Some of the viral questions from the videos have been disappointing, to say the least. I wonder who the people were who sent in questions such as why the majority could not have the final say in how the country was run, or why the majority could not decide on what the country’s language should be like in other countries. More importantly, I hope those people were the minority in their mindset.
But I suppose that is the point of any forum or open discussion – that people can raise questions regardless of whether it is comfortable or difficult so that we can all have dialogue and mutual understanding. Funnily enough, I remember that Minister Shanmugam had raised precisely this point on our Plan B podcast interview with him a while back. He mentioned how he has come across people from the majority community who feel resentful over the fact that, unlike in other countries, being majority in Singapore doesn’t automatically transfer into significant benefits in society. Now we can see plainly that such sentiment isn’t new, and that the government has had to be the broker for these different segments of society for quite a while.
This is the double-edged sword of the new age of information and technology we live in. While on one hand, it has allowed minority voices and experiences to be amplified, that same technology does not discriminate. Other views and opinions can also be amplified. While such views had existed, they could be kept in check by a government that stood its ground on the principle that such majoritarianism had no place in Singapore. But in 2021, any view can be given a platform by anyone. This is the new reality we exist in, but this also means we must have a new set of skills to face such uncomfortable discussions and questions. While I deeply disagree with the motivations behind those views and questions, I think it is a good thing that they were raised on an English language platform where everyone could access and talk about it. Can you imagine if the forum was mainly held in Chinese or only covered by Chinese language media? Would we be paying as much attention?
I can’t lie, though. Hearing such talk does scare me at least a little. If there are people who insist that based on their numerical majority on race, they should have more power to decide on major pillars of Singapore society, will there also be others who claim the same along other lines? A 2020 report listed Buddhism as the largest religious affiliation claimed by Singaporeans. Are they supposed to be entitled to more privileges over the Taos? Being a minority of any kind can be an isolating enough experience in itself. Any majority community can easily develop blindspots simply because they don’t have to think about the many things that they can take for granted. This alone can be frustrating enough for individuals who are get sidelined by such a situation, but when people try to politicize their majority status to get their way, it can be a recipe for disaster. In my volunteer work I have seen this kind of majoritarian thinking not only on a race basis, so I am grateful that Minister Shanmugam spoke decisively against such a way of thinking on a matter of principle.
But where does that leave us? As a modern country, we are only 56 years old. Some of our parents are older than this country. Undoubtedly, the social institutions and ways of life we have are still works in progress and all of us will have some stake in it moving forward. As Rahman has always mentioned on the show, race used to be such a taboo topic it was impossible to imagine it being given such public platforms for discussion. Now, in a few short years, we live in an age where social media is forcing you to face it every other month. As we grapple with how to navigate such a seismic shift in our shared sensibilities and sensitivities, it is inevitable that more of such controversies will arise in the days to come. As we approach our 56th national day, we must decide on what the spirit of this nation is going to be. Do we become a divisive and divided society, or do we foster a community that is open, diverse, and responsible in the way we approach our differences?
While the choice should hopefully be clear, I think one thing we must also be clear on is that no government can force either scenario. It is up to society itself to inculcate the values and culture we want our future generations to inherit. Thankfully, with the rise of youth volunteerism and activism and ground up initiatives like hash.peace, I think we have plenty of reason to be hopeful in our future.
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