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A Session With K Shanmugam On Race, My Reflections – Darren Mak

Race has been on everyone’s minds recently. From a racist lecturer telling off an interracial couple to unprovoked attacks on people on the streets due to their race, the headlines have been flooded with mention of race and racism in Singapore.

Min. Lawrence Wong. Picture credits: CNA

Minister Lawrence Wong gave a long speech and Q&A session on the topic at an IPS-RSIS forum, addressing these incidents as well as questions that have surfaced in their wake. On the Plan B podcast, Minister Shanmugam also gave us his views on several of our own questions on race. While the topic is too big for any single speech or interview to do justice, I think some of the points raised have been very refreshing – both in content and tone.

The mask doesn’t show it, but I was really nervous.

During the interview with Minister Shanmugam, I was finally able to ask some of my own burning questions about the CMIO model. In particular, I felt that the model was at risk of becoming obsolete or requiring updating. As more Singaporeans are marrying across racial lines, having bi-racial children, and immigrating from other societies, how would the simplistic four-way categorisation work with them? Not just that, but each of the races have never been monolithic –each race has always been made up of many ethnic and linguistic groups. Over the years, however, the CMIO model seems to have flattened out these differences. You aren’t Hokkien or Cantonese, you are Chinese; not Javanese or Baweanese, but Malay; not Tamilian or Malayalee, but Indian. Does the CMIO model, in the name of preserving racial diversity, ironically end up reducing ethnic diversity?

As simple as CMIO? Picture credits: The Straits Times

The Minister’s answers addressed these concerns in a way I had never really thought of before. The crux of it is surprisingly simple – the CMIO model is a tool of governance, not a template or prescription for what the society is. As a government administering institutions and systems for almost 6 million people, working categories are required to be able to ask the right questions in Parliament or to draft relevant policies to uplift or protect certain communities. For example, MPs on both aisles of the political spectrum are concerned about numbers and figures such as the number of any particular race in universities, their socioeconomic progress, or the kinds of health or social concerns they might be facing. If the model was removed, such questions become impossible to answer. How do you know if the Chinese have a gambling problem, or the number of Malays moving up to the middle class, if you don’t have those working categories?

You can’t wear racial costumes if race doesn’t exist. Photo credits: Public Service Division

When I saw the CMIO model simply as a tool for governance and nothing more, I realized how ethnic diversities don’t necessarily have to suffer because of it. My own family is Chinese, but we are also Hokkien and Cantonese. We grew up surrounded by both languages, distinct food preferences on either side, and even traditional customs during festivals such as Chinese New Year. Among my Indian friends as well, despite their IC showing ‘Indian’, many still adhere to their own ethnic identities.

Malay? Javanese? Batman? Photo credits: BBC

Tamilians know they are not Punjabis, and Punjabis know they are not Malayalee. Some of their languages are completely unrelated, as well as their cultural festivals – they never needed to only celebrate ‘Indian’ festivals, as though they were a single monolithic ‘I’ in CMIO. I even saw an MCCY post explaining the different festivals and dresses of the different ethnicities, so there has been explicit acknowledgement and affirmation of such diversities even when on a larger policy level, CMIO remains the framework. As the Minister put it, it is very difficult to make broad policies and laws to cater to smaller and smaller subcategories. In my own research in university, I learnt that there were ethnic communities in Singapore as small as 4,000 people. I suppose it would be impractical to draft laws and policies for a thousandth of a percent of the population.

An eye-opening interview

More than the CMIO question, though, hash.peace founder and President Faheema also had questions about how to navigate the shifting social landscape for fostering inter-community understanding and dialogue. She noted that social media has become an increasingly difficult space to navigate and to have constructive dialogue on.

Trollolololol. Photo credits: Reddit

On one hand, it has helped individuals who have faced racism or discrimination to share their experiences and raise awareness on the fact that such conduct continues to exist in Singapore. It has led to more Chinese people of her generation understanding the feelings and sentiments of the minorities, she observes. On the other hand, such discussions can quickly spiral out of control and turn into hostile debates, with people sometimes resorting to racism to ‘fight’ racism. Complex issues are also reduced into simple binary situations – if you aren’t fully on one side or the other, you get labelled all sorts of names or get harassed online. Minister Lawrence Wong’s speech echoed some of these sentiments, urging people to remain respectful when engaging on issues such as race and racism.

Racism solved. Photo credits: AsiaOne

My own experience with hash.peace and the dialogues they have held show me how important respectful dialogue is. For me, the respect is not only towards each other, but also to the complexity of issues and their multi-faceted dimensions. During the recent hijab debate, for example, which similarly had sentiments and emotions run high for many people both online and offline, hash.peace held a dialogue that included not only Muslim women, but non-Muslims and even Sikh men. During other discussions with my friends, it never even occurred to us to hear the perspectives of the Sikh community, whose turbans were often used to draw parallels with the hijab. That session gave me many valuable insights that completely went unexamined in online discussions.

A hash.peace session with different views on the Hijab issue.

Moving forward, I think that ground initiatives like hash.peace and others will continue to play a vital role in promoting inter-community understanding and harmony. Laws can only go so far in preventing the worst types of racism, but the casual kinds that are borne out of ignorance can only be combatted with mutual respect and understanding. I hope that sooner rather than later, social media activism can carry itself with these same values that people working on the ground do too.

Click on the links below to listen to the 3-part podcast on Plan B on Spotify.

Episode 1: Race Issues, Part 1

Episode 2: Race Issues, Part 2

Episode 3: Race Issues, Part 3

Darren Aadam Mak

Written by Darren Aadam Mak

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