Is Appreciation Enough?

By Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A) and Loh Lin (19A01D)

Wait. Before you continue scrolling, we know. We know that race as a topic has already been discussed to death, in conversations and lectures and forums alike. Nonetheless, the shoulds and shouldn’ts of tackling such discourse continue to confound us, even as we turn away from it, thinking: What more is there to discuss that hasn’t already been said?

After all, 54 years on from the racial riots that left an indelible footprint in our history — in bloodshed and in policy — racism in Singapore seems by and large a thing of the past. Indeed, today people of all races coexist peaceably in classrooms, offices, and shared public spaces. Long-term governmental policies and a consistent multicultural narrative have gone a long way towards easing the hostilities and divisiveness that once defined race relations. Yet, when we reduce acts of racism to just these overt indicators, we risk turning a blind eye to the more implicit tensions that continue to underscore our interactions.

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How Racial Harmony Day came to be.

Racial Harmony Day is by far the most prominent attempt at engaging Singaporeans in this racial discourse, pushing out school-based activities to cultivate a nuanced appreciation of race from a young age. In RI, this took the form of tins of biscuits and other tidbits distributed to each class just this Wednesday. While good news for the ever-hungry students, the occasion that engendered these snacks in the first place seemed to have been placed on the backburner, a secondary concern to physical satiation rather than the focus of Civics lessons it was intended to be. The snacks themselves were labelled only with their ingredients, not their names nor their heritage. Noticeably, most students were otherwise too preoccupied with the food to question their origin.

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Ambiguous snacks.

When activities such as these are stripped of their cultural context, and when they generate a response as nonchalant as this, can they really be said to be effective towards strengthening cross-cultural appreciation?

The function of these activities then becomes more ritual than educational, perhaps dangerously so. Racism doesn’t just manifest itself in outright prejudice; it expresses itself also in our complacency that we know enough, and in our inertia to take the initiative to learn more about other cultures. Racial harmony goes beyond mere acceptance — we can’t truly claim racial harmony if understanding isn’t present.

Lesson time was also set aside for students to respond to questions that deconstructed relations between the different racial communities. How we should show that we appreciate the people in other communities and understand their practices, as well as how we should foster stronger bonds between communities, were all called into question. Although a good effort at prompting conversations about race, many thought that the questions overlapped, and parroted the same answers of “empathise more”, “participate in racial harmony events”, and “ask questions”  to all.

Where the issue arose and where the lines blurred was the request to come up with actionable steps to address these aspects of racial harmony separately. The various aspects of racial harmony cannot be cultivated in a vacuum. Rather, even discrete actions produce indiscrete effects, and this holds especially true for complex socio-cultural issues like racial harmony.

Despite the potential for instigating understanding intrinsic in discourse, asking the right questions is just as important as a desire to engage others in conversation, and here discourse proved to be more cursory than illuminating.

In other schools, particularly at the primary and secondary school level, students are encouraged to turn up in ethnic dress on the day of Racial Harmony celebrations. Leaving aside the international controversy surrounding cultural appropriation, most would agree that it would be preferable for those who choose to don ethnic attire to be greater educated about its significance — even though collective ethnic identity cannot be distilled into a costume, no matter how symbolic.

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Students are encouraged to dress in other cultures’ traditional costumes on Racial Harmony Day, but how much of this sparks conversations about cultural dress?

Despite the gaps in these measures, all of this still paints a heartening picture — one that speaks of diversity with ease, that shows that we are able to laugh alongside one another in spite of our differences. It is proof that there are things being done to ensure we never again return to that era of violence and bloodshed.

Nonetheless, we as individuals are more than capable of empowering ourselves without institutional help in this regard. Through constantly questioning and pushing for more, we can work on refining our own beliefs and the beliefs of those around us to address the inevitable systemic gaps arising from a top-down approach.

The younger ones have only known peace and harmony in Singapore, and it is very easy to believe that race does not matter anymore. But this is not so. We have to know our blind spots, and make a special effort to ensure our minority communities feel welcomed and valued in Singapore.”

– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at PA Kopitalk on September 23 2017.

Perhaps we can start with a familiar question that often haunts us as we go through our humdrum routine of everyday life: are we doing enough? But this time, this question doesn’t seek to challenge our personal growth, or measure our accomplishments — rather, are we doing enough to learn about the people around us? What more can we do? Can we challenge preconceived assumptions we’ve developed about the people closest to us? What about those more removed from our immediate narratives?

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Students seeking answers

Of course, it must be acknowledged that we are provided other platforms to engage one another in dialogue over such issues. That said, it might not be in our best interests to wait for such programmes to kick us into action. Even amidst the circumspect OB markers guarding this sphere of discourse, and even if we are wary of treading on toes with our own incomplete understanding, there remains probing to be done. Probing that we can initiate ourselves in everyday life, even in the absence of overt prompting activities.

At the end of the day, there are endless activities the school can provide us with. And we can chug along and point out gaps in institutional programmes, criticise them, or suggest change, as we are wont to do. But maybe sometimes we too have to take a step back, work with what we are given — flaws and all — and take it upon ourselves to reach out of our own accord.

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