Racist — or just a symptom of wider malaise?

Some questions need to be asked following the uproar over the posting of a former member of the ruling party's youth wing. (Yahoo! photo)
Some questions need to be asked following the uproar over the posting of a former member of the ruling party's youth wing. (Yahoo! photo)

By Andrew Loh

The incident involving Jason Neo raises questions which go beyond the offensiveness of his posting and into the heart of how the race issue is handled in Singapore. Neo had posted online a picture of a school bus which was ferrying children from a religious school. He captioned his picture with a question asking if the bus was carrying "young terrorist trainees".

The uproar which followed online condemned him and his actions and Neo has since apologised and resigned from the Young PAP, the youth wing of the ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP).

While Neo's posting is undoubtedly deplorable, we should be asking if it is not a symptom of a wider malaise, particularly in whether such a stereotypical racist mindset has taken root among the populace and, if so, what the cause of this is.

For the longest time, since our independence, in fact, Singaporeans have been told, warned, and threatened into not only staying away from discussing anything racial or religious, but to also trust the government in handling matters with regards to these.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States, governments all over the world, including here in Singapore, have had to readjust their domestic security provisions to address the renewed threat.

The discourse, especially over the mainstream media, and the language which the Singapore government has used in the matter, creates — inadvertently, perhaps — the impression and belief that a particular race is more prone to violence than others.

Indeed, in March 2011, former Minister for Foreign Affairs, when commenting on why the book "The Satanic Verses" was banned in Singapore while the film, "The Last Temptation of Christ", was allowed, explained that this was because "Christians are less likely to riot".

Yeo later clarified, when asked about his position on his Facebook page, that the point he was making was that "the government has to respect the particular sensitivities of each ethnic or religious group, [and] not mechanically impose same standards on everyone."

Has the government done so? To be fair, it has tried. And to foster closer understanding among the various races and religions here, it introduced the inter-racial and religious confidence circles, or "inter-racial confidence circles" (IRCC) in 2002, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States the preceding year.

However, its policies have also been criticised for exacerbating the racial divide, creating distrust and disenchantment among some in the minority race communities. Its racial quota in public housing, for example, its ethnic self-help groups, and the practice of requiring a minority-race candidate in each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for elections.

Representation gap

The lack of minority-race — Malays, especially — representation in the higher echelons and combat units of our armed forces is an issue which some have raised in the past as well.

In 1987, Lee Hsien Loong (then Second Minister for Defence) explained the absence thus: "If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion."

12 years later, in 1999, former Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew said, referring to Malays in the Singapore armed forces:

"If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background... I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, I and my family could have a tragedy."

And more recently, in January, former MM Lee caused an uproar among the Malay Muslim community when he said, in his book "Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going": "I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam".

He added that "we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came" and he called on the community to "be less strict on Islamic observances."

He later retracted his statements but the damage, one feels, had already been done.

Have these public statements — which were propagated through the local media - by senior leaders in government inadvertently created a mindset among the majority race that the minority race is to be looked on with suspicion?

The use of certain terms in the media to describe terrorists — "Islamic extremists", "Islamic fundamentalists", "Islamic terrorist", etc — enjoins the religion with violent acts of destruction and murder, leading to perceptions that the religion and those who practise it are suspect.

Questions to be asked

The question thus is: how do such thinking in government translate into policy formulation, particularly in matters of race and religion?

The government, being the only entity in Singapore which commands and influences all aspects of our lives and society, should be the first to re-look how it handles the issues of race and religion. Perhaps it is time for it to see if its ways can be improved or even discarded, if found to be incongruent with the times.

While the uproar over Neo's posting is understandable, we should be looking at the wider picture and ask fundamental questions, such as:

  1. Do we, the majority race particularly, truly believe that the non-majority races are part of us, part of Singapore the nation? If not, why not? We have to get down to the heart of the matter, and come to a deep acceptance that they have as much right to this land as others.

  2. If we believe in the above, then our policies and practices must reflect this — at their very core, and not only in form but also in substance. Policies which discriminate against them must be removed and done away with.

  3. Race and religion is a fault line, as it is in any other multi-racial society, which will always be there. How do we prevent these lines from becoming chasms of discontent? Are what we have been doing adequate? What else should be done?

  4. The government must accept that the words, actions and behaviour of its leaders have serious and lasting implications on the nation and set the tone for our society, and they must be circumspect in what they do and say when it comes to matters which have the potential to tear our society apart.

But perhaps the one most important question we should ask is this one:

Is our government going about the race and religion issues the right way? Are we putting too much trust in them with regards to these? Should we not be more critical and be more aware of the underlying reasons for certain policies which affect the minority race communities, and point out the flaws in such policies?

As for individuals like Neo, I would not advocate that the full force of the law be set upon him. Instead, I feel what he needs more is to be counselled and be exposed to the communities which he is not a part of.

What we want is to foster a more fundamental mutual understanding between the various communities which make up Singapore — and not wield the big knife each time someone shows a lack of this.

For the blame and responsibility for behaviour such as that of Neo is not the individual's alone. We too bear part of them — if we miss or ignore the simmering discontent underneath among our fellow countrymen and countrywomen — and do nothing about it.

Andrew heads publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. The site tells stories of the community and its people, capturing their many different and diverse aspects in interesting ways.