Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said society should call out bigoted views, even if they are privately held.
He put up a statement in a Facebook post on June 8 in response to an incident where a Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer, who has been identified as Tan Boon Lee, directed racist remarks at an interracial couple on the streets in Singapore, just because the man and the woman did not belong to the same ethnic group.
Lee Kuan Yew had private and public views on interracial relationships
Far from being an unique view, Singh highlighted that Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew also had his concerns regarding interracial relationships, which is a subject not unheard of in Singapore.
Singh wrote: “In the 2011 book Hard Truths, our first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once shared that if his daughter wished to marry a black African, he would have no qualms of telling her: 'You’re mad'. He also expressed reservations about inter-racial marriages.”
“Paradoxically in the same book though, Mr Lee identified ‘inter-marriages’ as an example of how some racial communities integrate better than others," Singh added.
“It would seem that Mr Lee had both public and private views about inter-racial marriages and these turned on the context of his observations about specific aspects of Singapore society.”
Reservations about interracial unions not just a Chinese concern
Singh also said such reservations cut across racial and religious lines in Singapore.
He wrote: “Opposition to inter-racial unions especially amongst the older generation is not unheard of. For this group, you don’t need to be a member of the majority Chinese community to hope that your son or daughter would not marry out of their race/religion.”
“I know of Indian and Malay parents of Mr Lee’s generation who feel the same way.”
Attitudes on race do change
However, such reservations can give way to acceptance over time.
Singh said parents do grow to become more accepting of interracial relationships when they “see the happiness in their children’s eyes over the choices made, or when the grandchildren come along”.
Crossed line in confronting couple
But he described the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff member's actions in confronting the interracial couple as “a serious and fatal misjudgment”.
What the lecturer did in public, by directing his remarks at the couple, is unlike other parents who tend to keep their views private.
“Bigoted views, even if privately held, have a nasty habit of showing themselves up opportunistically in day-to-day circumstances,” Singh said.
“It would be important for those who host such private views to reflect deeply on how these can hurt themselves and more importantly, those around them."
“When it comes to racism - there can be no ifs or buts.”
Making society safe for all
One way forward in dealing with this issue of bigotry is for those who come across such instances to voice out, which will keep Singapore secular and open, and to allow everyone a chance to participate in and shape society.
Singh said: “As a multi-racial and increasingly multi-cultural, but most importantly – secular society – the public space is a shared space which is for all Singaporeans – regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation etc to participate actively in.”
“We are of course entitled to our private views – but should we not as a society call out bigoted private views with a view to make the public space safer and accommodative for all?
“Doing so would be a learning opportunity to self-reflect, unpack our preconceived notions and in doing so, determine what sort of society we aspire to be.”
Swift backlash a hopeful sign
Despite the unsavoury nature of this incident, it has shown that Singaporeans of all stripes are able to recognise what is wrong and condemn it promptly.
“That many of all ages and persuasions have done so in response to Mr Tan's racist diatribe, in a determined, yet restrained manner, represents a silver lining," he said.
"The swift backlash from the public and politicians of all stripes have also shown that such views are not acceptable in the Singapore of today, even if we continue to live with the uncomfortable truth that they persist."
Differences will exist but society experiencing 'tectonic shifts'
Not only must society recognise what is wrong, it must also make adjustments to accommodate others.
“The secular public space belongs to us all, not one single racial or religious group or community. And there, we practice tolerance, give-and-take and make adjustments so that everyone is a proud member of the Singapore family,” Singh said.
He also said Singapore is transforming and that “tectonic shifts” are currently taking place with societal norms here.
And as the country evolves, differences in cultural and generational norms stemming from such incidents will continue to occur, he added.
He wrote: “Tectonic shifts are taking place with regard to societal norms in Singapore. And in my estimation, this is being felt most strongly between younger and older Singaporeans. There will continue to be episodes of divergent cultural and generational norms."
Workers' Party will work towards eradicating bigotry and racism
Singh also wrote that his party will work to eradicate bigotry and racism.
He wrote: “Going forward, my colleagues in the Workers’ Party and I will appeal for greater understanding and mutual respect from all, even as we work to promote efforts to eradicate the bigotry and racism that many Singaporeans - both young and old - seek to consign to history.”
Top photos via Pritam Singh & Dave Parkash