Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That Facebook post by Minister Shanmugam

After a series of incidents involving racist comments being circulated on the internet, I would have least expected the Law Minister to enter into the fray to share a racist email that he received from a resident.  It was also somewhat uncharacteristic of a PAP politician to point out a negative aspect of race relations in Singapore instead of emphasizing the positive aspects.

Perhaps, he was genuinely taken aback by the email (considering its racist content and considering Shanmugam is himself an Indian) and the audacity of the resident to threaten to vote against the PAP over this issue.  So taken aback that he couldn't help but post the comment on Facebook. 

Perhaps, he was subtly using this incident to build a narrative of how it is wrong for the government to formulate policy on the basis of popular views on the ground or on the basis of every individual complaint.  This incident is definitely a stark example of what politicians should not pander to.  A racist resident that has problems with his neighbours and demands that something be done about the neighbours, failing which he'd vote against the PAP.  No right minded citizen would consider that a Minister or MP should pander to such demands of a citizen. 

I attended a Singapore Legal Forum on Saturday, 18 August 2012.  There was a closed door discussion with the Law Minister and the request that was made was that none of the matters discussed that day should be reported outside.  So, I am not going to set out the issues verbatim.  But, one impression that the Minister sought to convey through an array of information and through some 'softball' questions thrown at him was about the need to avoid populist policy making.  Should the government feel so threatened by voter backlash that it resorts to populist policies?  Or should it be responsible and do the 'right' thing?

Presented in that fashion, the answer is a no-brainer.  Unreasonable, irrational and irresponsible demands of the majority of the electorate should not be the basis on which policies are formulated.  Policies ought to be formulated on the basis of what is for the greater good of Singaporean society. 

This example of racist comments by a resident coupled with a threat of using the vote fits into the overall narrative of irresponsible voter demands and the response of a responsible government.  Perhaps, the Law Minister was sharing this email as part of the overall narrative.  Eventually, that narrative would help to convince the 'rational' amongst us as to the merits of some of the unpopular PAP policies.  The subtle messaging is that 'unpopular' = 'rational and responsible' and 'popular' = 'irrational and irresponsible'.

Perhaps, I am reading too much into all of this.  Perhaps, the man was just (understandably) taken aback by the fact that some resident had the gall to send a racist email like that to him (and a few weeks after receiving the email he decided to post about it on Facebook).

"I received a complaint from one of my residents, a few weeks ago. He is Singaporean. He was upset that he had to "tolerate" his Indian neighbours. The resident protested at having to "smell thier Indian sweaty smell and unwashed bodies". He described the Indian family as living in squalor and complained about their poor social status. He then listed other Indians whom he found unpleasant - th...e Indian man smoking in the lift, the Indian woman with her dog, and his daughter's Indian neighbour who walks around in a sarong, and said that he didn't want his grandson growing up looking at Indian men in sarong.

The complaint about smoking in the lift is understandable.

The rest of the complaints taken together however, are quite disturbing. The resident actually sent me an email setting this out. The resident appears to see his neighbour's race as being the problem and the overt prejudice is quite troubling. Most Singaporeans would not agree with his perspective. We need to make sure that things stay positive between people of different races."
After some comments posted on his facebook page, the Minister made a clarification in a follow-up post:

"A number of ppl have asked for more details on my post on gentleman who complained to me about Indians. He is an elderly person ( I refer to his grandchildren in th post ). He is born n bred here. I blv all th ppl he is complaining about are also Sporeans. He sent th complaint via email. some have asked or implied - whether he is referring to me , dont think so (!) . Have helped him previously, so he started off his email by thanking me for th previous help. He ended off his email by telling me that if the problems are not taken care of, he will know which way to vote in th next elections."
Of course, all of this is still part of the overall messaging that we get from the PAP about the fragile state of race relations in Singapore and how we can descend into chaos at any point in time if we do not stay vigilant. 

My take on racism in Singapore is as follows:
1) racial stereotyping is pretty common in Singapore and all races are guilty of doing this
2) racist jokes and comments are common enough and many members of the minority communities have learned how to live with them even if it might hurt now and then
3) there are instances where racism has played a part in employment and promotion issues
4) on the whole, most Singaporeans are able to tolerate each others' habits and practices although we may not be a genuine melting pot.
5) on a personal level many Singaporeans are able to identify with each other as Singaporeans regardless of our race (and hence the obvious distinction drawn by many between foreigners and Singaporeans even if the foreigners might be of the same race). 
6) our state of race relations doesn't place us in a fragile state. 

These days I have stopped reacting angrily to racist remarks and I must say that the comments highlighted by the Law Minister did not instigate any emotional response in me.  Strange.  As I age, I must be turning less and less human.  :-)

In March, I wrote about my reaction to the comment by Shimun Lai.
There may be some difference between what Shimun Lai commented and what this resident has emailed.  But, in essence, I don't feel threatened by such views or comments. 
There are enough right-thinking individuals in this society and such comments are not going to undermine us.


Anonymous said...

Agree about subtle messaging.

Paul said...

Do you really think that an older computer literate Singaporean would complain to the Singaporean Indian Law Minister about Singapore Indians??? Unless dementia has set in. In that case, it is not racial fault lines which are being highlighter here but rather limited access to care for dementia patients.

This sounds to me like another own goal.

Anonymous said...

Nothing like another round of NS to cure it or was that Singaporean exempted?

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