April 25, 2017

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By Bertha Henson

WHY are people getting so upset with the news of school mergers, especially at the junior college (JC) level? It’s a no-brainer right? If junior colleges are emptying out, then might as well close them now or merge. It’s such a rational, efficient thing to do. Reading the reactions, the unhappiness boils down to these nine questions.

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1. How is it that our so-efficient G can misjudge birth rates?

Well, the G keeps saying that it is based on information available at that time – and probably thought that its pro-baby policies will work. The last two JCs built were Innova which was founded in 2005 and Eunoia which opened its doors this year. So maybe if you look at the birth rate of the cohort that would enter Innova in its first year, it still looks like it can be filled. Except that later on, Singapore couples didn’t cooperate. Tsk. Tsk.

2. But that doesn’t explain Eunoia, does it?

Ah. But that’s a special JC that caters to the cohort studying in Catholic High School, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School. They will move to the JC as part of the Integrated Programme (IP).

Okay, Eunoia could have waited until next year and moved into one of the JCs’ vacated premises. Could have saved money. But it could be location as well. Eunoia is in Mount Sinai, and will move to its Bishan premises in 2019. Oh wait. Maybe it could still move into an empty campus before money is spent on yet another set of buildings…

3. So, the JCs that will be merged all don’t have IP feeder schools? What does this mean? I have to make sure my kid gets into a secondary school with IP so that they can progress right through to JC and university?

Oooh. Looks like that’s the best bet. Because JC is usually seen as the next step into university, unless your kid is a very bright polytechnic student. Through-train you know… even if this means less choice…

4. How did MOE pick the eight JCs anyway? Just because no IP?

Hmm. It says “geographical’’ distribution. So it’s about spreading them out equally. Like Meridian JC, which is in Pasir Ris, and Tampines JC. So they’re getting stuck together at the newer Meridian campus. Don’t forget that Temasek and Victoria JC are also in the east.

Then there’s Innova JC and Yishun JC merging to be on Yishun grounds. MOE said Yishun was picked because it’s more “accessible’’ than Innova, although Innova is newer. Maybe it also has to do with cut-off points. Innova is at the bottom of all 19 JCs, as reported by The Straits Times. MOE isn’t saying anything about it.

5. Wait a minute, why should cut-off points have anything to do with whether a JC disappears?

Hmmm. Guess MOE thinks there’s no point in having such poor performing JCs. Seven of the eight JCs that are merging are actually clustered at the bottom of the ladder, which means that their students aren’t, ah, as good as the rest. Elitist, but perfectly rational. Okay, there’s something to be said about preserving the school’s heritage and making alumni happy but you know what is said about “scarce’’ resources and so forth.

6. But if it is a matter of geography, Hwa Chong Institution and National JC are right across the road…

They’re IP and good performers and probably with strong alumnus that will kpkb . Just disregard what MOE said about geography, it doesn’t know how to spin doctor.

7. Why so sudden anyway? Some of the kids are already looking forward to entering JCs of their choice, especially those near their homes. Quite demoralising isn’t it?

The G will probably say that there’s never a good time to make such an announcement. If the mergers are delayed, then what are the chances that parents will allow their kids to apply for a JC that’s going to be closed? Rather than sound the death knell, just kill it off quickly.

8. That’s heartless when you think about the people who have been to the schools and have fond memories.

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

9. Has it got to do with the G changing its mind about having more people going into university?

Well, it said it’s aiming for 40 per cent of the cohort by 2020, but it’s a declining cohort so the absolute numbers will probably remain about the same as now. Although it’s likely that when it came up with that figure, it didn’t think about the birth rate then. Or maybe it figured that the polytechnic route would also yield more university graduates. Then again, polytechnics are facing declining enrollments too. Are you thinking that this will have a knock-on effect on the capacity of our universities? That something will be done about polytechnics too?

 

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by Suhaile Md

This is the second of three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants attend all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here.
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DAY two (Mar 31) of the dinner series and the stories streamed out. Of racism, in racially harmonious Singapore. Some spoke of the casual cruelty that springs from ignorance. Others lamented the broader sense of discrimination that permeates society at large.

But underlying it all, was the question: When is it racist, really?

A 28-year-old Indian male participant mentioned during the large group discussion that stereotypes do have some basis in reality, or “nuggets of truth so to speak”. He said, for example, that he found the various races can smell different. He thinks it’s due to cultural factors like diet for example. Not bad, just different.

So, when a child asks: ”Why you smell like that?”, it might just be innocent curiosity on the child’s part and the child just does not have the language or maturity to phrase it politely. Likewise for other observations, such as “why you so black?” or “why you so hairy?”.

In response, an Indian lady recalled the time in primary one when a Chinese boy refused to hold her hand. It’s something young students do when they line up during school assembly. “He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.”

He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.

Just like it affected her when “someone said my hair was so oily you could fry a fish”. And it definitely “affected me in secondary school when my classmates all spoke Mandarin, and for no reason of my own I was excluded from people with whom I could engage with”.

She said she doesn’t “attribute any malice to any of these episodes” but she wishes she was able to make her former classmates “understand that it hurts”. It’s cruel how casually ignorant questions cut.

The lady was hurt as a child because of her race. But by her own account, she did not think it was malicious. Would it be fair to call her former school mates racist? Well, the intentions may not have been racist, but the outcome certainly was.

On hearing the Indian lady’s story, a Chinese lady added: “Race really played a really big part in choosing a primary school for my daughter.”

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Why race matters in school choice

The Chinese lady is married to an Indian man. Their daughter has darker skin. Even though her daughter can “speak really good Mandarin”, the Chinese kids at the playground “just don’t talk to her at all and exclude her”.

When it was time to choose a school, the mother had three choices, a top Chinese school which was her alma-mater, a neighbourhood school nearby, and a convent school.

Following the advice of most people, she was thinking of either the top school or the school next door, “until a Eurasian mother came and talked to me and said… you want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?”

You want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?

Likewise for the neighbourhood school because she lived “in a new estate… with many new citizens from China and Malay(sian) Chinese.” Given her daughter’s experience at the playground, she realised it might play out the same way at school.

So she followed the advice of the Eurasian mother who had said: “Send her to convent, she’ll mix, she’ll blend in there with everybody.”

The Chinese mother’s sharing led to a discussion on how individual experiences might build up to society-wide stereotypes and consequently racial discrimination.

When a Mandarin speaking yet-not-Chinese-looking child is at risk of being ostracised on account of skin tone, what more the other races?

Furthermore, as another participant mentioned, his secondary school, a top Independent school, only had a handful of Malay students in the whole cohort of about 400. Let alone Special Assistant Plan (SAP) schools which only offers Mandarin as a second language. Are such schools racist? Do they end up allowing stereotypes to foment due to a lack of exposure to citizens of other races?

As a Eurasian man in his 40s put it, racial differences are visible. “You can see what the guy looks like but you don’t know his” background or who he is. This can lead to viewing everything through a racial lens.
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When race becomes the only lens

The Eurasian participant brought up the example of the radio DJs who got into trouble a few months back. They were discussing a survey on the sleep patterns of Singaporeans. In the process, they made remarks that stereotyped certain races. They were subsequently fined by the G.

Said the participant: “They split (survey results) it according to racial lines. What is that teaching you? How is race even relevant? Let’s talk about what kind of jobs they are doing, which neighbourhoods are they living in, how are they getting to work, those are things that will teach you things that are useful that you can turn into policy or constructive discussion.

“At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?”

At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?

Expanding on his point, other participants said that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) categorisations in Singapore forces a racial lens on everything even if there’s no need to.

However, a Malay social service practitioner in his mid-30s felt there may be a “need to compartmentalise according to racial groups because members of a “particular community would know what works best… what will be culturally sensitive, what will not.”

That said, he added, after a certain point it blinds us. “Race is just a lens that we put on.” What about viewing the issues through another lens, like class?

Race is just a lens that we put on.

In his work, he found that a Chinese boy from a single parent household living in a rented flat has much more in common with the Malay boy with a similar background, than he did with other Chinese kids with more stable families.

At this juncture, a Chinese participant asked the Malay social service practitioner if he thought too much focus on race “hides all the other factors which are more important”.

“Definitely”, he replied.
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Ghosts of policies past

For example, on the issue of drug abuse, when the social service practitioner visited prisons, he said, “for every one Chinese inmate I see, I see four or five Malays”. That’s a fact, “a reality my community is compounded with, but again we need to stop saying” it’s a Malay problem. It’s wrong to just attribute it to race.

Back in the 70s, a whole generation of Malay men were left in limbo because they were not enlisted for National Service (NS). Many of them could not find a job because they were not officially discharged from their NS obligation. Employers did not want to take the risk of hiring them. It was safer to hire someone who completed their NS.

“He can’t get a job, he just waits, NS never comes, nobody calls him, puts him in a difficult situation…” and that’s a contributing factor for the drug abuse cases. It’s a challenge the Malay Muslim community is dealing with.

This has an effect over generations, and we’re still feeling it now. Yet when the drug problem is discussed, it perpetuates stereotypes by focussing on race.

He added: “I’m not just saying this, this is actually based on academic literature I studied back in my tertiary days (as a sociology major). There are so many other structures that either work for you or against you.”

Another structural issue that came up during the discussions was on how Singapore’s elites might have blind spots when it comes to race.

Most participants, both Chinese and non-Chinese, acknowledged that a lot of top schools seem to have under-representation of minority races.

The trouble is, a participant mused, many top students and scholars come from the above mentioned top schools. They then proceed into the Military for example where it’s a predominantly Chinese background. Many parts of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – have little to no Malay Muslim representation especially. So it’s likely that many of these top leaders have little to no exposure interacting with minorities since their school days.

Yet, these same military leaders from lieutenant-colonels and above are channeled into various parts of the civil service or state affiliated companies where they influence policy making decisions.

Have they had the opportunity to examine pre-conceived and unchallenged stereotypes that might have calcified from their school days? Based on the stories shared, many minorities had schoolmates who had no racist intent, yet the outcomes of their actions were racist nonetheless. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed.

 

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

Join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

 

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By Bertha Henson

OVER the past few days, we’ve been deluged by eulogies on the late Cabinet Minister Othman Wok. Every facet of the man who died at age 92 on Monday (April 17) has been polished to a high shine, whether as a father, Malay leader or national politician.

Threading the eulogies is one theme: his commitment to multiracialism. It is a term that some might take for granted, especially if they belong to the majority race. It is a term some may bristle at, because of perceived discriminatory acts or an unintended racist joke they’ve heard. Doubtless, some would also view the speeches as politically-oriented, to bring together society when race and religion seem to be such potent divisive forces.

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I choose to see Mr Othman a little differently: as a man who placed his convictions above his comfort and convenience. This is no pragmatic Singaporean who jumps on the bandwagon and hitches himself to a rising star. This is a principled man who went against the popular tide.

It must have been so difficult for him to put his lot in with the People’s Action Party in the early days of Singapore. It was far easier to stay within the comfortable confines of the then majority community of Malaya. We’re told about how he was called unmentionable names, had his campaign posters smeared by faeces and faced death threats from communal rabble rousers.

I can hear his fellow Malays accuse him of disloyalty to the community which unlike, the Chinese, is infused with a common religious identity: “Why turn against your community – or your God?’’ I can even hear well-meaning non-Malay friends suggesting that he “take cover’’ and enjoy the benefits of staying put in a place where there was a national commitment to promote the advance of the community. Think of all the racist remarks that can be made against him and multiply its force several times – and think of what such pressure would do to his family.

Why would anyone choose such a dangerous road? It defies pragmatism and common sense.

I raise this because we’ve made such a virtue of pragmatism that we ignore what it means to abide by principles. We hedge principles with compromises and plenty of grey areas. Mr Othman, we are told, had two days to settle his affairs in Kuala Lumpur before receiving a summons to stand in the contentious 1963 elections on the PAP ticket. Then racial riots broke out.

Being a community leader would really mean something in those days. You would have to placate or persuade your own community to your point of view while dealing with suspicions of outsiders who wonder if you have a hidden agenda. To do this at a time when rabble rousers were calling for your head calls for, well, a cool head.

Mr Othman introduced the Administration of Muslim Law Act for Singapore Muslims. And he joined the pioneer National Service contingent. Both made important statements on what it means to be a Muslim Singaporean in secular Singapore.

I think today of the degree of harmony we have here even if we do get the occasional racist remark being made. Compared to Mr Othman, we have very thin skins that are easily pierced by some speech or act. Yet we all gave up something precious for this place called Singapore, whether they are Chinese dialects, open prayer calls or language-medium schools. A give-and-take attitude is hard-wired in our DNA.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the people here as an “obstreperous’’ people in 1965, refusing to be cowed by threats or seduced by promises. It is an interesting choice of word, given that Singaporeans are more usually known as sheep these days. Are we still an obstreperous people who would go against conventional and pragmatic wisdom because we have a cause to believe in? Would we risk life and limb? Mr Othman did.

Thank you, Sir.

 

Featured image from People’s Action Party Facebook page 

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by Ong Lip Hua
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THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
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A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
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Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
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And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
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This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.
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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
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But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
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HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
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This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
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When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
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While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
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But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
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Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.
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by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime.  On April 5, we spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it. This is part two of two. Read part one here.
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IT’S difficult to doubt the agenda of a group of volunteers who risk their lives to pull babies out of broken buildings.

However last year (Sep 21) when the Associated Press (AP) asked Syria’s President Assad, if he would support the White Helmets’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he said: “It is not about the White Helmets, whether they are credible or not, because some organisations are politicised, but they use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agenda… What did they achieve in Syria? And how un-politicised is the Nobel Prize? That’s the other question.”

Not an unreasonable question given that foreign powers have taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey back the rebel groups. And the White Helmets are funded by the latter group.

Last year (Sep 28), the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had donated £32m (S$56m) since 2012. Earlier in April 27, a US State Department press briefing revealed that the US government donated US$23m (S$32m)  to the organisation. By the end of last year, list of donor governments include Germany (7m euros), Canada (C$4.5m), and the Netherlands (8.5m euros) as well.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

Donations by itself do not prove a nefarious agenda. Yet skeptics say that foreign governments don’t just give millions away altruistically either.

Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets and a former British diplomat, disagreed: “There’s a huge difference between funding which is conditional, and funding which is unconditional… Yes we get money (from the above countries)… but it has never been a secret.”

“For accountability and transparency reasons we have to publish it on the website, we have auditors to confirm where the money has gone.”

He added: “If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.”

If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.

The White Helmets have an annual budget of “US$30m to $32m,” with about “75 per cent from governments, and 25 per cent coming from private donations”. Private donations range from a few dollars worth to seven-figure sums.

This year, US$15m was raised “from organisations that are not western governments”. Regardless of the source, “we do not accept them if there’s any political conditionality” like wearing a certain logo, or making certain comments on media, said Mr Mesurier.

Still, the early White Helmet teams were trained in Turkey by ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. He worked as a consultant there.

Surely, that reasonably raises questions of foreign agenda? Possibly regime change, or the overthrowing of President Assad, as it’s widely viewed?

The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?

He replied: “What you need to connect, if you’re going to make this point, is means to ends… what ARK was doing, was funding media activists, giving them cameras, it’s good governance development, it was civil society development… the White Helmets were one of eight programmes.

“The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?”

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Not agents of the CIA, or Mossad, or MI6…

Mr Mesurier said he’s been called an operative of foreign spy agencies like America’s CIA, Israel’s Mossad, and UK’s MI6, among others.

None of which are true. The idea of a rescue force came about when he was working in the private for-profit ARK. His job there “involved meeting mayors, local politicians, media activists, and designing and delivering training courses in peace and stabilisation activities”.

After the bombings started, it was in one of those meetings that local leaders said they needed to find ways to protect themselves. That’s when the idea to train rescue teams hit.

In 2013, a local leader in a village in Northern Aleppo sent Mr Mesurier’s 25 volunteers to train in Turkey. That’s where they were first issued with the protective helmets. It was white, because it’s “$5 cheaper than the other colours”.

White helmet volunteers training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Volunteers were lay people, teachers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and so on. Word spread and other communities in rebel held areas started approaching ARK. The growth and spread of the White Helmets was not the clandestine efforts of a spy. It was the simple need for a first-response rescue group.

In August 2014, the various teams came together, adopted their charter, pledge of neutrality, and voted in a leader, Mr Raed Saleh. The organisation was formalised then. Mr Saleh runs the show now, not Mr Mesurier.

Mr Mesurier left ARK around that time to set up Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organisation registered in the Netherlands, “because he didn’t feel right doing it (training White Helmet teams) on a for profit basis”.

Mayday Rescue supports the White Helmets with training and mentorship. While it has no management function, funding does go through Mayday Rescue. According to its website, the annual report and financial statements for 2016 will be published online this coming June.

Amongst other expenses, the money goes to the equipment purchases, training costs, and the “very very meagre” monthly stipend of US$150 each volunteer gets. Those who were maimed in service, as well as families of those who lost their lives, are also supported with a stipend. The White Helmets set up the Herofund in 2014 to help with public fundraising.
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Neutrality not respected

The White Helmets, he repeated throughout the interview, are neutral. They save everyone regardless of background.

The Syrian government is not convinced. It does not allow the White Helmets into regime controlled areas. Even when the White Helmets had six fire fighting teams near the vicinity of the forest fires in Latakia earlier this year, the Syrian government declined their offer to help, said Mr Mesurier.

Maybe it has something to do with online clips of some volunteers who have been very outspoken in their comments about the regime? Those are very few and far between and do not represent the view of the organisation, he said.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Also, it’s a war zone. The volunteers are lay persons who used to be housewives, teachers, bakers, and so on before the war. Their volunteerism exposes them to “tremendous stress”, they take “tremendous risks” to their lives. Mr Mesurier did not say so, but it’s understood: When you spend your days picking up bodies due to regime bombs, it’s only natural to be angry at the regime.

To the date of the interview (Apr 5), 171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

When asked if he thinks the volunteers are targetted, Mr Mesurier said with finality, “absolutely”. Their centres have been bombed before. And the regime airstrikes infamously engage in “double-tap” attacks where a bombed site is struck again shortly after its first round – to get at the people who run in to help victims.

Interestingly, the volunteers are able to move freely in opposition held areas of Syria in spite of it being an “archipelago of local warlords” and “local arms organisations”. Although yes, in some parts, like ISIS controlled areas, the White Helmets are not allowed to use their GoPro head cameras when they go about their work.

Nonetheless, they can clear checkpoints “from top to bottom”, which is “fairly unusual”, said Mr Mesurier. He doubts any other organisation is able to do that. In fact, this also shows that the White Helmets are not western spies or agents. They would not have such freedom of movement otherwise.

It’s probably because of the “trust that people have of the White Helmets,” he added. Furthermore, the services the White Helmets provide to local communities have not been successfully replicated by local armed groups.

“Some local warlords have tried to set up their own rescue teams… but the values that makes people want to join an extremist organisation are almost the opposite of the values that make somebody want to be a White Helmet”.
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So are the White Helmets western stooges or not?

Skeptics would charge that the graphic videos and images are used in the propaganda war to make the President Assad’s regime look bad. This garners support for regime change, exactly what the western governments funding the White Helmets want.

To that, Mr Mesurier replied that the White Helmets just want the bombings to stop, not remove Assad or change regimes. Showing images “is not regime change”, it’s about “making truth accessible”, to show that people are suffering.

Mr Salah Skaff, 25, reacts carrying the body of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 year old, after an airstrike on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria April 7, 2017. – REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

It’s hard to argue with that. Given the volunteers’ lives lost and thousands of online videos that capture the harrowing circumstances the volunteers face, it’s hard to believe the white helmets work hard just to make the regime look bad.

It would be far safer and easier to spread fake news instead. (Read more here.)

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Mr James Le Mesurier was awarded the Order of the British Empire last year for his work with the White Helmets. In the past, he served as a British Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. Later he had a diplomatic stint for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After which, he moved on to various roles in the private sector risk management companies. This information is publicly available on his LinkedIn profile.

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

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Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road.
Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road on Sunday (Photo: Sean Chong/TMG)

by Bertha Henson

I am getting old(er), so I don’t recall how many times I have seen plans to re-fresh and re-vitalise Orchard Road. An undergraduate doing her thesis on pop culture asked me last week about Swing Singapore, which was decades ago but which I still remember as a teenager. I was there! It was boring, walking the pedestrian-only road with deejays doing their best to hype the crowd. Except that everybody was just waiting for something to happen – rather than make it happen.

The plans to revitalise Orchard Road sounds fun, but it’s really more of the same thing as in past plans. Allowing more pedestrians and activities (buskers still need a licence no?) and festivals at open places, making Orchard Road pedestrian-friendly – which actually is if you consider the sidewalks are extremely wide, even without the suggestion to close off one lane. Have you ever had trouble walking along Orchard Road?

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We’re told there will be a Design Incubator, which sounds like a term that should remain in one-North or Science Park, showcasing local talent. Should we get excited about having scramble crossings?

It seems to me we are putting cart before horse and exploring ideas without understanding why Orchard Road is the way it is now – and what is it now, exactly?

What are we concerned about? That tourists are staying away from the street? Or locals giving it a miss? That there’s a parking problem? That retailers are complaining about lack of business? Even if the G goes about laying the infrastructure (and take away all the green lungs in the area), what’s the bet that people will come?

Don’t we recall the hype that accompanied the openings of ION Orchard, 311@Somerset, Knightsbridge, Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway? Have we considered that the road is too malled-up with stores that are too fancy and high-priced – that is, if we are thinking about getting locals down.

In any case, locals are well-served by the strategically-placed suburban malls. Neighbourhood centres are bustling with plenty of activities organised by town councils and commercial operators. Why go to Orchard Road? For high-class dining and high-price boutiques?

If it’s the high-priced parking that’s the problem, then there are at least three MRT stations there, so is the solution really to get everyone to go car-lite if they want to go there? If people are still attached to their cars especially if they’re shopping. Again, this is only if we’re thinking about local participation.

If the idea is to court foreign tourists, then what sort of effort have been made to ask them for their views on Orchard Road? Why have a plan which is without their feedback? Surely, we can’t be conjuring things from our imagination rather than based on information. If Orchard Road is losing out as a shopping destination, what else would tourists be looking for? Plenty of happenings everyday and night?

I took at look at Orchard Road’s website for events this month. There is Fiesta on a Great Street, from April 21 to 23 and we’re called upon to “ feast on local favourites and new gourmet classics presented by Baker’s Oven Patisseries, Café O, Good Chance Restaurant, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Potluck and Rice Bowl”. It doesn’t say if the fare is discounted but 20 per cent of proceeds go to the Singapore Red Cross. So, it looks like a charity programme. You can also pay $29.21 to attend a masterclass with five chefs. Don’t know how this adds to vibrancy. There will be “local acts”, but don’t know who or where they will play.

Maybe everybody’s preparing to hype the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which over the years, is beginning to look more like attempts to get in the Chinese tourists. The GSS, which used to be an Orchard Road staple, extends to heartland shops too although you see fewer taking part, so why go to Orchard Road?

Okay, maybe Orchard Road is supposed to be a place to jalan-jalan, window shop and look at the myriad complexions and modes of dressing of the people who are there. I, for one, find the activity entertaining. But it also makes me feel like a fish out of water – most of them don’t look like me. So is Orchard Road really for foreigners because I have no reason to be there except to shop at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. I’d rather sit in a coffeeshop or a café in the heartlands – and feel at home. Our foreign workers probably feel more at home in Orchard Road if you go by the congregations that mass in open spaces having picnics on weekends.

This is really odd because in big cities, the foreign tourist sees more locals at their prime spots than their own kind. It’s part of the tourist experience to able to see locals doing their own thing, so to speak.

As I said, maybe I am getting old(er). I didn’t see Orchard Road in the same blasé light when I was a teenager. Then again, I have it on good authority that teenagers now have so many more places to flock to than in my time.

All I am asking is whether we’ve taken a hard look at why Orchard Road is the way it is, before moving on to grand plans which require construction and hoardings. Take away words like “revitalise”, “rejuvenate” and “refresh”, and ask why is Orchard Road so dead first.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Suhaile Md

THAT foreign maids are not slaves should patently be obvious to any decent person. But clearly that is not the case to some as seen by the maid abuse cases that appear from time to time. So much so that the Minister for Law and Minister for Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam, had to say in Parliament on Monday (Apr 3): “They are not slaves.”

While responding to questions on enhancing sentences for child-sex abusers, Mr Shanmugam said that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are another “separate class of vulnerable victims” whose abusers should also have enhanced sentences. Members of Parliament (MP) Ms Tin Pei Ling and Mr Alex Yam had asked the questions on whether child-sex abusers should get stiffer sentences.

However, Mr Shanmugam emphasised that the above was his own opinion. The laws are currently being reviewed and he did not want to “prejudge the issue”.

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Past cases of abuse

Just last week, a husband-wife pair was sentenced to jail for sustained abuse on their two maids for years. They slapped, punched, kicked, and hit their domestic worker with canes and bamboo sticks as well. The husband was sentenced to two years and four months’ jail for being the instigator while the wife got two months’ jail.

Many other cases made the news in recent years. One foreign domestic worker had a heated spoon pressed against her arms and face. In another case, a mother-daughter pair left their maid with a permanent disability in the left ear. The culprits were sentenced to jail between 12 and 16 months. In yet another case, a maid was hit with a hammer for not cleaning the toilet properly.

However, the Penal Code was amended in 1998 to deal specifically with abusive employers of maids. Section 73 was inserted to stiffen the punishments meted out to maid abusers. For specific offences, like hurting a maid or molesting her, the maximum penalties are one and a half times that of the general penalties a culprit would face had the victim been the general public.

Said then Labour Minister Dr Lee Boon Yang: “I want to tell employers: Your maid lives in your house 24 hours a day, isolated from society. She is female and particularly vulnerable to abuse. If you take advantage of this, the law must come down hard on you.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Mr Shanmugam on Monday: “They come here, they do the work because we don’t have enough people, and they have to be treated with certain dignity and a certain respect of the law. They are not slaves.”

Other considerations

No decent person will disagree with the good Minister’s sentiments. That said, what constitutes abuse? Could the bar for what counts as “abuse” be set too high given the context in which maids operate?

Working in an environment that is verbally hostile, being subjected to condescension and humiliation, day in and out, is a form of abuse that leaves no marks a physical health check at the clinic can catch. Some maids have their movement and outside contact restricted by their employers. It’s one thing to work for a demanding boss at the office and completely another to live with one – there’s no escape.

While an office worker can complain to the human resources department or change jobs, there is no such recourse for domestic workers. They are not allowed to change employers, unless the current boss agrees to to it. Would a mean-spirited employer allow that? Not likely, so it’s a ticket home.

Perhaps the review might take that into consideration.

It’s early days yet

Still, as Mr Shanmugam emphasised in Parliament, he could not reveal details. He only spoke in his personal capacity. After all, the issues of sentencing and charges are “independent decisions by the Attorney-General’s office”, and “not within the control of the Government”, said the Minister.

That was also his response to Ms Tin Pei Ling’s follow up query on whether the Minister could say if the review would end with tougher sentencing for child-sex abusers. However, he did add that the review would not have taken place in the first place if “everything was okay as is”.

The review comes on the back of the recent case in which child-sex offender, Joshua Robinson, was sentenced on March 2, to four years’ jail. He was found guilty for underage sex with two 15-year-old girls, showing an obscene film to a six-year-old, and possessing over 300 child pornography videos. Many in the public questioned if the sentence was adequate. However given legal precedents, the prosecution decided not to file an appeal.

The review is expected to complete at the end of this year, said the Minister.

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Featured image from TMG file.

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by Daniel Yap

I CAN feel the massive ship turning ever so slightly. A raft of changes to the education system signals a shift in the balance, and even a cynic cannot help but wonder how far it will go.

The Polytechnics’ Early Admissions Exercise (EAE), which weighs student interest and aptitude in addition to grades, will now admit up to 15 per cent of the cohort, up from 12.5 per cent last year and 2.5 per cent the year before. The Institutes of Technical Education will also be admitting 15 per cent of the next cohort on these terms.

And then NUS, NTU and SMU will increase the proportion of discretionary admissions from 10 to 15 per cent. It’s the G’s realisation that the best lawyers and engineers aren’t only the ones with straight As. It’s an awakening to the fact that some have been “gaming” the system with academic hothousing, and that students with a headful of knowledge may be pursuing courses of study and careers that fail to light a fire in their hearts.

And then there’s the Skillsfuture Earn and Learn programme, which is as close a programme to an apprenticeship that Singapore has right now. It covers 23 sectors, and the number of takers this year is expected to double to 1,000 which is still only a fraction of the student cohort. But its key takeaway is that the best way to learn a job is by doing it – something that the tertiary education system in Singapore has previously tried to do too much of from within the classroom.

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The civil service has done away with the division system that puts a false ceiling on those without academic qualifications. Teachers and those in the uniformed services now have unified career paths for polytechnic and university graduates.

What more is to come? The Straits Times recently published an op-ed calling for 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions to universities – will Singapore go the distance? Will we be able to push deeper “apprenticeships”, whatever form they may take? Can we break down the walls between work and training into one seamless system of organic but structured self-improvement?

Can we do away with the current “scholarship” system that all but guarantees career paths (and sometimes goes out of the way to ensure the paths are followed) and find another way to develop and attract top talent?

But even in the midst of change, there are fears that the tide is against us. The greatest risk is that parents, employers, students and even workers themselves have ingrained mindsets that will not change. But a ship is made to cut through the waves and push against the forces of nature whereas our port of call will not come to us by itself.

There is hope for this skills-and-aptitude-favouring trend to accelerate if Singaporeans get on board. For one, there has been very little public pushback against these changes. Criticisms about this trend are often a product of a lack of faith in the ability to change rather than unhappiness with the proposed changes.

The majority of Singaporeans seem to, jadedly, acknowledge that all these are good changes, but they think like passengers rather than sailors – unsure of what their role is in helping to move the ship towards their too-distant destination.

When we shrug and keep our heads down, we miss out on the changing view. Parents miss out on their key role in helping their children navigate their education and career options based on their strengths and interests so that their children will be able to make informed choices. If you’ve already decided from the day of his or her birth that your child shall be a doctor/lawyer/banker, then you will be neglecting the most precious parts of your child’s personality.

Pushing your child to get the best grades they can is important, but so is helping them to discover their strengths, make a positive impact in society and find heartfelt satisfaction in life.

Students must be going to school with the long-term view that one day, all these studying will end and the transition to working life is going to be a question of skills and applied knowledge – rather than a test of grades. They need to learn to chart their own career path and understand how to continuously work on walking down that path.

Parents, as today’s workers, need to show their children that they too are constantly learning on the job and outside of it, and that learning is fulfilling and is part of a deliberate plan to better oneself.

The ship of education, of work, of learning, is turning, and everyone on board will inevitably turn too. But how fast we turn and how quickly we move depends on how many of us are sailors, and how many of us are merely passengers.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Race Religion Eurasian

by Suhaile Md

This is the first of  three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of  dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations.

“I WAS the only Malay in the section, the rest of them (Chinese) refused to speak in English,” said a 34-year old, recounting his National Service training days. “For the first month every day,” he reminded them, so that he could fulfil his duties, be part of the team, but eventually he gave up. “I realised they were purposely not including me in.”

He was one of 25 participants who had turned up for the first of a series of three closed door dinner sessions, on Mar 17, to talk about race and racism. The aim of the series is to explore what race and racism means in Singapore and what can be done to move to an ideal state. This first dinner focused on the level of racism experienced here.

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Rate the racism

Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 what their experience of racism was in Singapore. One meant no racism and 10 meant racism is everywhere.

Responses varied from as low as two to as high as nine. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the lowest score came from a Chinese participant. As another Chinese participant put it, racism in reality is “not like the racial harmony (lessons) taught in schools. The picture of racial and religious harmony presented in school is vastly different outside of class… so the Chinese majority don’t feel it. (racism)”
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“The picture of racial and religious harmony presented in school is vastly different outside of class… so the Chinese majority don’t feel it (racism)”

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This point was underscored by a group facilitator during a post-dinner debrief. The 31-year old Chinese lady said that the Chinese participants in her group were appalled when they heard the stories of racism faced by the minorities. The minorities on the other hand seemed nonchalant, even resigned, about racism in Singapore.

In other words, the Chinese don’t recognise that racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it.

The highest score of nine was rated by a Eurasian participant in his 40s. But with a twist: Even if a race based policy is positive, he still considered it as racism. To him for example, the racial reservation of the Elected Presidency is a racist policy. Yes, it pushes for minority representation every five terms at the least. But still racist.

At least one participant found it hard to quantify. The 23 year-old Southeast Asian Chinese lady has been in Singapore for a few years. She said she was aware that racism existed but had no overt experience of it. Interestingly, when she was asked to state her race when she first arrived in Singapore, she did not know what to say. “I never really viewed myself according to my race,” she said.

Most other participants, regardless of race, placed a score between four and seven. In general, everyone acknowledged that racial tensions hardly ever turn violent here. Rather, most of the racism permeates through other means like employment opportunities – or the lack thereof – and standards of beauty. This brought the conversation forward to the next topic of discussion, how does racism affect me?
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The impact of racism

Most of the impact was felt in working life. The job requirement to “speak mandarin” is often just “code” for Chinese-employees-wanted, said some. Even though the job itself may not require a mandarin speaker.

A 28-year old Chinese lady who works in the private sector spoke of how she realised, her Malay Muslim colleague, was asked out for group lunch less frequently due to dietary restrictions. There was no malicious intent to exclude. But somehow it just played out that way over time. Even if the intent was not there, could the outcome be considered racist?
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Even if the intent was not there, could the outcome be considered racist?

 

A 32-year old Malay lady spoke of how she found it harder to find jobs here than she did overseas in United States and New Zealand. She suspected race played a role and sent in the same resume with two different names – her own Malay name, and another anglicised. Invariably, she said, her Malay-named resume was rejected but the other accepted even though it was the same job.

Another 28-year old male participant said that because he was considered neither Indian, Malay, nor Chinese, he would be bullied by kids from all the races in Primary School. Sometimes, it got violent.

Despite the heavy topic, the atmosphere was light, jovial, and at times thoughtful, with some instances of intense sharing. But over all, it was carefree. And many stories were shared. Here are some snippets of conversations overheard that night:
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On why they turned up for the event:

“I want to just talk about it (racism), rather than sweeping it under the rug, pretending it doesn’t exist… if we are able to talk about it… then comes the solutions.” Said a Malay man in his mid-30s.

“Catharsis,” said many of the minority races.

“To understand, and be aware”, said many of the majority race.

On what counts as racism:

“Often, people like those of my parents generation, don’t know some terms are racist” and have no malicious intent, said a 23-year old Chinese lady. This was a sentiment echoed by other minority participants as well.

“I think sometimes we can be a bit more gracious when others make comments that seem racist,” said a member of the minority race.

“Maybe intent of our words don’t matter as much as the impact,” said a Chinese lady.

“Context matters… I crack racist jokes all the time with friends from other races, but I would never say them on stage,” said an Indian man.

Questions:

“How do we talk about problems facing certain races without being racist about it?” asked an Indian man.

“Is it a race or class issue?” asked a Malay man.

“It’s weird, in a multi-racial society, where does racism come from?”, asked a Eurasian man. He added later: “At what point do kids develop racism?”

 

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

The dinner series is full, but there are still some slots left for a stand-alone session on April 7. Sign up here.

Join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

 

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