May 27, 2017

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by Hasan Jafri

CHINA’S reported snub of Singapore by not inviting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing last week is being blown out of proportion. Keyboard warriors have rung alarm bells that relations have hit rock-bottom; politicians and analysts have advocated a shift in Singapore’s position to mend fences.

Are bilateral relations strained? Yes, they have been for more than a year now. Are they broken and heading over a cliff, as some claim? Absolutely not. Neither Beijing and clearly not Singapore wants an escalation. There is no war of words at the leadership level, no withdrawal or downgrading of diplomatic ties, no international campaign to discredit Singapore, no economic sanctions or barriers and the People’s Liberation Army is not coming anywhere near Singapore. Differences between two friends manifest occasionally – and sometimes irritatingly.

So, chill.

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Beijing knows Singapore can be prickly and it also knows that the cost of escalation could be high. Why? Because there is interdependence. China is Singapore’s third biggest trading partner and a source of many jobs here at home. China is an emerging power, one with which Singapore has cultivated a deep, multifaceted relationship.

Will Singapore miss out on BRI because of a little friction? Reports playing up PM Lee’s absence from the meeting overshadowed the presence of a delegation from Singapore in attendance, led by National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. That can hardly forbear the exclusion of Singapore from the BRI, but does point to some friction between the nations. Cooperation, officially, is still strong.

Take a few examples, beyond the BRI. For China, Singapore is a key offshore RMB trading and clearing centre which China needs because Tokyo, the other major hub, can’t be tasked with its long-term strategic objective of turning the RMB into a global reserve currency. Two, China is a recipient of more than a $100 billion in foreign investment from Singapore. Singapore has benefited but so has China, gaining expertise, global connectivity and intellectual property, some of which it can now export to developing countries under the BRI.

This flow of financial resources, expertise and know-how is not disrupted. In fact, former DPM Wong Kan Seng – whom the Chinese respect – was at the World Cities Summit Mayor’s Forum in Suzhou. While Singapore may not be seen as an active participant in the BRI or court China for investments, it is deeply involved in upgrading China’s western region, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.

To be sure, the relationship is strained, primarily around the issues of relations with Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Singapore has taken a strong position on the SCS issue as a non-claimant state but one that has a strong political interest in maintaining Asean unity when it is under strain and to protect its economic interest to ensure sea lanes remain unhindered.

That position is for protecting Singapore’s interests, not one at the behest of the US, as some have argued.

If Singapore had bent to the US over the years, there would be a permanent military base in Changi and there would be a treaty-level relationship like the US has with Japan, Australia or New Zealand. If Singapore didn’t sell out to the US, why should we sell out to the Chinese? It’s strategic balance – tough to execute but necessary because the cost of “alignment” for Singapore is too high a price to pay.

It is different scenario for others. Some of our neighbours court China because they need the investments and the deeper political ties as they also do not have the deep international economic, political and military ties that Singapore has. They have their own interests, different from Singapore’s. In fact, if Singapore were to bend, some in the same countries would conveniently sneer: See, Chinese Singapore sold itself to the motherland. Singapore is not dependent on China and can afford to take an independent line, articulating and advocating its own interests – sometimes forcefully.

So why all this fuss? It is to influence public opinion, a drip-drip-drip strategy to force Singapore to bend. Highlight that PM Lee was not invited but ignore that he was in China only last September at the invitation of the Chinese for the G20 annual meeting. Highlight the Taiwan issue but ignore that the Chinese and the Taiwanese met face-to-face – in Singapore.

There are times when states disagree – and this is one of those moments. But this is not a disaster. If anything, this is a time to continue engaging even more frequently from a position of strength.

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.

Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.

His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?

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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.

Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.

Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.

All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.

To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.

It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.

Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?

There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.

Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.

That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.

The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.

It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)

The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’

That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.

*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.

 

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Cyber attack

by Bertha Henson

I’M WRITING to you now because you’re the only one whose physical address I have. I only have email addresses for all my other friends. I’m sorry if you find it difficult to read my handwriting. I am so used to typing that I am not sure how to hold a pen. So I am using a pencil, so that I can erase ugly writing easily and, thank goodness, I still have a rubber from my Primary School days.

First, I hope that things are fine on your farm. Rearing chickens and growing vegetables don’t require the Internet right? Or are you logged in to that giant brain which is now in a coma? I feel envious of you. At least, you deal with real worms and not those which make you WannaCry. You know what I’m talking about right? Some NSA fellow in the US lost some spying software and now some jokers are holding a lot of people to ransom.

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I’ve been somewhat paralysed over the past few weeks and hopefully, by the time you read this (if nothing goes wrong with flight controls and air traffic), this time of stasis is over. In any case, I am using carbon paper while writing so that I can post a duplicate letter by sea-mail.

Right now, I’m re-learning everything, like what to do with my hands and fingers now that my cell phone is useless. I have taken to pen twirling and using one of those Fidget gadgets that’s become so popular.

Do you know how terrible it is to live without Google? I can’t answer queries in class as quickly as before or finish my assignments on time. I actually had to go to the library to do research. You should see us there…like monks in medieval times copying out notes. Lectures were even almost cancelled because the passes that get us into the lecture halls couldn’t work. We had to call the firefighters to break down the door. It was the first time I saw someone wield an axe in front of me.

Everything has changed.

My grandmother got sick and decided to see the sinseh instead of going to hospital. She’s worried that the hospital will prescribe the wrong medicines now that its system is down. So she had some needles poked into her and we managed to find a traditional Chinese medicine shop to buy the herbs and whatnots to brew her medicine at home.

My father says things are crazy in his office because he can’t get access to his files on the computer. He stopped storing hard copy versions a long time ago. All his old paper documents had been shredded to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

The good thing is that the worm hasn’t burrowed itself into the train system so we’re all still travelling from Point A to Point B. Except that sometimes, the doors at Point B can’t open. Our train operator made it clear it was a signalling problem and had nothing to with the malware although those of us stuck on board really wanna cry.

I can still reach my friends through the landline and watch free-to-air TV. My father bought a transistor radio as well because he said that’s the most reliable communication system we have. I think he’s paranoid.

He doesn’t want us to touch anything electronic or technological because he’s afraid of cross-infection. He wants to buy patches but they’re only available via the Internet, which of course, has died here. By patches, I mean a software that upgrades the computer system, defending it from cyber attacks. Think of it as a band-aid for a cut wound. He wants to buy plenty because the wound is still bleeding. I told him to also get bandages, in case he gets into an accident in his driverless car.

My mother says hi and wants to know how you keep uncooked food fresh when you have no refrigerator. I told her you kill your food or harvest your food every other day. She didn’t know, because she never went on a school exchange programme like I have.

The good thing is that I am getting more sunshine – and rain. I meet my friends more often and visit relatives in their home even though it’s not Chinese New Year. That because I can’t stay cooped up in my room staring at my blank computer. I am actually getting used to talking again. Having face-to-face conversations is such an exciting experience, especially when there’s no ring tone to disturb the flow.

I have to stop here because I have to recite the anthem of the Smart Nation. I think you are wise to stick with Mother Nature, even though we’re slowly killing her. But, at least, she can’t die overnight.

Sincerely,

Your Internet-savvy friend

 

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by Suhaile Md

YOU’D think that with all the anti-Islam prejudice us Muslims chafe against, we would be better at recognising and weeding out the bigotry in our own backyard. Apparently not.

Last Monday’s (May 1) Yahoo article on the minority Ahmadiyyah community in Singapore drew a flurry of Facebook comments. This particular one bothered me:

Yes, Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim even though mainstream Muslims don’t, given the fundamental differences in some beliefs. Even so, neither threats nor anger are justified responses. I was hoping this blatant bigotry was a one-off incident but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Muslim community is not a homogenous one. Just like how Christianity has a multitude of denominations, Muslims are diverse, with many sects and groups approaching the faith in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two main sects: Shi’sm and Sunnism.

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Earlier this year, Minister for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about the need for Muslims to embrace diversity in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Minggu (BM). He specified the need for the majority Sunnis to respect the minority Shias, reported ST which had referred to the BM interview.

Said Dr Yaacob: “They pay MBMF (Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). They come to our mosques. They pray together with us. They celebrate the same Hari Raya. So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?”

So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?

There are no firm numbers in Singapore, but a 2009 Pew report estimated less than 1 per cent of Muslims here are Shia. Over 457,000 Muslims reside here according to the G’s 2010 population census. Globally, up to 13 per cent are Shia.

There was no Shia-Sunni divide during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The split happened a few decades after his death over competing views on who should lead the Muslims. The political struggle evolved into a religious split as different interpretations emerged from different sources of authority, resulting in some differences in practices and theological views on certain issues.

There are many sub-sects within Sunnism and Sh’ism. A minority of Shias in Singapore are from the Dawoodi Bohra sub-sect. They tend to be Indian Muslims and they pray at Masjid Al-Burhani in City Hall, the only Shia mosque in Singapore. The majority Malay Muslim Shias tend to be from the Twelver branch.

Like Dr Yaacob said in the interview, Islam is “very diverse”. Nonetheless both Shias and Sunnis share the same fundamental tenets of the faith. In 1988, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) issued a fatwa (ruling) that Shias are Muslim. A MUIS spokesman said that the fatwa remains valid to this day.

Still, “there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia,” said Mr Yusuf Roslan. The 32-year old radiographer, who became Shia about 10 years ago, once overheard a Madrasah teacher praise the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing Shia Muslims. Another time Mr Yusuf’s friend was chased out of a mosque near little India when his turbah was spotted. Unlike Sunnis, Shias rest their forehead on a clay tablet, or turbah, when prostrating during prayers.

there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia

Mr Habib Albaity has been involved in various Shia organising committees through the years. The 61-year old taxi driver said that there were times when the application to use mosque facilities for Shia events were unsuccessful. He is sure it had to do with them being Shia Muslims. While they have their own space on the second floor of a shophouse at Guillemard Road, it’s inadequate for larger events. They opened their new, larger, Shia centre yesterday (May 11).

When TMG emailed MUIS to ask if Shia Muslims can hold events at mosques, whether said events can be publicised on mosque property, and the possible reasons why they might be denied the use of mosque facilities, a spokesman only had this to say: “A mosque is an open, shared space for all Muslims regardless of orientation, to use for worship, learning and service. All Muslims are free to attend congregational worship together.”

It’s a curious response. Surely, a simple yes you can hold Shia events at mosques but like everyone else successful applications depend on availability, would have sufficed? There was no response to the question on publicity.

But the challenges are not from the Islamic authorities, said Mr Habib. It’s from the ground. People don’t understand Shi’ism and “give bad remarks as if we are not Muslims but very bad people”.

Since her school days, for example, 28-year old Ms Sakinah Abdul Aziz said she has heard offensive comments like “Shia are Kafirs (disbelievers)… oh they are orang sesat (deviant)”.

These are not benign stereotypes.

These are not benign stereotypes. In October 2015, a video of Shia Muslims singing and slapping their chest – a well-known practise – was uploaded on Youtube. There was public backlash significant enough that the owners of the private space near Bedok North, which they had rented, advised them not to apply the following year, said Mr Muhammad Al-Baqir. The 32-year old who was part of the organising committee added that the owners “have nothing against us… it was just the situation at that time”.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that mosque managers would prefer to avoid rocking the boat by disallowing Shia Muslim events to be held.

This discomfort with Shi’ism has taken a nasty turn up north. Shia Muslims face legal persecution by the authorities in Malaysia, said Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas. But it wasn’t always the case, added the National University of Singapore (NUS) academic who specialises in sociology of religion.

A 1984 fatwa by the Malaysian Islamic authority, JAKIM, made it clear that Shi’ism was acceptable. This was reversed in 1996. Anti-Shia fatwas were issued in various states in subsequent years. This is contrary to the views of leading Islamic scholars, like the Shaykh Al-Azhar and Shaykh Qaradawi, from around the world. Now, Shia Muslims are detained and harassed by Malaysian authorities, their places of worship raided. Hate speech is also allowed to circulate.

“The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this,” said Dr Farid. And it’s to a “very great” extent, he claimed.

The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this

I went online to see for myself. A quick search led me to posts and comments on social media and Youtube which demonised Shia Muslims as monkeys, satanic, kafir, sesat, and so on. There’s also a public Facebook group called Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays reject Shi’ism) with over 1,800 members.

It’s not just online. A trip to some Muslim bookstores along North Bridge Road and Geylang Serai revealed some questionable material on Shi’ism – mostly from Malaysia – like this book for example:

Self-flagellation as shown on the cover was outlawed decades back by the highest Shia Muslim religious authorities, said Mr Habib. The blurb describes the book’s contents as a “clear” outline of the “ideological background, and threats posed by Shi’ism against the true Islam… a warning against falling prey to the calls of the Shi’ites.”

There are legitimate doctrinal differences to discuss but “usually these anti-Shia books present a caricature and attack that caricature… it’s substandard scholarship,” said Dr Farid. Traditionally in the Malay- Muslim world, he said, the majority “Sunnis are not anti-Shia” to the extent it is now. There are many reasons for this shift.

One reason is “the rise of more extremist Ulama (religious scholars) influenced by Salafism” which in turn is “partly related to the greater influence of Saudi Arabia in Malaysian affairs”, he said. Salafist anti-Shia propaganda from Saudi Arabia spread in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw a secular government replaced by a Shi’ite-oriented leadership.

While there is extremism in many branches of Islam, including Shi’ism, Dr Farid believes “Salafism is the most dominant form of extremism in the Muslim world today”. He stressed however that “the vast majority of Salafis do not condone physical violence and are in fact against terrorism”. He meant extremist “in the sense that” it is too “exclusivist” and “legalistic” to the extent that even Sunni branches of Islam like Sufism are also considered deviant and dangerous. That said, Salafists are Muslims and he is “not a fan of banning” them.

Exclusivism, or the idea that there is only one narrow interpretation of Islam, is at the heart of the discomfort with Shias. This poster from 2015 for example advertised a seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the “dangers of Shi’ism”:

Seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the dangers of Shi’ism to be held on the Deepavali holiday.

It’s not clear if the seminar went ahead or whether anyone had complained to the authorities.

It’s more difficult to hold such seminars now. Since Jan 1 this year, all religious teachers must register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) to ensure what is taught takes Singapore’s context into account.

According to the Code of Ethics which must be followed, an Islamic teacher “must recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam and may choose to adopt and teach any of these” so long as it does not cause public disorder. Also teachers cannot claim any practice of Islam is “deviant or unacceptable” unless the “Fatwa Committee has pronounced it to be so in a ruling”.

This is good methinks but more can be done. Given what is found in some bookstores, on social media, and the personal accounts by Shia Muslim Singaporeans, it’s clear that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore are not insignificant. While such sentiments cannot be banned out of existence, stereotypes that fuel bigotry need to be engaged directly by religious and community leaders of all stripes together along with the community.

MUIS’ azatizah code of ethics recognises that there are “diverse opinions and schools of thought” in Islam. Maybe MUIS can consider having exhibitions and seminars presenting the diversity of Islamic thought at the various mosques – a grassroots education programme. Intra-faith dialogues at mosques would also be a good start.

Recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam

There is a view that addressing differences in plain view – even if not sensationalised like the Imam video case – will blow the issue out of proportion riling people up unnecessarily. I think this misses the heart of the problem.

The point of the ARS is to ensure Islamic teaching is contextualised to our own society. But foreign celebrity preachers have the largest social media presence. Who vets them? Some like Zakir Naik are controversial and are banned from speaking here.

Yet through videos and social media posts, the ideas flow unchallenged, freely, online, publicly. Closed door engagement will never come close to the reach of viral videos. We risk having only one narrow interpretation of Islam dominating, that too a foreign one. Islam’s diversity in Singapore should be actively defended.

So public engagement should supplement closed door sessions. No doubt some will see engagement as a direct challenge and get upset. But it’s cowardly and wrong to stand by quietly while bigotry festers. Let’s take a stand, please.

 

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by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site Snopes.com said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on schoolbag.sg regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.

 

 

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by Bertha Henson

SO SOME people are kicking up a fuss over what Minister Chan Chun Sing said about the above question while referring to jobs. It seems that he was trying to tell his audience of polytechnic students not to keep thinking about landing their dream jobs immediately but to find meaning in whatever job they’re in. Is this a good analogy? Many people are trying to stretch the analogy, which I was told was made in a spontaneous speech. You have people castigating the minister for suggesting to young people that they can pick anyone to marry, or that he was telling them to be content with whatever job they have. Worse, some are making it “personal’’.

I have been wondering about my own career after graduation and whether I married the one I love or love the one I married. I can say that in my undergraduate days, I was actually infatuated with banking and flirted with the idea of working in a bank and counting money. I had a couple of bank suitors after graduation but eventually plumped for journalism. Not because I love journalism. I didn’t know a thing about it and wasn’t even sure I’d like him/it. I decided on him/it because he/it would make a better provider. Serious. It paid better.

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Maybe it’s because I belong to a generation where being able to provide for the family – I mean the first family with Mom and Dad – was a deeply ingrained duty of children. Even if there was no romance in the job, I told myself I would stick it out – and succeed. A decade later, I was asked to list a hobby for a company book. I wrote that “work is my hobby’’, to the astonishment of my colleagues then. Maybe they thought I was trying to curry favour with management. I don’t care. It was the truth.

More than two decades later, I am still wedded to journalism although I’ve divorced the company. I sometimes ask myself if I should have worked in a bank, which was, after all, my first love even though not as good a provider. The thing is, you never know if you’ll be happy doing your dream job unless you’ve tried it out. It’s like a couple for whom the honeymoon is over and business of living together starts. You could get along comfortably with each other, or you could grate on each other’s nerves.

I have come across too many people who wish they’re doing something different from what they originally wanted to do. For them, I advise a trial separation or a long holiday, like no-pay leave or a sabbatical, to re-charge their life. But since marriage is a death-do-us-part affair, it does mean that people have to make the effort to work at it. Effort which must start from the day you made your marriage vows. It’s no point starting a new job with a long face and making yourself feel worse by focusing on the things you don’t like.

I don’t think this is said often enough because we’re now so concerned about living the dream rather than making a living: people are being PAID to do a job and that job, however dis-likeable, should be done well.

If the unhappiness is overwhelming and affects your ability to justify your salary, then get a divorce. Play the field or maybe there is already a suitor waiting in the wings. Okay, I too am guilty of extending the analogy and no doubt, have succeeded in riling up some people. Just allow me this: Get an internship in your dream job, then you’ll find out whether you can live with the person you love. If you can, the question posed above is moot.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHAT is the weight of public opinion? It is heaviest during election time, when everybody gets to vote. How they vote is science and for political parties and academics to interpret. Only the individual knows why he voted the way he did – and sometimes not even that.

Public opinion, that vague phenomenon, can be viewed in a positive way as reflecting the community sentiments which may or may not be based on rational grounds. Politicians know that they have to get public opinion on their side to be voted in or to simply garner support for an agenda.

Or, public opinion can simply be viewed as the baying of the mob. Whether you think it’s positive or negative depends on which side of the fence you are on. So if public opinion is aligned with your own views, it must be correct and something must be done about it. If it doesn’t, then those who hold such views are misguided, ill-informed or just plain idiots.

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When Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam talked to TODAY about the weight of public opinion in the review of laws, I did a double-take. It seemed odd to me that such a tough minister would consider public reaction a factor until I read this further along in the story: ‘’But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.’’

He’s speaking generally, he said in his rebuke of academic Donald Low.

As an example, he spoke of American Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old. Many saw the four year jail term as too lenient. Mr Shanmugam had directed his ministries to re-look this.

In the TODAY story, however, is this:

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

This is a pertinent point. Sometimes it’s not so much public opinion that matters – since they can always be dismissed – but the opinion of a powerful person.

The former G lawyer didn’t give an example but you wonder what prosecutors will do now since the minister announced last month that there will be a review of maid abuser penalties. This comes after a Singaporean couple was convicted for starving their maid. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Commentators are also waiting to see what sort of measures will be taken against so-called fake news, and announcement that came immediately on the heels of the G’s failure to get the courts to agree that it can use the Protection from Harassment Act.

Unlike past Home Affairs and Law ministers, Mr Shanmugam – who holds both portfolios – is well-known for speaking up about court cases.

And unlike members of the public who can face contempt of court charges, he said in Parliament last year (Mar 1), “public officials like myself can make statements if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained.”  This is in response to public speculation that 14-year old Benjamin Lim had committed suicide as a result of police investigations.

There is also the forum of Parliament which conveys immunity to its members.

He has never been one to keep quiet.

Some examples:

a. Mr Shanmugam’s comments at a public forum in May 2010 on Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong sparked a judicial review of Yong’s clemency process. Mr Shanmugam said: “If Yong escapes the death penalty, drug barons will think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

Yong’s lawyer, Mr M Ravi, felt that Mr Shanmugam’s comments could prejudice the decision of the President to grant clemency. The review was dismissed in August 2010 because it was argued that – constitutionally – Cabinet, in which Mr Shanmugam is a member, could in fact advise the President on matters of clemency.

b. In April 22, 2015 he said the actions of the boy who attacked foreign worker to practice martial arts was “sickening conduct, the kind of conduct that you would not approve if somebody did it to animals.” Earlier that week, the boy was sentenced to 10 days jail. The Attorney-General Chamber’s appeal a few days later for stiffer sentencing was dismissed. You can say that the judge wasn’t influenced by what he said. But it does cast a pall over the verdict if it went the G’s way.

c. In April 2015, he came out strongly to castigate the man who slapped teen terror Amos Yee, saying in a Facebook post: “Rule of Law means respecting the legal process. If everyone starts taking the law into his or her own hands, then we will no longer be a civilised society. I hope that the attacker will be caught quickly, and is dealt with appropriately.”

He is right to warn against vigilante action, but it would have been better coming from the police. Because people would expect that the culprit, since he’s been the subject of ministerial comment, would be dealt with heavily by the courts. The man was sentenced to three weeks jail.

d. He nearly made a police report when Ms Sangeetha Thanapal misrepresented his comments online in August 2015. Her Facebook post was “inaccurate and seditious”, he said. But he later decided not to do so after meeting her as she had no ill-will. Ms Thanapal on her part apologised on Facebook, saying what she had posted earlier was “unjustified”.

e. More recently (Oct 22, 2016), he announced that he would be filing a police report over “completely false” allegations made by sociopolitical site States Times Review. The site claimed that Mr Shanmugam had said that “Eurasians are considered Indians” for Presidential candidacy and downplayed the chances of a Eurasian becoming the President.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam expressed shock that “such outright falsehoods” could be spread online.  A check by TODAY the day after his post found that no report had been filed yet. It is unclear if a report was eventually made.

Now, a minister making a police report carries a lot more weight than reports filed by ordinary people. Face it, not everybody’s opinion is equal.

It is correct that public opinion should play a part in our laws. Some archaic holdovers like the criminalisation of oral sex has been thrown out of the window and the death penalty is only mandatory for egregious cases. Marital rape might well make it into the books. These are a reflection of changing societal norms and expectations.

But what if some people think that the laws of defamation here are too strict? And that more young people are getting soft on drugs as was reported in MSM today?

Then a judgement call must be made about what is fair and what is right for Singapore. This is what we elected people for, as representatives of Parliament and not as delegates. We vote them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.

It’s not always public opinion that matters or has an impact, minister. It’s yours. If you’re carrying a big stick, maybe you should tread softly.

 

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by Suhaile Md

Suhaile attended the last two More Than Just Series of Dinner conversations on race. One of the underlying questions participants grappled with was this: Is there always a clear line between what’s racist and what’s not? The discussions in the dinner itself did not cover race-based jokes. So here’s a short reflection on situations in which race-based jokes, in his opinion, are acceptable.

I ONCE had a stranger do the “indian head shake” barely five minutes into our conversation. He changed his accent too for added effect. A lame attempt at humour that hardened the ice rather than break it.

To be fair, I had cracked a few self-deprecating jokes on stage during a presentation earlier. But the jokes were not racial. Perhaps my self-deprecation led him to believe that I’m not “the sensitive sort”, as some like to say when their racial jokes fall flat.

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Truth to tell, my friends and I – of various races – frequently engage in race-based jokes that would well, embarrass others outside the group. But they are very close friends. I could never fathom why some people thought it ok to walk up to a stranger and make such “jokes”.

When I ask them, they usually reply, “but my Indian friend is ok with it leh, so not racist what, why you so sensitive?” Or they say: “But X can make such jokes why I cannot?”

Ah, well, context my friends. Context is everything.

Look at race-based jokes like you would butt-slaps. That’s right, the childish, nonsensical game some kids engage in: “HAHA I HIT YOUR BACKSIDE!”

With that analogy in mind, here’s a quick guide (and please don’t kill me if you disagree).
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a. Do it to a stranger and it’s criminal.

b. Not all friends are cool with it no matter how close you are. Respect that.

c. It’s never appropriate in formal settings, even if you’re the best of friends.

d. Never use it as a weapon no matter how justifiably upset and angry you are. It’s humiliating.

e. Also, please don’t try it out with people you’ve barely met.

f. Don’t dish it out if you’re not comfortable being at the receiving end.

g. Too much of it gets tiring very fast.

h. Not everyone understands this sort of… friendly banter. And not understanding it doesn’t mean they are “too sensitive”. So don’t be a jerk about it.

i. Being cool with it between friends does not make one a sadomasochist (or in the case of race, self-hating “insert race”)

j. You need to be really close friends to even consider it… and these friends are often the first to rush to your aid when sh*t hits the fan.

k. When in doubt, just don’t.

 

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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.

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