In his book, “Hard Truths – to keep Singapore going”, former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was asked what he thought Muslims “needed to do to integrate.” (“Hard Truths”, Page 229.)
Mr Lee replied: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you’.”
The Straits Times reporter who raised the question, Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim, followed up with: “But there are other ways to integrate without sharing a meal, surely?”
Mr Lee then went on to relate an incident to show how times have changed. The incident he cited involved Mr Othman Wok, former MP, who was served “special food”, even though Mr Othman had not asked for it, at a farewell dinner for retiring MPs. Mr Lee said he then asked the butler why Mr Othman was served “different food”. The butler replied, “Sir, the rules are all Muslims get Muslim food now because otherwise there could be a lot of unhappiness.”
Mr Lee’s views on the integration of our different races, and on Malays in particular which he expressed in the book, was subsequently denounced by many quarters following the publication of the book.
Racial integration has become a hot topic of discussion in Singapore in recent times. How we engage in dialogue will determine the path that we take, going forward. And Ms Zuraidah is correct – that there are other ways to integrate than just sharing a meal. This is where I would like to present some suggestions for discussion, to go beyond the anger which some have expressed, the fear the government has, and look at some areas which I mentioned in this article for Yahoo where we can change or improve.
I would like to be clear here that these are just my suggestions. They may be good or bad, right or wrong. They may even be off-the-mark entirely. I hope to be corrected in such instances. My intention is to see if we can move beyond the current situation and look at specific ways we can foster better understanding and, for lack of a better word, integration.
In this article, I would like to focus on the four self-help groups in Singapore, and how they are structured and what improvements can be made to them to lessen the apparent segregation of the different ethnic groups.
Singapore’s four self-help groups – CDAC (Chinese), Sinda (Indians), Mendaki (Malays), and the Eurasian Association (Eurasians) – do good work. They cater to each particular demographic of people, reaching out to needy members of their ethnic communities.
However, the way they are structured separately has given rise to certain concerns, which include:
- They segregate the needy into racial boxes.
- They emphasise “race” when it comes to handing out aid.
- Recipients of aid, and Singaporeans in general, see themselves as different and separate as a result.
- It creates the impression that if you are of a particular ethnicity, only those in your ethnic group are supposed to render help to you, or that you can only get help from your own race or ethnic group.
- This segregation does not help national unity.
There have also been concerns raised about the amount of aid each self-help group receives from the government.
The government’s stance, however, is based on the argument that members of their own ethnicity would know better what kinds of help their needy require and how best to deliver this help in a more timely fashion and more effectively. It has also taken the position that it is better for us to recognise that each ethnic group has its own peculiar situations and problems which only these groups would understand, and to recognise these openly – through these different help groups.
For sure, there are certain situations and problems where each group would know best. There is no argument about this. The question is: does this justify all the problems – perceived or otherwise – which the current approach throws up, such as those mentioned above? And is this the best way we can go about it? What about the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of such groups – which runs contrary, at least apparently, to the government’s own effort to integrate the various races?
What could be done is to have an umbrella grouping under which all Singaporeans, whatever their race or ethnicity, receive help. And within this organisation, lets call it the National Assistance Organisation (NAO), staff should be a good mix of people from all the races.
In short, perhaps the four self-help groups could all be subsumed under the NAO.
Recipients with problems which are special or peculiar to their ethnicity, race or religion will still be catered to – through assistance provided by staff of their own race or religion who would understand these problems better.
Other than this, anyone who requires help will receive it ordinarily.
Just like an MP who sees his residents at his Meet The People sessions. He does not limit it to seeing only residents of his own ethnicity. He sees everyone and renders help as best he can and if he cannot provide the necessary help, he can involve those who can, who have specialised skills or knowledge or expertise.
The NAO will be seen (and indeed also in practice) as one where one’s race or ethnicity is secondary to one being a Singapore citizen. It does not dismiss one’s race or ethnicity or that one’s problems may be peculiar or special to one’s race or religion. Indeed, it recognises that there are some situations which recipients face which will require special considerations and expertise for assistance to be given, and the necessary help will be rendered.
What the NAO does is to de-emphasise the racial segregation which the current structure of the self-help groups has adopted – a segregation which is unhelpful in our aim to build a shared identity.
In brief, the message sent out if an NAO were to be created, would be:
You may be Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian or of other races, but we are all together and we will render help to you as one. At the same time, we also recognise that there are situations where you need specialised help which require an understanding and knowledge of your race, religion or ethnicity, and we will also provide that under the NAO.
An umbrella NAO will foster our aim of integration by going beyond demarcating Singaporeans by ethnicity or race or religion. It also creates a mindset, among all levels, that we are all Singaporeans and we should and will render help to all as Singaporeans.
Instead of sending out the unhelpful message that each ethnicity should help members of their own community, we must make it clear that everyone is Singaporean first and foremost, and that this is not contingent upon your race or ethnic grouping, and we will render help not because you are of a particular race, but because you are Singaporean.
Some may say that this suggestion is sweeping the fault-lines of race and religion under the carpet. Not so. On the contrary, it will be an effort to say that despite the fault-lines, which we recognise, we see everyone as Singaporean, and will render help as Singaporeans, because that is what matters.
The fault-lines will always be there. That is a given in any society. What we must do is to go beyond such a recognition or fear and not let it paralyse us from moving ahead to true unity.
Please do share your thoughts here. And to enable a meaningful discussion, I request that we stick to the issue dispassionately. Any comments which are unhelpful or do not add to the discussion will not be allowed to be posted.