Tensions behind the façade of ethnic harmony

Wong Wee Nam

Below is the text of Dr Wong Wee Nam’s speech delivered at the forum entitled Responding to Marginalization: Assimilation vs. Integration during the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats’ General Assembly held in Siem Reap, Cambodia in April 2014.

Singapore is small country. To the world, the country does not seem to have many problems. It is rich, it is efficient, it is stable, it is safe and there is law and order. For these reasons, businesses like Singapore and corporations like to make their headquarters there.

Singaporeans also appear to be colour-blind as far as ethnic relations are concerned and that is why many foreign workers are very eager to work in Singapore. They find Singaporeans tolerant and non-discriminating. In a tiny island like Singapore, there are many enclaves nicknamed after many Asian countries: Little India in Serangoon Road, Little Philippines in Lucky Plaza, Little Myanmar in Peninsula Plaza, Little Vietnam in Joo Chiat and Little Thailand in Golden Mile Complex. These are places where the various foreigners can feel comfortable in. The signboards written in the respective ethnic scripts, the sound of their countries’ music blaring out from the hi-fi players and the smell of spices and indigenous food make these foreign workers feel very much at home.

Is Singapore really a paradise of ethnic harmony? Are there no ethnic tensions beneath this façade of ethnic harmony?

In any society, people differ in their nature, attitudes, ideal, interest, aspirations, community values and religious beliefs. Singapore is no different. We are not a homogeneous society. There are three major races. The Chinese, the largest ethnic group, form 74.2 percent of the population, the Malays 13.2 percent and the Indians 9.2 percent. Each race has its own unique culture, language and also generally shares a common religion. Without understanding and tolerance, these cultural, linguistic and religious differences between the groups can sometimes cause tension and lead to conflict.

Even each of the races is not homogeneous. The Chinese have their dialect groups. In the early days of Singapore they had their ethnic differences, quarrels and discrimination. However, with Mandarin promoted as a common language and inter-marriages, Chinese in Singapore now see themselves more as Chinese Singaporeans and less as Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hainanese or Hakkas. However, with the recent influx of migrants from the Republic of China, there is now some tension between some local Singaporean Chinese and the newly-imported Chinese. Even though they can communicate in Mandarin, the differences in attitude, behaviour, culture, slangs and habits do make them distinct.

The Malays are also made up of various groups from the Malay Archipelagos. They are, however, unified by their adoption of the Islam religion and a Malay language.

Prior to 1964, the Chinese and the Malays have no problem co-existing peacefully with one another, each going about their own life and doing their own business. There was no record of ethnic tension between the two races for centuries until 1964. The race riots of 21 July 1964 show that racial harmony could not be taken for granted. If one race is made to perceive as inferior to the other or vice-versa, it lays the foundation for racial conflict. It only takes political groups to champion one side against the other to bring the tension to the surface. A political conflict easily becomes a racial conflict. This was what happened to Singapore in the July 1964.

Once a wound has been inflicted it can easily be reopened. Five years after the first racial riot and four years after Singapore became independent, the second racial riot in Singapore happened. The riot had nothing to do with the people in Singapore. It was actually a racial riot that had started in Malaysia on 13 May 1969 after their general election. But for some reason, it spilled over into Singapore. We, therefore, see that racial emotions is so deep-seated that a riot in a neighbouring country could open up old wounds. Racial harmony is such a fragile thing.

The Indians in Singapore are also not a homogeneous group. They are made up of Hindus, Tamils, Silks, Sri Lankans and others. They have no problem coexisting harmoniously with each other. When Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India was assassinated on 31 October 1984, it had nothing to do with Singapore. Yet tension arose between the Hindu and the Sikh communities in Singapore. Trouble was averted only with the timely intervention of the Singapore police. India is not even a neighbouring country.

Recently with the influx of the wealthy Northern Indians into Singapore, there is now a potential ethnic tension based on class, caste and language between the Indians from north and the native Singaporean whose forefathers had come mainly from the south.

We can, therefore, see that racial harmony is an elusive creature and ethnic tension bound to exists as long as groups of people see themselves as different from others.

In July 2013 the Institute of Policy Studies, a government think-tank, and OnePeople.sg conducted a study on racial and religious harmony. It was found that while relations between different races appear to be good on the surface, signs of tensions do exist that suggest relationship between the races are not that close.

Though there is no discrimination of minority in using public services or workplace or interracial and religious tension, there are stereotyping as about 80 percent said that if they know a person’s race, they would have a “good idea” of what some of their behaviours and views would be like.

Only 23.3 percent of Chinese respondents said they have close Malay friends.

About 16 percent said they would not try to get to know people of other races and religions even if they were given the opportunity.

There is a lack of true trustworthy relationships. About 63 percent of the respondents from the minority races believed that they could trust more than half of Singaporean Chinese to help them in a national crisis.

The Singapore Democratic Party understands the differences between the various races would remain with us. It believes these differences should not be allowed to create fears, anxiety, discrimination and resentment in any racial group. The most important thing is not to allow any group to lag behind in economic progress. Thus on September 2013, the SDP studied published a policy paper entitled A Singapore for All Singaporeans: Addressing the Concerns of the Malay Community.

Though it addresses only the Malay community, the largest of the minority races, it is an alternative blueprint to build a truly multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

The median household income of the Malay is the lowest amongst the three major races. This is due to many factors such as education, job opportunities and social prejudices.

The SDP believes that by tackling the underlying causes that put the Malay community in Singapore at a disadvantage, we could achieve the noble cause of building an inclusive and cohesive society.

Ethnic tensions will inevitably be present when people with emotional attachment to race, religion and language live together. After a long period of co-existence, different groups learn to live and let live. However the demography of Singapore is changing rapidly with the sudden, great influx of many foreigners. With the sudden flooding of the country with foreigners, there is little time for understanding. The danger is that the newcomers, coming in huge numbers, will ignore the fact that our minority community is an integral part of the Singaporean society. They may not have the awareness that Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-cultural society.

This would create new tensions. Take for example the new migrants from China. It would take time for them to understand the culture of the other minority groups. Many work in the service sector and cannot communicate with the Malays and the Indians. As a result this creates frustration and the minorities feel marginalised.

There was an incident where a new citizen even complained against a neighbour for cooking curry.

Furthermore many citizens do feel their jobs have been taken away and their wages suppressed by the migrant workers. If our minorities start to feel that security, belonging, participation, and economic well-being is being threatened and that they have been discriminated against, the resentment formed could heightened the level of ethnic tensions.

In the past, when migrants come to Singapore, the ties are cut. Nowadays with modern communication and easy travel across the borders, it is harder for the new migrants to integrate or assimilate.

In a big country, ethnic violence can be localised in a small area without affecting the whole country. Singapore is so small that a major ethnic strife would embroil and paralyse the whole country. Not only will there be economic disaster, it will also affect the security of the country as other countries may be drawn into the conflict. We must not forget that new migrants still have relatives in the homeland where they come from.

Peace and stability have painted a rosy picture of ethnic harmony in Singapore, but we can see that there is a lot to be vigilant about and much needs to be done.

Dr Wong Wee Nam is a general practitioner and a member of the SDP’s Healthcare Advisory Panel. 

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