Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?

Last week, Straits Times reader Amy Loh wrote to the paper expressing her disquiet about how the government’s emphasis on the need to speak Mandarin could be perceived as a clear signal to encourage residents of mainland China origin to choose to continue speaking only Chinese. She cited examples of how almost all new shop signs in Geylang are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave.

In response, the Straits Times in an editorial slammed Ms Loh as being “xenophobic”, pointing to economically vibrant cities like London and Sydney as evidence that “recruiting foreigners” has brought great benefits to those cities. The paper went on to explain that the Geylang shop signs were in only Chinese for “purely commercial reasons”, as if that were an excuse for their cultural insensitivity.

This exchange raises another more important issue that Singapore, with its growing diversity and immigrant population, needs to start dealing with: The issue of multiculturalism versus a melting pot social make-up of our country.

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Why can’t we all be colour blind?

A friend sent me these videos, produced by state oil company Petronas, promoting racial harmony in Malaysia on the occasion of their Merdeka Day (National Day). I found them really heartwarming — at least better than any of the racial harmony events and National Education propaganda that we see in Singapore.

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Maria Hertogh dead, but the fearmongering will continue

Maria “Bertha” Hertogh (aka Nadra binte Ma’arof) died of leukaemia on 7 July 2009 in her home in Huijbergen, Netherlands, at the age of 72.

Hertogh’s name has been indelibly been printed on the minds of all Singaporeans, particularly those in the post-independence generations, as being synonymous with racial riots. Rarely is her name mentioned in local history and social studies textbooks, or National Education lessons, without the accompanying phrase, “We must never take our racial harmony for granted.”

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Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM?

This is an article sent by a friend of mine to the Straits Times, which they declined to publish.

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15 November 2008

Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM? Why or Why not? What do you think is holding us back?

I’m 61 years old and I still remember very clearly. At that time (60s/70s/80s) there were no extra efforts required to get the various races to mix and be friends with each other, whether in school or in the neighborhood.  Even while I was serving in the SAF, we did not need to be told who we should visit and when.  We were never made to realize who is a Chinese, Malay or Indian.  We were just friends and never thought of the race issue.  Why?  Was it our school system?  Was it our parents?  Was it the manner in which the government delivered the multi-racial, multi-religious message to us?

Why is it that after 43 years of nation building we have to be constantly reminded who we are (i.e., Malays, Chinese or Indians).  This is still clearly stated in our Identity Cards.  The authorities need to make sure that there is a balance in every aspect of life in Singapore; from racial balance in housing estates to the GRCs.  When the festivals come we need to be told that we should visit each other and find out more about each others’ cultures.  We even need to have an interreligious and harmony day in school and at various national levels.  We need to organize visits to each others’ festivals.  What will it be next?  How have we come to this?  Why have we come to this?  These I believe are the core issues

That is why I feel that it will not be made to happen…..never on its own, surely not by design anyway.  It is not going to happen in my lifetime for sure.  I feel that we need to find answers to the simple questions and correct what is going wrong.  Why we cannot go back to the 1960s and 1970s, with regards to racial and religious harmony?  When will we be told that we are Singaporeans.  What are we doing wrong?  How can we correct this?  Then, we can ask the question, “Is Singapore ready for a prime minister who is not Chinese?”

Just because it has happened in the USA it does not mean that we need to find answers to the same question.  I feel that the question is too early for its time.  I fail to understand the purpose of it.  Is it just another rouse, to make us imagine that there is some possibility however remote it might be?  Let’s not kid ourselves.  The majority will continue to rule; however the socioeconomic and geopolitical dynamics will help to maintain its own checks and balances.

My answer would therefore be a clear NO!!

Ajit Singh Nagpal

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Minority PM issue: Let’s drop this ‘not ready’ nonsense

I’ve been following with interest the debate about the issue of having a Prime Minister coming from a minority ethnic group.

For me personally, the issue is quite black and white: I would vote for a leader based on the merit of his ideas, values and leadership qualities. But if it is a choice between two equally good candidates, one Chinese and the other from a minority race, I would likely vote for the minority because I feel it would reflect well on us as a colour-blind nation.

Some time back, I asked an older Chinese Singaporean if she would vote for a non-Chinese PM. She simply stated that whoever is PM would tend to champion the rights of his own race over other races. Whether this was her realist assessment or her personal prejudice, I don’t know. But I suspect it is indicative of the way a lot of people — and not just Singaporeans — think: If I’m from the majority race, a PM from my race will defend the rights of all Singaporeans, but a PM from other races will only take care of ‘his own people’.

Put another way, we the majority race always treat other races equally, but minorities only defend their own kind. This is flawed and self-righteous thinking.

Who is to say that a Chinese PM will not champion the rights of Chinese over other races? Many would argue that this is already happening. The discrimination of Malays in the armed forces and the disproportionate resources pumped into mono-ethnic SAP schools are prime examples.

Ultimately I am persuaded that it is not Singaporeans who don’t want a non-Chinese PM, but the PAP leadership which chooses their Secretary-General.

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One dis-united people?

This is like totally a copyright violation but I think its so important that all Singaporeans, especially Chinese Singaporeans, read this heartfelt piece by Straits Times journalist Nur Dianah Suhaimi.

It makes me feel ashamed that I myself have harboured some of the prejudiced and stereotyping attitudes described. Yet, I find I’m still in a minority in Singapore who cares to admit that the prejudice of the majority race is a problem.

Until we tackle this problem of prejudice at its roots, all the official exhortations of practicing “tolerance” and organizing “racial harmony days” will only be window dressing for the real problem that’s preventing us from being that “one united people”.

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The Straits Times, Aug 10, 2008

Feeling like the least favourite child

By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

When I was younger, I always thought of myself as the quintessential Singaporean.

Of my four late grandparents, two were Malay, one was Chinese and one was Indian. This, I concluded, makes me a mix of all the main races in the country. But I later realised that it was not what goes into my blood that matters, but what my identity card says under ‘Race’.

Because my paternal grandfather was of Bugis origin, my IC says I’m Malay. I speak the language at home, learnt it in school, eat the food and practise the culture. And because of my being Malay, I’ve always felt like a lesser Singaporean than those from other racial groups.

I grew up clueless about the concept of national service because my father was never enlisted.

He is Singaporean all right, born and bred here like the rest of the boys born in 1955. He is not handicapped in any way. He did well in school and participated in sports.

Unlike the rest, however, he entered university immediately after his A levels. He often told me that his schoolmates said he was ‘lucky’ because he was not called up for national service.

‘What lucky?’ he would tell them. ‘Would you feel lucky if your country doesn’t trust you?’

So I learnt about the rigours of national service from my male cousins. They would describe in vivid detail their training regimes, the terrible food they were served and the torture inflicted upon them – most of which, I would later realise, were exaggerations.

But one thing these stories had in common was that they all revolved around the Police Academy in Thomson. As I got older, it puzzled me why my Chinese friends constantly referred to NS as ‘army’. In my family and among my Malay friends, being enlisted in the army was like hitting the jackpot. The majority served in the police force because, as is known, the Government was not comfortable with Malay Muslims serving in the army. But there are more of them now.

Throughout my life, my father has always told me that as a Malay, I need to work twice as hard to prove my worth. He said people have the misconception that all Malays are inherently lazy.

I was later to get the exact same advice from a Malay minister in office who is a family friend.

When I started work, I realised that the advice rang true, especially because I wear my religion on my head. My professionalism suddenly became an issue. One question I was asked at a job interview was whether I would be willing to enter a nightclub to chase a story. I answered: ‘If it’s part of the job, why not? And you can rest assured I won’t be tempted to have fun.’

When I attend media events, before I can introduce myself, people assume I write for the Malay daily Berita Harian. A male Malay colleague in The Straits Times has the same problem, too.

This makes me wonder if people also assume that all Chinese reporters are from Lianhe Zaobao and Indian reporters from Tamil Murasu.

People also question if I can do stories which require stake-outs in the sleazy lanes of Geylang. They say because of my tudung I will stick out like a sore thumb. So I changed into a baseball cap and a men’s sports jacket – all borrowed from my husband – when I covered Geylang.

I do not want to be seen as different from the rest just because I dress differently. I want the same opportunities and the same job challenges.

Beneath the tudung, I, too, have hair and a functioning brain. And if anything, I feel that my tudung has actually helped me secure some difficult interviews.

Newsmakers – of all races – tend to trust me more because I look guai (Hokkien for well-behaved) and thus, they feel, less likely to write critical stuff about them.

Recently, I had a conversation with several colleagues about this essay. I told them I never thought of myself as being particularly patriotic. One Chinese colleague thought this was unfair. ‘But you got to enjoy free education,’ she said.

Sure, for the entire 365 days I spent in Primary 1 in 1989. But my parents paid for my school and university fees for the next 15 years I was studying.

It seems that many Singaporeans do not know that Malays have stopped getting free education since 1990. If I remember clearly, the news made front-page news at that time.

We went on to talk about the Singapore Government’s belief that Malays here would never point a missile at their fellow Muslim neighbours in a war.

I said if not for family ties, I would have no qualms about leaving the country. Someone then remarked that this is why Malays like myself are not trusted. But I answered that this lack of patriotism on my part comes from not being trusted, and for being treated like a potential traitor.

It is not just the NS issue. It is the frustration of explaining to non-Malays that I don’t get special privileges from the Government. It is having to deal with those who question my professionalism because of my religion. It is having people assume, day after day, that you are lowly educated, lazy and poor. It is like being the least favourite child in a family. This child will try to win his parents’ love only for so long. After a while, he will just be engulfed by disappointment and bitterness.

I also believe that it is this ‘least favourite child’ mentality which makes most Malays defensive and protective of their own kind.

Why do you think Malay families spent hundreds of dollars voting for two Malay boys in the Singapore Idol singing contest? And do you know that Malays who voted for other competitors were frowned upon by the community?

The same happens to me at work. When I write stories which put Malays in a bad light, I am labelled a traitor. A Malay reader once wrote to me to say: ‘I thought a Malay journalist would have more empathy for these unfortunate people than a non-Malay journalist.’

But such is the case when you are a Malay Singaporean. Your life is not just about you, as much as you want it to be. You are made to feel responsible for the rest of the pack and your actions affect them as well. If you trip, the entire community falls with you. But if you triumph, it is considered everyone’s success.

When 12-year-old Natasha Nabila hit the headlines last year for her record PSLE aggregate of 294, I was among the thousands of Malays here who celebrated the news. I sent instant messages to my friends on Gmail and chatted excitedly with my Malay colleagues at work.

Suddenly a 12-year-old has become the symbol of hope for the community and a message to the rest that Malays can do it too – and not just in singing competitions.

And just like that, the ‘least favourite child’ in me feels a lot happier.

Each year, come Aug 9, my father, who never had the opportunity to do national service, dutifully hangs two flags at home – one on the front gate and the other by the side gate.

I wonder if putting up two flags is his way of making himself feel like a better-loved child of Singapore.

———

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Obama talks frankly about race and politics

This is probably the most inspiring speech from Barack Obama I’ve watch yet. He was brutally frank about the most delicate issue of race and politics. While condemning the incendiary remarks his pastor made against white America, he honoured him as a man who has done much for the community and led him to his Christian faith.

This is a must-see for not just Americans, but all those who live in multi-racial countries, including Singapore and Malaysia.

I am now even more convinced that Obama is the best man to lead the US, not just because he could be unifying factor in America, but in the world as well.

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Who really is "not ready" for a non-Chinese PM?

The recent announcement of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s promotion to Finance Minister — in addition to his current Education portfolio — set many of tongues wagging as to whether he might be the successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong many moons from now. This in turn sparked a debate in the Straits Times as to whether Singaporeans (read: the Chinese-speaking majority) are ready to accept and support a non-Chinese prime minister.

This isn’t the first time this issue has surfaced. Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that former Cabinet Minister S. Dhanabalan was one of the four men he considered as his successor, but decided against him as he felt Singapore was “not ready” for a non-Chinese prime minister. That was almost 20 years ago.

Fast forward to the year 2007, and this whole mantra of “Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM” is getting very tiresome to listen to. It seems to be most repeated among the English-educated, ethnic Chinese elites, many of whom have little regular contact with both Chinese-speaking “heartlanders” and ethnic minorities. These elites assume that they know the thinking of the Chinese ground. Yet I wonder whether they are just using this as a cover for their own primordial mindsets.

Here are some of the arguments (undoubtedly from these elites) that have been put forth against having a non-Chinese PM:

“I am a realist and am inclined to agree with Mr S. Dhanabalan that Chinese Singaporeans are not ready to accept a non-Chinese prime minister….This is the reality and fact of life that we cannot pretend that such mindset does not exist.”

(Straits Times Forum, 1 Dec 07)

“If anything, the ascendency (sic) of China in this century is the very reason why Singapore CANNOT have a non-Chinese Singaporean as leader….A potential Malay candidate as leader will never do because of the region we are in. Neither is an Indian one wise since India is on a headlong fight for economic and political influence with China.”

(Comment on ST Forum, 5 Dec 07)

“Let’s be realistic. A majority chinese Singapore will never accept a non chinese PM. Even, i cannot accept it. I am not a racist fyi. Let me tell you why. First, we are a tiny island surrounded by hostile malay/muslim nation similar to Israel…”

(HardwareZone Forum, 30 Nov 07)

I find it hard to reconcile how a country that prides itself in meritocracy and rubbishes its neighbour up north for their racialist policies, apparently has the strongest proponents of meritocracy still harbouring this mindset. It reminds me of the oft-repeated mantra that Malay Singaporeans cannot be placed in sensitive positions in the military because their loyalty in times of war may be questionable.

The political reality in Singapore is that it is not up to the Chinese masses to choose their prime minister. Unlike in the US, the electorate does not directly elect their head of government. It is effectively the ruling party (or more specifically the PAP Central Executive Committee and its cadres) which chooses the prime minister, because the head of the ruling party is usually made the PM.

This means that if an eminently qualified minority is passed over for the prime ministership, it is because our elites do not want him there, not because “Singaporeans are not ready”.

Having said that, if it is true that Mr Shanmugaratnam is being groomed to be the next prime minister based solely on the merit of his abilities and character, then I applaud PM Lee for his progressive mindset.

There are so many areas in which Singaporeans were “not ready”, yet the government pushed through policies for what it deemed was in the country’s best interest. National service, English medium education, the casinos, CPF rate cuts and ministerial salaries are just a few that come to mind. Isn’t choosing the best qualified man or woman to lead the country, regardless of race or religion, far more important that all these policies?

This article was first published in theonlinecitizen.com.

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