Talking Race and Religion: The Phantom Menace

Whatever its little detours may be, ultimately, the goal of racism is dominance. – Albert Memmi

‘Race’ is like an idea that simply finds it difficult to die. There are people who would attribute a good half of World War II to the neurosis and paranoia of one man, namely Hitler, but the most disturbing thing should be that the legacy of such obsession with race lives on long beyond him, mutating into different strands in the world – the model of a nation based exclusively on race (eg Israel), even the idea of race as a human gene pool to be maintained for superiority like in cattle breeding (eg Singapore). Somehow, a figure like this will always have his admirers, if only out of fascination for the seemingly unlimited power held by a single mortal being. There is probably also something admirable about the efficiency, even if it is efficiency that involves inequality and cruelty.

‘Clash of civilisations’ all over again

The latest variant on the idea of ‘race’ has been encapsulated last decade in the pseudo-scientific concept of the ‘clash of civilisations’, as coined by Samuel Huntington, and there is no need here to repeat the rhetorics stemming from 9/11 and the Iraq War once again ad nauseam, except to point out that by way of a half-baked concept like ‘civilisation’, the word ‘race’ tends to be conflated now with the word ‘religion’, as a new source of fear following the collapse of the communist ideology. Sadly, with the trends of migration today, there seems a heightened sense of ethnic or cultural differences that are reduced to such terms. Last year in Germany, Bundesbank (central bank) board member Thilo Sarrazin stirred controversy with the book Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab propagating his claim that Turkish and Arab immigrants are neither willing nor capable of integration. The last straw was when he was quoted invoking the old idea of ‘genes’ as something which makes Jews or Basques different from other people. He was expelled from the board of the Bundesbank and fellow members of Social Democratic Party even attempted proceedings to exclude him from the party.

A book with similar discourse on race and integration has now stirred some controversy in Singapore too. The problem is, the remarks have come from a man that the Prime Minister himself can depart from but is unable to remove from the cabinet (it’s an uniquely Singapore situation, let’s just say it would be an unfilial thing to do according to Confucian ethics). Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (who holds the post of ‘minister mentor’ today even two decades after a 31-year tenure, something which ought to be the envy of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt now) has said in a new book entitled Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going: “I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam. I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.”

He not only suggested that the Malay Muslim community in Singapore will have to be less strict in their practice of Islam in order to facilitate integration, but also opined that they will never catch up with other communities. Criticism on his comments came rather quickly from Malaysian leaders, who described him as a ‘racist militant fighter’, ‘a very senile old man’, or simply one with a mindset stuck in the 1960s, a period of prejudices and suspicions against Muslims; for a moment, it seemed like a repeat telecast of an old feud across the straits was threatening to air again. Then came reaction from local Malay Muslim groups slowly in the later part of the week. Apparently time was needed to deliberate, and one is well aware that on a serious national issue like ethnicity, it is not useful just being candid about it. The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) for one released a statement saying that MM Lee’s comments “have hurt the community and are potentially divisive”, and that fundamentally, “there is nothing wrong for any community in Singapore in being distinct, for it to carry out its religious practices, or in asserting its identity”. It added that it is “not mutually exclusive for a good Muslim to be a good Singaporean”, that in fact one would be duty bound by the religion to be one.

How many mistakes can you spot in this statement?

Clearly nobody from within the society so far has wanted ethnic differences to escalate into a ‘worst-case scenario’. The way forward is always to put the past of our grandfathers behind and focus on the reality now. But politics aside, it is imperative that the young generation of Singaporeans learn the right thing, not the wrong thing. Let us analyse carefully what is wrong with Lee’s comments here. First of all, the very word ‘race’ that we are all so used to seeing on our ICs: that comes from an outdated concept that was thought to be scientific back in the 19th century, what Darwin would even refer to as subspecies back then, and people were hence divided into racial categories of ‘Black’, ‘White’, ‘American Indian’ and ‘Asian or Pacific Islander’ for instance. Under racialist doctrines, it is believed that physical and moral characteristics are interdependent, or that physical differences determine cultural differences. It may be that some are now using ‘race’ as a shorthand for ethnicity or descent by linguistic differences, but the word still lends itself to abuse.

Secondly, ‘religions and races’ are mentioned in one breath here as if they are synonymous with each other, which is akin to the problematic grand theory of ‘clash of civilisations’. If one says that it is simply equivalent to the concept of ethnicity in the Singapore system, that will be another problem to point out. The artificial grouping of people into Chinese, Malay/Muslim, Indian for social services in the form of CDAC, Mendaki and Sinda simply leave people who are Indian Muslims, for instance, in an identity crisis.

Thirdly, the utterance that ‘all religions and races’ can integrate ‘except Islam’ sounds dangerously similar to Islamophobic speech in Europe. It is a sweeping statement that should never be thus formulated by a statesman, no matter what the context is that precedes or follows, unless it is intentionally calculated to promote fear and prejudice. And by the way, unlike in Europe, we are not discussing immigration policies here, we are talking about our own citizens here if we understand correctly.

Fourthly, a proposition like this conveniently leaves out other markers of people as individuals, such as language, education level or social class that may affect one’s behaviour. An English-speaking Peranakan Chinese with university education would behave very differently from a Teochew-speaking hawker. There are always many factors to consider. It is inappropriate, for instance, to even bring into question the loyalty of Malays as Singaporeans just because Mas Selamat had a hundred relatives or friends who might not have turned him staight to the police. We need to be precise as to whether the issue is ‘race’ or personal ties. If we see an entire Chinese family working in a same department, we may call it nepotism or guanxi, but we don’t say it is a racial issue.

Finally, where is the objective substantiation that Malay Muslims are not integrating unlike others? Before any stereotyping, we need a comprehensive social study with statistics to see how young people of different ethnicities choose friends, and whether inter-marriage indeed is impossible between Malays/Muslims and other ethnic groups, whereas Chinese, Indians/Hindus or Christians in contrast have little problem with marriage with a different community, and what are the other factors that may come into play. (If anybody asks for my observation, I would generalise that many Chinese girls here are more sombong than Malay girls and difficult to socialise with, but surely nobody has to take my word for it without further research.)

Food unfit for thought

The very notable example Lee cited from his own observation of Malays not integrating is that they tend to sit separately while eating in schools and universities so as not to be contaminated. He called this a ‘veil’ among people and his proposed solution for Malays’ integration was: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’ ” Now, the Chinese have the advantage of being relatively free from any religious precepts that will restrict them in eating anything from shark fin to frog legs. So why can’t a Chinese kid start by adjusting one’s diet for a meal and then invite a Malay friend to sit together, instead of brooding about being deemed unclean and feeling insecure all his life without ever making that step?

Interaction is always a two-way street. If we suspect Malays of prejudice based on this, then should we also jump into conclusion that a Chinese is racist just because he would avoid Indian Muslim food stalls, as he is not accustomed to the bau of anything on the menu other than prata and teh tarik? We have to reflect on that. One who complains of veils standing in the way should also think about removing the blinkers around his eyes. And if anybody wants to bring up the issue of tudung, we can talk about it. Do we want to adopt a Western brand of secularism like the French now even without adopting Western democracy wholesale, or do we still believe in a multiculturalism respecting the Asian values and religions of all communities, as the common people assume Singapore is about? If a Malay woman cannot find a job as receptionist even though she can speak English, Malay and Mandarin, do we insist it is her own fault for wearing a tudung? We need to reflect on that too. Telling Muslims to be ‘less strict on Islamic observances’ like this would only invite speculation and alarm. Does it imply all 24-hour coffeeshops here may soon have to sell beer like those restaurants in Beijing, and hire China girls in mini-skirts to serve the beer too?

It is indeed incomprehensible why the Malay Muslim community has to be singled out in this issue of ‘integration’ if they ‘socially do not cause any trouble’, whatever that means. If we are talking about recent issues of tolerance and respect among communitites here, we should in fact note that there was a church group that tried to take over a secular woman’s group, accusing it of being pro-lesbian or whatever, and there was a pastor who ridiculed members who were formerly Buddhist or Taoist. But can we generalise that into any statement about Christians in Singapore? That would have been unfair on our part to all the peace-loving Christians around us. Incidentally, I recall that there was a Malay mother who was at the Pink Dot event two years ago, wearing pink baju and pink tudung in support of her son. Guess she is ‘less strict’ as a mother.

Some members of the LGBT community in Singapore seem to be rejoicing at the moment just because MM Lee said he would still love his grandson even if he is gay, since he is ‘born that way’. I am sorry to interrupt the love and happiness but I think it is premature when legislation itself does not change, in fact it sounds like an old pretext that people at the top have no problem with it, but it is the ‘society’ that will not accept it. So let’s reserve the celebration until the day when lesbian couples are portrayed in a positive light in the state-monitored media, and one does not need to block out their faces as if they are a disgrace, the way some stores in America are shielding off three quarters of a magazine cover featuring Elton John and his adopted baby, just to ‘protect’ the family consumers.

What is multiculturalism?

Today, the word ‘multiculturalism’ is used around the world (ok, I know, we don’t actually use this word in Singapore) to refer generally to the recognition of cultural diversity which includes ethnic and religious minorities, minority nations and indigenous people. Some even include the rights of sexual minorities and the disabled under the term. Part of the challenge is not just a politics of recognition in terms of status, but also a politics of redistribution with regards to economic inequality.

If we seriously want ‘integration’ here (hopefully not ‘partial assimilation’), there is a lot to think about, not just enhancing youth programmes for inter-ethnic exchange, but also rethinking the paradigm of self-help or social service bodies divided along colour lines for instance. And how about SAP schools which are distinct and separate with their emphasis on Chinese language? Would that be a problem too? It is very tricky when you have different standards for different ethnic groups. When it comes to the ‘fact’ that the Malay Muslim community is distinct and separate, one says that they are not fitting in with the Singapore society at large, so they have to change their habits and mindset. But when it comes to a poll that says 90 per cent among Singaporeans accept a non-Chinese leader, one says it is not reliable, just utter nonsense, and in other words, the majority already has their mindset fixed, so the minorities have to accept it. Does one see the logic of the game here?

Curiously, Singapore also just saw a piece of news last week about Raffles Institution – a school equivalent to the Ivy League in political significance – taking on a new mission, to scout for poor but bright boys especially from the ethnic minorities. Should we read this as a hint that Singapore may one day have its own Obama? Perhaps some of those boys will aspire to that and try to change the system from within. Well to them one can only be obliged to say good luck. They will need to be trusted or the experience can turn into an infernal affair between two worlds.

Meanwhile, a piece of entertainment from Sentosa too: the Singapore authorites simulated a terror attack at an Integrated Resort, in an unprecedented large-scale exercise involving 400 resort staff and government officers. As a parcel exploded, three gunmen stormed into the Universal Studios theme park to open a fire. It was probably a good demonstration of how much Singapore’s national security is inspired by Hollywood movies. Do we hear anybody crying out ‘social defence!’ as part of the slogan of ‘total defence’?

Fear and bigotry are the path to the dark side. Build bridges, not dig trenches, we must. May the strength of peace be with us.



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2 responses to “Talking Race and Religion: The Phantom Menace

  1. G

    Bravo. That is an excellent piece.:)

  2. M

    A bold and thought-provoking post! I recently read a book “Understanding White Privilege” by Frances Kendall; ignoring American-specific history and references, you could replace “white” with “Chinese” and you start to realize that being Chinese in Singapore endows you with an unearned set of privileges. And it is abuse of these privileges of a race majority that perpetuates an unsaid systemic racism that allows for such a statement to be made.

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