The necessary inconvenience of breaking down racial facades

K Shanmugam ST
Law Minister K Shanmugam (image – STOnline)

By Gangasudhan

The ugly side of race and religion has surfaced yet again when outspoken critic of Singapore’s model of “multi-racialism” Sangeetha Thanapal accused Law Minister K Shanmugam of being an Islamaphobe, by citing an excerpt of a speech he had given.

Soon after, the Minister put up a post on his Facebook page to clarify that Sangeetha had taken his words out of context and that he was exploring lodging a police report. Sangeetha then took down the post shortly after and posted that she was seeking legal advice on her Facebook page indicating in a comment that “the post took on a life of its own, and came out differently from how I intended”.

While the Minister has admirably commented on this very thread a few times and has made arrangements to speak with her directly – and it is understood that he has indeed spoken to Sangeetha and she had subsequently apologised –the comments on the thread itself had the precise effect of exposing the racial fault lines that exist just under the surface of multiracialism as it is championed in Singapore.

Within the first few hours of her post explaining the removal of the offending earlier one, an alarming number Facebook users (apparently of ethnic Chinese origins, but could also just as much be members of the famed Internet Brigade whose true identities are unknown) vehemently condemned Sangeetha’s actions and declared that it served her right and that she had asked for it, and even that the Minister should “sue her until her pants drop”.

Image - mmjmpls.org
Image – mmjmpls.org

These commenters insisted that there was no racial divide and that Sangeetha was the real racist with a chip on her shoulder. Some even suggested that her access to education at NUS was proof that she was not denied education by the majority Chinese – and therefore she could not possibly be a victim of racism.

Comically, when a Malaysian Chinese came in with a comment to suggest that it is no joke being marginalised and, in his observation, something that does affect the non-Chinese in Singapore, he was duly ridiculed by a number of these commenters for coming into the thread to stir trouble and that he should not bring Malaysian politics into Singapore.

The irony of trying to unequivocally declare they could never be racial bigots, by behaving like nationalistic bigots, completely escaped these defenders of Singapore’s “multi-racialism”.

Subsequently, after these “enthusiasts” lost their initial excitement and stopped returning to the thread to exclaim and proclaim, more measured discourse did ensue with each camp trying to convince the other that implicit racism does/doesn’t exist and that the implications are real/imagined. But this discussion can never come to an amicable resolution because we are looking at it from two different angles thinking that we are looking at it from two sides of the same coin – and that is the crux of the problem.

The window analogy

What people like Sangeetha are trying to do is drill into people – and these can be individuals from both the majority and minority ethnic groups – that implicit racism exists whether you like it or not, whether you believe it to be true or not, and whether it is convenient to you or not. They may not always do this with finesse or precision but breaking down walls is seldom a neat process.

Santa Lucia in Monte, painting of a false window (image - Wikimedia Commons)
Santa Lucia in Monte, painting of a false window (image – Wikimedia Commons)

In the Singapore context, the proverbial wall is the racial fault lines and the window on this wall is the way we see each other across racial differences. Now, the window looks real and in fact appears to many to be showing exactly what is happening on the other side. But this “window” is nothing more than a carefully designed and well-constructed picture of a window – not a real window in any sense of the word.

So can we use this illusion of a window to definitively say that the other side is all rosy or report what we see as the factual reality of what lies on the other side? It is easy to see how the answer has to be ‘no’ using this analogy.

What people like Sangeetha are doing is to break down this wall so that a different one can eventually be built – one that indeed has a real window. People like Sangeetha certainly do not know how to build this new wall but the truth is that without them, you cannot begin to rebuild this better wall with a real window.

Make no mistake, this new wall will take another generation or two to be built. But once it is there, we can be sure that people on either side can engage based on real observations rather than the perceived reality of today.

Looking through a real window allows you to see the good and the bad alongside each other and allows you the opportunity to make sense of the raw observations rather than reinterpret and deconstruct packaged perceptions as presented on our “picture of a window”. Believe it or not, a real window almost always gives you a better understanding of the world than any picture can, and that is where we should be aspiring towards.

If we can somehow reach there, with a new wall and a real window in place, then one day, perhaps 100 years from now, another version of Sangeetha will come along to break it down altogether because there won’t be a need for one any more. Until then, even if we have to risk pointing out potential insensitivity in what a Minister says to get such conversations going, do so we must.