Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Who I am who you are

Racial Harmony - am I? So Jackie Chan's character in his movie of the same name asked after he forgot his identity through amnesia. But that's exactly what we should asked ourselves in this multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national country of ours. Throw a stone into a crowd and you can bet it will hit a person who speaks a different 'mother' language, or who speaks English but has a different skin colour from yours, or who looks the 'same kind' as you but speaks in a language totally foreign to yours. The social makeup of Singapore has become so diverse that it dwarfs my experience growing up in the Naval Base, where you can find Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasians all living within a community called the Naval Base.

Why are all these important? Well, when you have different peoples living amongst you, some of whom look very different and, to others, not too 'pleasant', because of smell, colour and even diet, you will get conflicts and misunderstandings sooner rather than later. Take that unfortunate incident of a Chinese boy bashing up an Indian migrant worker accused of starring at him. There is no doubt that what that boy did was wrong. But part of the problem really, is the lack of understanding and, dare I say, appreciation for people who are different from us. Government policy in Singapore has gone out of the way to get different peoples to interact with each other, but whether people actually do so is not up to the government, but themselves. I would say that, from anecdotal and personal experience, this isn't working insofar as the policy to have a certain racial mix in public housing is concerned. Heck, I don't even know what my Chinese neighbour do for a living, not to speak of a family of a different race. With exceptions, we tend to mind our own business, which can be a virtue, but stifles the development of community and bonding among peoples and families. One problem is our children rarely get to play and talk to people of different races as often as it used to be for me 30 years ago. And I venture to say that that is a problem created by a majority of Singaporeans living out of pigeone-holed highrise apartments, which, ironically, is viewed as one of the most visible symbol of Singapore's success today.

Yes, there are community centres (or clubs as they are unfortunately now called. Club always has the connotation of exclusivity and special interest. Inter-racial interaction and bonding couldn't be further from such settings), public parks and swimming pools. But when was the last time you saw two people of different races mixing naturally with each other in any of these settings?

Without venturing into a long thesis regarding the subject of racial integration, tolerance and social cohesion, it is not hard to see that Singapore will face more problems melding the various races and peoples on this small island of ours in the years to come. Perhaps it is opportune for Singaporeans to travel more and, if nothing, learn to live and let live.

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