Around the world, Singapore is well known for its strong emphasis on racial harmony. This is reflected in several government policies. The most prominent ethnic groups are as follows: Chinese, Malays and Indians. The main religious followings are Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism. In general, Singaporeans are all able to live harmoniously by respecting one another’s racial and religious practices. However, many have observed that Singaporeans have yet to go beyond merely tolerating different cultures that differ from their own. They haven’t reached a point of true acceptance and appreciation of alternate viewpoints.
A prominent example of this is a recent report on PrimaDeli, one of Singapore’s largest halal bakeries. Sarah Carmariah, a candidate who had applied for the cake decorator position, was belittled by the Head of Department at the bakery, who told her that “from what I see, and the way you look, and not trying to be racist ah, but you Malay, I think you cannot la.” He then went on to cast aspersions on Malay people, and asked if she spoke Mandarin, saying that that was the language most of his employees used (Straits Times, 2016).
This is a classic example of how Singaporeans, though cognisant of the concept of racial tolerance and the importance of the avoidance of discriminatory remarks, continue to indulge in such unacceptable behaviour. Why is this the case? Perhaps one way to look at it would be by addressing the root of the problem. The fact remains that many Singaporeans merely condone other racial and cultural practices, but do not delve deeper by understanding them and are therefore unable to fully accept and embrace them without harbouring any hidden sentiments of bigotry.
Some intervention policies crafted by the government, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, which aimed to dissolve the emergence of racial enclaves in the 1980s by establishing ethnic quotas for government neighbourhoods and housing estates, have been successful. Although some citizens have criticised these top-down methods by claiming that they inherently assume that Singaporeans are unable to integrate with other cultures and religions on their own accord, most seem to carry the attitude that these schemes are useful and do not carry any additional inconvenience whatsoever. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that this policy has been in place for multiple decades, so much so that most Singaporeans have regarded residing with neighbours from backgrounds and cultures differing from theirs as a way of life, instead of regarding it as a “scheme” that has been imposed upon them against their own will.
However, more can be done to mitigate the issue of racial and cultural acceptance through a more bottom-up approach. On a social level, perhaps more campaigns can be launched by those on the ground to promote true acceptance and appreciation for different racial practices and norms, be it in their own smaller communities such as educational institutions or in a larger arena. Ultimately, all of these efforts will culminate and aid in Singapore’s progress towards becoming a more accepting country that truly lives up to its reputation.
There is so much more to do to ensure that we are one step closer to the ultimate goal of social cohesion. Granted, this process has always been and will continue to be an onerous one, seeing that many countries around the globe are still struggling with even the initial stages of religious and cultural tolerance. However, it is imperative that all of us work towards eliminating the seeds of insularity and marginalisation towards specific communities that pose a great threat towards the social fabric of our multicultural society.