race issues, between the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking groups, has now been bridged, said Ms Sim.
"This is due to the interest generated by recent high-profile incidents related to racism, as well as repeated mentions of Chinese privilege, which the Chinese community surely must respond to."
She encouraged young people to do their part to combat privilege or discrimination, and to make use of available public sector resources.
The Young ChangeMakers (YCM) grant supporting community causes and Our Singapore Fund for ground-up projects are some avenues where young people can bring their ideas, networks and time to.
"Society also benefits because as long as you have passion and ideals, and you have the determination to see this through, you're going to leave Singapore a slightly better place, than how you found it," said Ms Sim.