The following article first appeared in the Singapore Chinese daily, Lianhe ZaoBao’s Bilingual Commentary Column, on 6 January 2001. Chinese translation by Lianhe ZaoBao.
As the world is moving towards the Global Village era, with freer movements of people and instant communications between countries, more of the hitherto homogeneous societies are becoming plural ones. The consequential adjustments by the natives and newcomers are often traumatic.
Viewed from both the historical and current standpoints, racism is demonstrably still one of the greatest dangers facing mankind today, and will continue to exercise the minds of rational-thinking people for a long time to come. In our own time racial conflicts, and religious bigotry, have polarised or torn apart countries and communities, and inflicted untold miseries on their people and retarding their national development.
We in Singapore are most fortunate to have racial harmony and religious freedom, thanks to the farsightedness of our ever vigilant leaders and the strict laws against anyone stirring up racial or religious animosities. This is augmented by the firm desire of the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans to keep it that way. While we enjoy an enviable reputation for good racial relations, there is, unfortunately, not much spontaneous social interaction among the races outside of the work environment, despite that more public avenues now exist for them to do so.
It is, of course, human nature everywhere for people to feel more comfortable in the company of their own kind. But for any multi-racial society with multi-culturalism to flourish, it is essential that its ethnic components must strive to understand and appreciate each other’s way of life. This would help to remove any in-built prejudices and misconceptions due to sheer ignorance, unfounded apprehensions or apathy and bring the different races closer.
In view of our colonial past and racial mix, English has been the dominant language of administration, business and education, and the vehicle of communication among the various races here. Without it, Singaporeans of different extractions will cease to communicate. The pervasive soft power of the English language is such that many Singaporeans, understandably, are more attracted to the Western culture and influences than to their own ethnic roots. Consequently, they tend to have lesser interest in the cultural heritage of their forebears and those of their fellow citizens.
In light of the factors mentioned earlier, these are formidable obstacles to promoting greater social interaction among Singaporeans. Unfamiliarity and lack of genuine interest in each other’s culture and way of life are, in my view, two major impediments that need to be overcome. As a positive first step, we should begin to take a more active interest in the arts and culture of the other racial groups. Knowing rudiments of each other’s language and traditions would certainly make this a more meaningful and pleasurable experience. But it is a difficult task, especially for the older Singaporeans.
The answer probably lies with the younger people. Parents and our educational institutions have a vital role to play in inculcating the right attitudes in our young during their formative years. With concerted and sustained efforts by all concerned Singaporeans, racial harmony should attain a new dimension when the next generation of citizens take their rightful place in society.
Lam Pin Foo