Sarah Bagharib, left. (Source: LinkedIn)

Staying silent on issues like racism may be “comfortable” but could allow social ills to “grow like cancer”, said cultural researcher and educator Wong Chee Ming (better known as Z’ming Cik online) in a Facebook post on Thursday (17 June).

Mr Wong was referencing the fallout of the People’s Association (PA)’s statement on 14 June about the Hari Raya standee fiasco in which it cancelled a scheduled meeting with Ms Sarah Bagharib and accused her of “allegations of racism”.

Ms Sarah, a communication specialist, was pulled into the spotlight when her wedding photo was used without permission as a prop in People’s Association (PA)’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri display at an HDB estate in Tiong Bahru. The PA had removed the standee and offered a public apology after Ms Sarah talked about it on social media, and offered to have a discussion on “any other concerns which she might have”.

On the PA’s apology, Ms Sarah had said that it shed light on “glaring gaps” that reflect a “very superficial understanding of the gravity of the issue”. Ms Sarah also said that it is “unfortunate that a government body that was established to “build and bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore” is required to still “guide and help (their) staff … to be more culturally-attuned and sensitive” 61 years after inception”.

Ms Sarah noted that she had emailed her concerns to PA and was looking forward to hearing back and starting what she hoped could be a “meaningful conversation”.

However, the organisation later cancelled a scheduled meeting to discuss the issue, taking issue with her invitation for feedback from the public to be channelled to the PA, which she posted on her social media following their apology.

“We find this odd. We do not see why our meeting should be appropriated as a platform for her to funnel the views and comments of persons unrelated to the incident,” the PA said.

“All these lead us to believe her purpose in agreeing to meet with us has gone far beyond the Radin Mas incident. We, therefore, see no point in proceeding with the meeting.”

The PA also referenced her interview with Nanyang Technological University professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, from which she was quoted as saying that the incident has perpetuated a culture of racism.

“It is not right to raise the allegation of racism, without basis, to stoke emotions and sentiments,” said PA.

In his post, Mr Wong noted as well the forum letter by Hanafi Ahmad posted by Straits Times following the meeting cancellation in which the author argued: “that not every incident involving race should be equated with malicious intent, and suggesting that such quick allegation of racism is divisive.”

Mr Wong went on to ask whether minimising the incident also dismisses further chance of dialogue on the issue.

Noting that he is “troubled” by the apparent mentality in Singapore that “if something cannot be established as being unlawful, then one is in the clear”, he goes on to say that this type of argument tends to be “splitting hairs in our police state”.

“So do we really need to see a person throwing racial slurs and physically giving a flying kick to a non-Chinese in a public place, before being alerted to concerns of racism?” asked Mr Wong.

“How does that bode well for Singapore as a caring and harmonious society?”

The researcher went on to suggest that PA’s cancellation of the meeting, or “chickening out”, is because the organisation feels “unable” to deal with larger issues such as how this incident has to be seen in the context of previous ones.

“One incident was the Brownface ad which escaped everyone’s notice until Preetipls had a police report lodged against her for her rap video in response,” he highlighted.

“Another was how MP Lee Bee Wah was seen wearing a tudung in a Hari Raya banner – it might have been her way of expressing racial harmony, but how about simply advocating for wearing of hijab at the workplace then?”

Noting that “no one likes to be branded a racist, especially not in Singapore”, Mr Wong goes on to suggest the different stages of racism and the effects it might have when it is ignored.

“But what if we say racism comes in different stages, of which the first level is ignorance, where we pretend to know how other ethnic groups are defined, and the second level is denial of ignorance, where those of us who are in a privileged position can choose not to care in order to proceed with business as usual?”

“And then it gets worse, as equal recognition of individual potential and dignity regardless of language, religion and other ethnic markers becomes increasingly disregarded?”

Mr Wong stressed, “Silence on racism may feel comfortable – ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but it may also mean allowing related social ills to grow like cancer.”

He went on to say that he is “heartened” to see academics and activists now addressing the issue of structural racism in Singapore—such as the open letter from scholars to Lianhe Zaobao on its editorial on race relations.

He stressed the need for a more caring society on the issue of invisible racism instead of reducing it to “culpability from one police case to another” and fear of discussion being seditious.

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