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Race Issues in Singapore: The need for greater public discussion

By Lisa Li

Crammed into Post-Museum's exhibition space, the crowd kept shifting their chairs in to accomodate more and more people--eventually, about 70 people turned up at the forum 'Politics and Ethnicity: Framing Racial Discrimination in Singapore', held on 12 Febrary 2011.

Mr James Gomez

Dr James Gomez, the founding Executive-Director of Singaporeans for Democracy, started the forum discussion by presenting his paper "Politics and Ethnicity: Framing Racial Discrimination in Singapore", which examined the significance of the UN Rapporteur Mr Githu Muigai's visit to Singapore from 21 to 28 April 2010.

During this period, Mr Muigai met government authorities and members of civil society in order to 'gather first-hand information on the main issues facing people living in Singapore in relation to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance'.

The paper was also a timely reminder that Mr Muigai is due to present his findings on Singapore before the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly in June and November 2011, and--more importantly--that Singaporeans need to take stock of the current situation of race relations, in order to prepare for our response to Mr Muigai's final report.

PAP's likely rejection of the UN Rapporteur's Report

It was noted that 'in practice, states have often resisted or challenged the findings of the Special Rapporteur' and the PAP-led Singapore government is not expected to behave differently.

UN Special Rapporteur Githu Muigai

In fact, within a few hours of Mr Muigai's press conference in Singapore on 28 April 2010, the PAP government made a statement through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) which 'rejected all of Mr Muigai's suggestions'.

Although Mr Muigai's press statement was not made public, his suggestions included allowing for more public debate and discourse, eliminating race from national identity documents in order to de-emphasize racial differences that contribute to racially based policies, and incorporating more flexibility in existing ethnic quotas for HDB housing.

James Gomez documented the PAP government's rebuttal of Mr Muigai's suggestions Although MFA stated that it had 'an open mind' and was 'prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal [of racial harmony]', in essence, it showed no genuine interest in accepting or even considering any of the recommendations.

Click here for the full paper 'Politics and Ethnicity: Framing Racial Discrimination in Singapore' by Dr James Gomez.

Click here for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Response to the Press Statement of Mr Githu Muigai, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Creating space for public debate

Moving on from the forum and papers, how should we, as ordinary Singaporeans, respond to the PAP government's likely rejection of the UN Rapporteur's report?

In response to Mr Muigai's call for greater openness in the public discussion of sensitive issues, MFA's statement was that they 'emphatically disagree' with his suggestion because 'race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore' and while 'this does not mean that they cannot be discussed, a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony'.

Race and religion are viewed as sensitive topics, and the status quo in Singapore seems to be to avoid criticism or any extensive public discussion of race-based practices or government policies.

Ironically, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself recently provoked the anger of many with his free expression in his book 'Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going'.

In this book, he referred to Muslims' preference in eating and dining separately (so that the halal and non-halal food would not get contaminated) as a 'social divide', and urged the Malay-Muslim community to be less strict in their practice of Islam. Besides that, MM Lee also said that the Malays will never be able to bridge the gap between educational attainments with Indians and Chinese.

Not surprisingly, MM Lee's comments were viewed as racially divisive, and on 27 January 2011, the Association for Muslim Professionals (AMP) released a statement that MM Lee's comments had 'hurt the [Malay-Muslim] community and are potentially divisive'.

Yet, these comments by MM Lee received little beyond mild rebuke from PAP politicians.

On 29 January 2011, the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim urged Muslims to take Mr Lee's comments in perspective. "Let's look at this rationally, read the book and understand where he's coming from... At the end of the day, he has a certain perspective. That perspective may not be accurate now, maybe 40 years ago. So that's where I disagree with him, as I mentioned, in the book. That the reality on the ground is people are working together side by side".

On 31 January 2011, it was reported in the Straits Times that Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "My own perspective on how things are in Singapore... is not quite the same as MM's... Muslims are a valued and respected community, who have done a good deal to strengthen our harmony and social cohesion".

What do we make of MFA's rejection of free expression and extensive public discussion of race and religion, in light of the PAP government's reluctance to curb a senior Cabinet member in his freely contentious speech?

This points to double standards of the PAP government, or a paternalistic view that ordinary people cannot be trusted to have a mature discussion about these sensitive topics.

Yet, the gracious dignity of AMP's criticism of MM Lee's comments, and the lively and respectful debate about race issues at Saturday's forum is indication that Singaporeans can certainly handle public debate about difficult issues--and even if some of us cannot, we need to learn, not by shutting up, but by emulating good examples of genuine debate in public arenas.

The MFA stated that 'this balance [between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony] is only for the Singapore government to determine because only the Singapore government bears the responsibility should things go wrong'.

The PAP government is afraid of being blamed should things go wrong, but make no mistake--we will all suffer and bear the responsiblity should things go wrong. Playing it safe by staying closed to the UN Rapporteur's report and curbing Singaporeans' space for public debate does not allow Singapore to mature, and it does not allow for difficulties in race relations to be truly resolved.

The PAP government can indeed reject the UN Rapporteur's suggestions--but if we disagree with the PAP government's response, we can only rely on ourselves to reclaim that space of public debate through the new media, through conversations with our family, friends and community. It is our responsibility to speak up and speak loudly, with respect, reason and maturity.

This article is the first part in a two-part article about Race Issues in Singapore. The second part will deal with the actual discussion of race issues that took place during and after the forum on 12 February 2011.