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Feb 3, 2006
Are younger S'poreans more race conscious?
By Chua Mui Hoong
LIBERAL-MINDED Singaporeans don't like to talk about race. Not because it's not important, but because we think it's no longer an issue of significance.
Where this group is coming from is this: We're colour-blind, we swear (and assume most Singaporeans are too). Racial harmony is a given in Singapore. Only a tiny fraction of Singaporeans are racist, and they can be dismissed because they're bigots incapable of persuasion - so let's move on and talk about something more substantial.
At least, that's our instinct.
Those of us born in the late 1960s, grew up in the 1970s and mid-1980s, cheek by jowl with friends, playmates and classmates who were Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasian or a mix of the above.
Workers' Party members Sylvia Lim and James Gomez, both 40, and Tan Wui-Hua, 39, belong to this generation.
They were on the team that wrote the manifesto arguing that Singapore society is sufficiently well-integrated to dismantle ethnic integration policies such as the race-based quota in public housing estates - a position People's Action Party (PAP) ministers disagreed with vehemently.
As someone from the same generation, I can understand why they came to such a conclusion. We grew up with playmates and classmates of all races.
People in my age group, who pride ourselves (wrongly or rightly) on having a broad cosmopolitan outlook, assume that racial prejudice is passe. We blithely assume that many Singaporeans are like us. We reckon Singapore is mature and integrated enough.
And then we hear or meet people who are different.
I know Chinese people my age, who went through the same socialisation process, who still won't sit down beside an Indian on the train.
Even schoolchildren show such behaviour. One 2003 survey by the National Institute of Education (NIE) of primary school pupils found that dark-skinned Indians in school are shunned and get called names.
We all know of otherwise loving mothers who freak out if their children date someone from another race. It's not an isolated phenomenon: a Singapore Press Holdings survey in 2000 showed one in three Singaporeans would object to marrying someone from another race.
And as my colleague Ken Kwek writes on this page, there are cabbies and ordinary folk who rant against other races.
Events in recent months have caused me to pause and wonder: Maybe I'm too optimistic, even naive, in thinking that 40 years of nation-building have ingrained in the average Singaporean the instinct to look beyond skin colour and facial features.
There was the incident of the two young men who wrote blogs filled with racial invective.
And the case of the student who said the sight of a man holding hands with a woman of a different skin colour made his skin crawl - and who was so insensitive as to make this remark in the face of Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is an Indian married to a Chinese.
The most chilling thing about such incidents is that they involved young people.
It set me wondering: Could it be that the socialisation of this group, which grew up in the 80s and 90s, was different from that of my age group?
There is some evidence that younger Singaporeans have a different attitude towards race and religion.
In 2001 and 2002, two surveys were done by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports to gauge social attitudes among Singaporeans.
While there was widespread satisfaction with race and religious relations across all races and ages, there were some interesting disparities.
From 2001 to 2002, satisfaction and optimism about race and religious matters went down significantly among graduates: from 80 per cent in 2001 to 60 per cent in 2002.
In both years, younger Singaporeans (aged below 30) were not as satisfied with race and religious group relations (about eight in 10 expressed satisfaction) compared with their older counterparts (about nine in 10 expressed satisfaction).
Could it be that younger Singaporeans, who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, have a different instinct about racial relations, compared with those of past generations?
It was after all in the 80s and 90s that race-based issues were discussed more openly.
In their book, The Politics Of Nation Building And Citizenship In Singapore, authors Michael Hill and Lian Kwen Fee argued that 'what marked ethnic relations in the 1980s from the previous periods was the willingness of the ruling party to discuss the position of the ethnic minorities openly'.
The under-achievement of the Malay community was discussed openly in the 1980s, leading to the setting up of ethnic-based self-help groups like Mendaki; and later Sinda and the Chinese Development Assistance Council.
The ethnic housing quota, which had been used quietly, was made public knowledge in 1987 by then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
In 1988, the group representation constituency (GRC) system was introduced to group together constituencies so at least one candidate is from a minority community. This is to ensure minority representation in Parliament.
While there may be justifications for each of these policies, and every good reason for them to be debated publicly, the effect of such open discussion on race-based issues could have resulted in perverse outcomes on young minds.
Maybe this generation grew up seeing an ethnic hue over policies. Maybe they grew up thinking of the minority communities as under-achieving, or troublesome, to be curtailed by such measures.
I'm speculating here and would be delighted to be proven wrong. But if there is even half a grain of truth in this observation, and if indeed the younger generation has a different instinct on multiracialism than older Singaporeans, then remedial action is necessary.
Consider another survey in 2003 of over 4,000 students. This found that children aren't mixing enough with other races in schools, and that this gets worse with age.
At Primary 3, most spent recess with friends of the same race: three in four of the Chinese pupils and more than half of the Malay and Indian children.
At Primary 6, it was 80 per cent of the Chinese and 70 per cent of the Malay and Indian students who spent recess with friends of the same race.
Language and streaming policies helped reinforce this trend, the researchers suggested.
It would be tragic if discussions on race-based issues in the past resulted in younger generations coming away with the wrong view on communal relations, and if education policies today have the unintended effect of making it harder for the races to mix.
As multiracialism is a fundamental tenet of Singapore, it's useful to always do a reality check when implementing any policy, and think through whether such a policy could have unintended consequences on multiracial relations.
As for those of us in our 30s, who grew up taking multiracial harmony for granted, it's sobering to realise that a young generation with different formative experiences may have different instincts about race - and may need those ethnic integration policies in place for a while yet.
Chua Mui Hoong alternates with guest writers in this weekly column.
Could it be that younger Singaporeans, who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, have a different instinct about racial relations, compared with those of past generations? It was after all in the 80s and 90s that race-based issues were discussed more openly.
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