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Howard Lee points out that we have only so many people whom we can call citizens, and while we might be able to import more, newcomers do not carry our history and culture

It is involvement that creates identity

Howard Lee

My personal experience was indicative of something in Australian culture that speaks of a nation's psyche when approaching race issues, or national issues as a whole. That something, I believe, is the prevalence of honest, audacious and open public discourse.

When asked about racism in Australia, I always have this story to share.

I spent my graduate years in Perth, Western Australia, at a most uncomfortable time in its history – Pauline Hanson won a seat in Parliament and her allegedly racists remarks against Asians were well documented.

My parents got wind of it and did not fail to remind me, in our weekly trunk calls, to take extra precautions and avoid crowded places.

But Fremantle's Café Strip is a favourite hangout and unavoidable. It was also a well-known spot for activities of all kinds, from buskers with daring acts to activists promoting animal rights.

I was approached by a girl, I suspect a student not much different from me, waving a petition that demanded the state government ban Pauline Hanson from delivering any speeches in Perth. "We think Pauline Hanson is a racist, and we do not welcome her here," she declared. Or something like that.

Of course, I signed it, but I do not remember if that petition was successful. What stuck in my mind was this one fact: the girl was Caucasian.

An Australian, a total stranger, who by her heritage and the colour of her skin has every reason to believe in Hanson's doomsday predictions and push for stricter immigration policies, chose to fight for my rights in her own country. In that one moment, the "why" for her actions was secondary. If I was ever a migrant searching for a place to call home, that moment would have decided it.

But I ask the "why" question now, as it might shed some light on our predicament at home. Singapore is heading into unfamiliar territory, where relations between foreigners and locals are becoming increasingly strained, and citizens are searching to better define the value of their citizenship.

Social tolerance: challenged, tested, redefined

The resolution of racism and immigration issues in Australia is far from ideal. Indeed, recent incidents of "curry bashing", for all its loaded semantics, does little credit to a nation trying to position itself as welcoming foreign talent.

Yet I would argue that my personal experience was indicative of something in Australian culture that speaks of a nation's psyche when approaching race issues, or national issues as a whole. That something, I believe, is the prevalence of honest, audacious and open public discourse.

When Hanson first broke onto the Australian scene, I remember then Prime Minister John Howard defended her rights to air her views, and was immediately chastised for his Voltairean approach. Subsequently, Hanson's allegedly racist views pervaded every media – the news, talk shows, stand-up comedies, from broadcast to print, were threshing out her story, and in many cases, trashing her up. Some were serious discussions, others were comical parodies.

Suffice to say that in that short period, debating on Hanson became a national past-time, more engaging than Aussie Rules football. While the media might have gone overboard in turning it into a spectacle, the spill-over into everyday life was more real and forceful, with lobby groups and protestors taking their own swipes. In addition, I would say that the media coverage did play an important part in getting people aware and engaged.

Interestingly, the publicity given to Hanson did not result in civil unrest, as some of our leaders in Singapore might have feared. Of course, the rebuttal would be that Singapore's society is not as "mature" as Australia's to take such public dialogue, but do also consider that Australia's long history also means that race issues are strongly entrenched – from indigenous rights to migrant needs, each issue a political minefield.

Comparisons aside, the Hanson saga is more meaningful if viewed, not in the final result it generated, but the public conversations that surrounded it. The incident, especially with One Nation (then Hanson’s party) winning a seat, gave Australia a rather bad international reputation as a migrant-intolerant country.

But there was a very different mood at ground zero. It spoke of a people willing to take up issues, call it their own, divide and debate, and ultimately agree that the stand they take is meant to make theirs a better society, respecting the views of others while creating an ideal space for themselves.

Internally, Australia reflected the social divide that prevails in all nations open to migration, yet this divide was openly shared and vigorously discussed, rather than suppressed for fear of social disharmony. Put in another way, social disharmony was accepted as a natural occurrence – it was through public discourse that citizens attempted to understand and bridge divides, if not to resolve them.

Stagged harmony/hegemony

The paralysing fear that has gripped Singapore for decades is that emotional debate on race issues can lead to widespread social conflict. Historical examples are often cited to support this belief.

However, references to the 1964 and 1969 race riots are almost always made in isolation without a justifiable comparison to the difference in social context between then and now. At the very least, it is scare-mongering and a challenge to anyone who dares to even suggest racial politics. At its worst, it paralyses us with self-censorship, preventing us from engaging in meaningful debate. It buries, layer upon layer with each cited and policed incident, the desire and need to engage in a proper conversation to better understand our fellow citizens.

Effectively, race relations in Singapore are currently managed with two tools. The first is the arcane Internal Securities Act and other similar laws. The second is the $10 million Community Integration Fund, in addition to other "soft" initiatives.

The role of citizens is perceptibly delegated to subjects – we are requested to subscribe to broad out-of-bounds markers on the one hand, and actively participate in top-down, structured and committee-approved cohesion events on the other. Social harmony is a manicured garden, where we stroll through holding hands with fellow citizens, to appreciate the act of holding hands, or the park ranger will kick out the anti-social.

Yet, reality suggests that the ground is a lot different from this utopia-in-progress. Recent incidents of youths (it has to be that rowdy bunch) posting racist comments online (it has to be that wild, wild web), possibly only ripples in our social fabric, the surface over deep undercurrents of resentment.

While we might have gotten by preaching racial tolerance, the dynamics of modern society, fueled by globalisation and rapid immigration, can only strengthen these undercurrents. Things will boil over eventually.

Consensus vs Conflict

When I explained Singapore's shared values to Australian course mates, many were perturbed by this one – consensus, not conflict. "I would have thought that consensus can only be attained through conflict?" one of them quipped.

Perhaps our cultural differences give rise to different understandings of this phrase. But it is only through open engagement that our society can prevent the subversion of our identity, and return some semblance of genuine harmony through frank discussion, passionate debate, fostered understanding and acceptance.

Before we can embark on this, I believe a few conditions need to be established:

  • Media unleashed – the local media’s reserved reporting is doing us a huge injustice, and more harm than good for long term social harmony; the media must be able to report openly on sensitive issues without fear or favour, showing awareness and acknowledging that each reporter is necessarily biased, and no one has all the answers
  • Policies disengaged – we have to understand that identities exist before policies; no amount of coercion or social engineering can remodel that, but only subvert and suppress it, leaving only the empty shell of a conceptualised national identity
  • Diversity celebrated – much as we fancy ourselves a multi-cultural society, the dogmatic reverence we pay to social cohesion effectively speaks the opposite; there can be no cohesion without genuine understanding, and understanding is not created by just focusing on similarities, but also on differences

If not, what we stand to lose

Last week, Pauline Hanson revealed that she would emigrate to the UK. Her public reason for doing so was that the current Australian government lacks people to voice contrarian views for the benefit of Australians. This time, I am not in Australia to appraise the situation, but I speculate that part of her disappointment has to do with Kevin Rudd's fresh approach and a welcoming foreign policy.

Notwithstanding the ironic turn of events, Hanson's departure is a good reflection of what could happen to nations in a globalised world – failing to find their space in their home country, citizens who feel sidelined leave for a place they believe they will be included.

Australia might well be able to afford it, for now. Its population base is wide, and I would even say that because of the prevalence of public discourse, such rends are quickly patched, and the Australian identity will redefine itself.

But not for Singapore. We have only so many people whom we can call citizens, and while we might be able to import more, new-comers do not carry our history and culture. For sure, culture will grow from them, but with the pace of growth and our dogma on cohesiveness, this will be a prescribed cultural position at best.

New citizens do not have the luxury or time in our urgent economy to ponder and think about how they will fit into our culture. They are simply assimilated into the ideal template. To top it off, the media, hell-bent on trumpeting official soundbites and reluctant to question and play devil’s advocate, plays to the same merry hegemonic tune.

We can only become poorer for it. If we feel not the loss of citizens, we can certainly realise how little we truly understand our neighbour and how disengaged we are from many issues that plague our society. Too often we rely on the government to define our social positions and resolve differences.

To end, I refer to the view suggested by Dr Lee Wei Ling in the Straits Times (14 Feburary), that a unique Singaporean culture will eventually develop over time.

I beg to differ. The Singapore culture is already being developed, in the hearts and minds of the citizens, and is constantly evolving, if not fading from lack of everyday application. The question is whether this culture can be recognised and acknowledged by our citizens as their own, forged from a public discourse that they participate actively in, or a fabricated structure determined by authoritative policies that are guided chiefly by the principles of survival and economic progress, not the need for identity.

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