Friday, 22 September 2023

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Spillovers of tolerance

Ravi Philemon with contribution from Gangasudhan

We talk of tolerance as if it is a good thing. When compared against intolerance, of course it is! But what does tolerance really mean? It means to put up with or tolerate someone who is different from you. 

While it may be good to put up with someone who is different, tolerance isn’t all that helpful when it comes to the development of positive relationships.  For this, we have to move beyond tolerance to acceptance.

Fear is the greatest enemy of acceptance.  Many fear that acceptance means having to agree with the behaviour or culture of another – it does not. Someone can be accepted without the other agreeing, understanding or celebrating their behaviour. Most of all tolerance stands for judgement, while acceptance is about love.

Tolerance is about artificially creating a ‘culture of niceness’.  Tolerance creates a breed of people who are nice on the surface, but beneath the surface may lay deep prejudices, stereotypes and biases, all only waiting to explode at the slightest provocation. Acceptance on the other hand, is a ‘heart thing’ – where one is nice to people who are different because their heart lines-up with it.

The Prime Minister of Singapore urging all groups to exercise restraint and tolerance in his National Day message said that for Singaporeans to live together peacefully, “we need good sense and tolerance from all sides”. But after 44 years of being an independent nation and with tolerance being preached from the highest office of the nation for a period longer than that, have we truly evolved at least into a tolerant nation?

Tolerance of cell-group members, who sing loudly next door, tolerance of the fragrance of incense which invades your home, tolerance of consuming halal and non-halal food at the same table because there is no more sitting space in the hawker centre, are all but only instances of tolerance of common space; not even tolerance of beliefs.

Member of Parliament, Mr Michael Palmer said recently at a dialogue, “Tolerance evokes a situation where you don’t talk about it. You bottle it up, suck it in, even if you are not very happy with it.”

Do all Chinese eat everything? Do all Indians ‘smell’ because of the gingelly oil they apply on their heads? Do all gays have multiple sexual partners? Tolerance only reinforces such prejudices; and what’s worst, forces the people carrying such misperceptions to remain silent and not discuss openly if their bias is right or wrong.  The end result – it gets transmitted from one generation to another.

Tolerance like all things bottled-up and sucked-in has got a tendency to leak out from time to time. Ken Lim, one of the judges of the Singapore Idol, riled the Indian community recently when he dismissed a wannabe Singapore Idol, Malaque Mahdaly as “that was amateurish, it lacks quality, but you’ll make a good Vasantham star”.

A group of teenagers, decided to do a Malaque recently and posted their video on Youtube (the video on Youtube was removed and republished under a different moniker). Unfortunately all the teenagers featured in the video were Chinese. The posters ethnicity did not go unnoticed and has evoked ‘spillovers’ of tolerance in the comments to this video, from some in the Indian community, which are acerbic.

Perhaps the ad for the Vasantham Star was so unprofessionally made that it was waiting to be spoofed. But what gave the idea to these young people that Indian stars sang while running around coconut trees? Old Bollywood and Kollywood movies?


For Bollywood and Kollywood, stars do not run around trees while they sing in the new movies. Movies like Unnaipol Oruvan, a Kamal Hassan-Mohanlal starrer, does not even have songs, and are so professionally produced that it looks like a Hollywood movie. Was the idea that Indian stars sang while running around trees communicated to these young ones by their elders and they bought the stereotype wholesale without even bothering to get their facts straight?

At the end of the day, all of us should be laughing at this ‘spoof’ if we looked at it as Singaporeans mocking/spoofing a Singaporean show; instead, it has now turned ugly – the Chinese mocking the Indians. Strip away the ethnic undertones and this is nothing more than harmless tomfoolery.

More than forty years of talk about tolerance is enough. It has only created people who hide behind a veneer – that they have the capacity of putting up with other people’s differences; but without re-visiting their own presumptions. There is an imperative need for Singapore to move beyond tolerance – to acceptance. And this is no highfalutin ideal.

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