It’s the Simple Things We Forget

By Mr. Christopher Selvaraj from the KS Department
Cover photo by Differantly, a Paris/Berlin-based artist duo

These can be challenging times to think through the state of race relations in Singapore. Growing sensitivities to micro-aggressions and unconscious biases, racial privilege and cultural appropriation, reductive representations and linguistic assault, among other things, have made for a brew of simmering discontent that periodically spills out into our collective consciousness. These are complicated times – and it can seem simpler to sit and watch the waters swell.

So it was with great interest that I read Is Appreciation Enough?” by Phang Yeu Yeou and Loh Lin, and On Racism and Chinese Privilege” by Soh Ying Qi, a couplet of two recent thoughtful commentaries that set out to carefully consider racial harmony and race relations in Singapore. Both pieces reflect authors keen and willing to lay out the depth, complexity, and nuance of race relations. Both pieces reflect authors grappling with an important question: Are we doing enough to weave solidarity and community from the threads of diversity in which we find ourselves entangled? In both pieces, the answer to this question is “no”.

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The Hong Lim Park protest in the wake of President Halimah Yacob’s walkover victory raises questions about whether race-based affirmative action has a place in Singapore today: how much is enough and how much is too much? (image source)

What I find most compelling about the articles is their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Yeu Yeou and Loh Lin push us to seriously consider if simply learning to accept and appreciate that we live among a variety of cultures and ethnicities is enough to make claims to racial harmony. For them, the “complex socio-cultural issue” of racial harmony warrants collective efforts at deeper understandings and a constant interrogation of our beliefs, if we are ever to make inroads into cross-cultural appreciation. For Ying Qi, it is no longer enough to stand by and profess that we are not part of the problem of racial insensitivity and discrimination; instead, the onus is on each one of us to examine ourselves closely as we work towards being part of positive change.

Still, as both pieces ponder in different ways: What exactly does positive change mean? And, drawing on the words of Mr. Muhammed Faizad bin Salim, my colleague in the Knowledge Skills department: What does positive change look like? What does positive change sound like? What does positive change feel like? Caught between a constant stream of comforting clichés on the one hand, and a paralysing sense of the unintended consequences that hang over every move we make on the other, how do we act?

My suggestion is that we keep things simple.

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Just like how we move through the city by focusing not on the actions of others, but by concentrating on what we can do instead, sometimes a micro perspective is all that’s needed to begin chipping away at such macro issues as race. (image source)

If there is anyone who embodies the courage it takes to be simple in the face of complex deep-rooted problems, it is Mr. Cai Yinzhou, a young social entrepreneur who spoke to the Y6 cohort as part of Total Defence Day this year. Of all the ground-up initiatives he has started, the one that I remember the most is #BackAlleyBarbers: occasions when Yinzhou and a team of volunteers offer haircuts to migrant workers and the poor on weekends. The forces driving the inequality and discrimination both these groups must confront are multifaceted and immense, and I am always amazed that an act as simple as a haircut is somehow able to hold these forces at bay – if only just for a while. True, wider structural problems and contradictions remain unresolved; but, for a moment, there is the spark of connection and the potential for friendship.

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Mr. Cai Yinzhou (left) championing the Back Alley Barbers’ social cause for an interview. (image source)

Closer to home, as part of our Racial Harmony activities this year, we were reminded that taking the time to listen to and acknowledge the stories our peers and friends share about their experiences and struggles with diversity can make all the difference. These acts, on their own, will not be enough to reshape our social institutions. What they can do, though, is help build a responsive and supportive Rafflesian community committed to facing these problems head on.

If anything, these examples remind me that human decency is built on the simple things. In the face of the most entrenched evils, the grandest intentions pale in comparison to the smallest efforts at kindness. What, then, might this decency look like, sound like, and feel like in the case of race relations in Singapore?

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Loud, obtrusive international movements, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, have coloured our perceptions of what a defence of race looks like, but what we often forget is that there are other, subtler ways to positively engage with race in our day-to-day lives that must also be tailored to the Singaporean context we inhabit. (image source)

First, decency is about the willingness to bend under the weight of another’s actions or words. In the face of racial insensitivity or cultural ignorance, we have become too quick to stiffen in offence, react with indignation, and demand penance. The culture these days seems to take great pride in calling out and shaming prejudice of all sorts. I’ve sometimes wondered what good can come of this other than the fleeting self-satisfaction that accompanies a smug sense of perceived moral superiority. Similarly, It is difficult to imagine how someone could be shamed into letting go of his or her prejudice.  Imagine instead if you responded to prejudice with kindness. It would, perhaps, take all the force out of it. Still, kindness can be a tricky thing: sometimes it calls for patience, other times for humor, still other times for forgiveness. It is difficult to decide which response best fits the situation we are confronted with and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve gotten it wrong countless times. What I do know, though, is that we get better at responding with kindness when we are deliberate about it.

Next, decency is about cultivating a genuine interest in the lives of the people around you. This sort of openness is less concerned with demanding justification for behaviour encountered and more attentive to the meaning practices hold for individuals from different ethnic communities. A simple rephrasing of the questions you ask would show this. For example, instead of asking some of your Indian female friends “Why do you have a dot on your forehead?”, try asking “What is the meaning of dotting your forehead for you?” You might be surprised at the variety and depth of responses you receive.

Finally, decency is about the attention we pay to our everyday decisions. Do we forward the racist jokes we receive? Do we make an effort to pronounce – or to find out how to pronounce – the names of our friends from different ethnic communities properly? Do we consider the dietary needs of our friends when selecting a place to eat? The expectations each of us hold ourselves to about the little things go a long way in determining how we move forward together as a nation when it comes to race relations.


If there is one thing we can agree on: Confronting race relations in Singapore involves navigating difficult and, at times, treacherous waters. Caught in the turbulent current of the times, perhaps it is time to remember that it is often the simplest things that are our surest anchors.

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