At a forum about race relations and racism, Mr Wong said that Singapore’s multiracialism is still a work in progress.
The majority Chinese community in Singapore should be “sensitive and conscious of the needs” of the minorities, as it is harder to be a minority in a multiracial society.
Those were the comments made by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in his keynote address at a race relations and racism forum held jointly by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Friday (Jun 25).
The forum was held in light of several incidents in the past months which sparked concerns on racism in Singapore.
Using examples of how race may affect the daily lives of Singaporeans, such as when a person faces discrimination while looking for a job, when someone feels left out because everyone else is speaking in a different language, or when someone can’t rent a place because the landlords do not prefer renting to their race, Mr Wong highlighted that it is important for the majority community to “take the extra step” to make the minorities in Singapore feel comfortable.
“It matters to our students, neighbours, coworkers and friends who have to deal with stereotypes about their race or insensitive comments,” he said.
“When these things happen they cause real hurt that cannot be erased by lightly dismissing them as casual remarks or jokes.
“Treat others in the way you would like to be treated; and by your actions, teach your children to do the same. Remind those among your family members or friends who may slip up from time to time.”
Mr Wong also addressed the “Chinese Privilege” and noted that while there may be biases and blindspots that the Chinese community should become aware of and rectify, they are also not “monolithic”.
Not all Chinese Singaporeans may feel they have privilege in an English-speaking society, he said.
“Please understand that we still have a whole generation of Chinese Singaporeans who are more comfortable in Chinese than English, and who consider themselves at a disadvantage in an English-speaking world,” said the minister.
“They feel they have already given up much to bring about a multi-racial society: Chinese-language schools, Nanyang University, dialects, and so on. ‘What do you mean by ‘Chinese privilege’?’ they will ask, for they do not feel privileged at all.”
While he believes that Singaporeans should not refrain from voicing out about the racialised experiences various groups feel, nor should we stop dealing with it, Singaporeans should not insist on “maximum entitlements and rights for our respective groups”.
He added that we should not “construe every compromise as an injustice that needs to be condemned or put the worst interpretation on every perceived slight or insensitivity”.
“When one group jostles aggressively to assert its identity and right over others, it would not take long before other groups feel put upon and start to jostle back,” he said, adding that this inevitably leads to a lose-lose situation where minority groups would not win and majority groups would feel most unhappy, as seen playing out in other parts of the world.
Mr Wong added: “We must speak up and even be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations, not to start arguments but to begin civilised discussions, listen to each other and understand all points of views.”
He hopes that all parties seeking change will be “conscious” of how they approach the matter. More importantly, there should not be an instigation of a “them vs us” dynamic.
“Let’s do so in ways that expand the space for agreement, not narrow it; that deepen cross-cultural understanding, not cause defensiveness and suspicion; that appeal to the better angels in all of us,” said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong also added that it is important not to be too confrontational or seek radical approaches in resolving issues pertaining to racism. If Singapore does so, it would mean we are moving in the wrong direction.
Policies on race and other policies relating to strengthening racial harmony in Singapore will be updated and engaged widely by the government, Mr Wong assured.
Referring to the various policies that Singapore has in place, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), Mr Wong said: “We continually ask ourselves what is it we are trying to achieve. Is the policy still relevant today? Can it be further fine-tuned?
“Our policies are not set in stone.”
Mr Wong also cited the review of allowing Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniforms. He explained that the process of a policy review takes time and cannot be rushed as it requires detailed study and extensive dialogue between the government and various communities.
“Ultimately, any change must expand our common space and strengthen our racial harmony while allowing each community as much room as possible to go about its way of life,” Mr Wong said.
During the question and answer segment, Mr Wong also addressed the topic of CMIO – the race categorisation into Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others.
“Some say we should go beyond CMIO. But how would Singaporeans feel if the proportions of C, M, I and O were to shift dramatically?” he asked.
“In fact, we have taken great care to ensure this balance remains stable for our citizen population – precisely because we understand how unsettling major changes can be to all groups, majority or minority.”
Mr Wong added that Singapore is working hard to integrate new citizens, as well as to review and update work pass policies to ensure that such policies fit into Singapore’s social context.
“Such are the realities of living in a diverse society, in a dynamic, globalised world. We have to make constant adjustments; and repeatedly check to make sure we get the balance right,” he said.
The Singapore government “will never waver” in its commitment to promote harmony amongst all races and to ensure that all Singaporeans enjoy full and equal opportunities in life, said Mr Wong.
He also cautioned against treating those who fall short or have neglected to play their part in this “vital national project” as adversaries to be shouted down or cancelled out. Instead, they should be seen as fellow citizens to be brought along.
“Let us each be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper,” said Mr Wong.
“Let us move forward with a spirit of mutual respect and fellowship, educating each other about what matters to us, helping each other understand our different cultures and finding a common stake we all have in one another.
“We must have the humility to acknowledge our multiracialism is still a work in progress, the honesty to recognise that not everyone will want to move at the same pace and yet persevere to protect our multiracialism.”
“Like our forefathers who made this their home in 1965, we too are convinced that we must continue to strengthen our Singaporean Singapore and build an evermore perfect multi-racial society.”
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