In a documentary that takes an unprecedented look at racial prejudice and privilege, presenter Janil Puthucheary finds out if Singaporeans are ready to have an open discussion on race.
SINGAPORE: When Dr Janil Puthucheary was approached to host a documentary looking at race relations in Singapore, it seemed “such a crazy idea” that he thought the executive producer from Channel NewsAsia was joking.
“Her opening line was, ‘I want to do a documentary about race to find out if we (Singaporeans) are all racist,’” said Dr Puthucheary, “I mean, she was a little bit extreme to just provoke the conversation. But I remember my reaction was, ‘This will never happen, no one’s going to talk to us about it.’”
But to Dr Puthucheary’s surprise, over the five months of filming – hitting the streets, bars and institutions to interview academics, celebrities, sportsmen, taxi drivers and school children to find out where Singaporeans really stand on race relations – his interviewees did not shy away from the challenging topic.
Said the chairman of OnePeople.sg, the body which works to promote racial harmony: “They were very willing to talk about some of these things, knowing that it was going to become part of a public documentary.
“I’m hoping it will be engaging enough that people will take the message seriously, and think about how to take this forward and have deeper conversations about race.”
Watch: Sneak peek of the documentary Regardless of Race, and Janil Puthucheary's reflections on making it
Produced by Channel NewsAsia, the 45-minute-long Regardless Of Race - which will air on Aug 15 at 8pm - investigates perceptions of race in multicultural Singapore.
The documentary features the results of one of the largest nation-wide surveys on race – involving 2,000 respondents, and specially commissioned by Channel NewsAsia in partnership with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
The producers and Dr Puthucheary also conducted a social experiment to expose the privilege gap between the majority race and the minority races, which proved an eye-opening experience for all participants.
The documentary shows that it is indeed possible for Singaporeans to have “moderate, reasonable, polite, respectful conversations about what are some of the most difficult subjects we have to deal with”, said Dr Puthucheary. “And we need to have a bit more of this, so that people will understand each other and understand their own biasness.”
Dr Puthucheary interviewing local comedian, Kumar, on the fine line between racism and humour.
Ahead of the documentary’s premiere on Aug 15, Dr Puthucheary reflects on his journey in an interview. Here are excerpts:
Q: In the show, one taxi driver said he did not think he was racist, but then went on to describe why he picked passengers based on their race. How did it make you feel to hear those stereotypes about your own race?
There’s the conflation of prejudice and racism. And he, the taxi driver, Uncle Steven, has prejudice. And he understands he has prejudice.
He still has to pick up his customers. He might not always have a good experience with some customers, or he may have a bias about some customers. But then he sees it is important that he behaves in a non-racist way, and he thinks of himself as non-racist.
And it is that separation - that fine line of racism versus bias and prejudices. We are not going to get rid of people’s prejudices and biases. It is about how you cope with it. And in a strange way, Uncle Steven has some of the most insight... He understands his biasness and prejudice, and he understands that it is important not to be racist.
That is kind of what we need to achieve.
Q: Do you think that because you are of a minority race or that you are a politician, there will be a perception that you have a certain agenda?
(I felt) like, are you sure you want me to do this (programme)? Is it going to be good for the show that I’m the person involved? But as the chairman of OnePeople.sg, part of my agreement is to look at these issues and to deal with them. So I didn’t want to shy away and ‘taichi’ the responsibility to somebody else.
Being in the minority race and also being in politics, yes it was going to have an impact on people’s perceptions. There are biases and this is part of it, right? You cannot hide the fact nor should you try to.
On the other hand, there are things you can say if you are part of that race. There are some jokes in there that, if it was not an Indian saying it, they would come across as different - but it is okay because I said it, or someone else who was Indian said it.
Q: In the Channel NewsAsia-IPS survey of 2,000 respondents, what key findings stood out for you?
There were a lot of things. One which was quite worrying, (was) the fact that a large group of parents (41 per cent) don’t talk to their kids about racism being bad, that this is not an appropriate behaviour. That’s a bit worrying, because that has an impact on how kids are growing up and where the future of this conversation and this issue is going.
Watch: Townsville Primary students talk about comments on their race
Q: You spoke to a group of children from Townsville Primary School about race, such as whether they had been teased because of the colour of their skin.
The conversation I had with the school children was interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, they understood that this was an important subject. And they talked about it in positive tones – like, what they did on Racial Harmony Day, how they have friends of different races, different religions.
And when I asked them about problems that they had or how they felt, actually, they were very honest and frank. “People call me this, and I don’t like it. And I get very upset.”
One of the other reasons it was interesting is that many adults assume kids only start to have these types of thoughts and ideas at a later age, but actually it starts fairly young.
And that is one of the reasons why we do need to talk to our kids from quite a young age about these things. It cannot be that just because it is happening in school, it doesn’t have to happen in the home.
Watch: How participants react after an experiment on social privilege
Q: In one social experiment, you asked participants a series of questions about being treated a certain way based on race, such as at job interviews. They took a step back or forward depending on their experiences; their final positions showed a privilege gap. Afterwards you spoke to them – what do you think they took away?
I think they took away different things depending on their world view and their perspective. But I think they all took one thing away – that actually, they were able to have an open and productive conversation about race and privilege and tolerance with each other, which they hadn’t expected to do.
Everyone opened up, everyone talked about how they felt when they saw how the experiment played out and where they were standing. Everyone tried to imagine how the other participant might feel - they tried to put themselves in the mind of the other participant. So that was very heartening.
Q: What did you hope to achieve by doing the show?
Now, I do not think that in the 45 minutes of the show we covered everything, but I hope we took the right approach, which is to at least have the conversation about some of the deeper, more important issues.
I’m hoping it will make people sit up and think. I’m hoping it will be engaging enough that people will take the message seriously and think about how to take this forward and have deeper conversations about race.
Q: For example, what are some activities OnePeople.sg has in store?
Our primary focus is having dialogues and conversations, and creating that kind of moderated common space - a safe space, for dialogues. We’ll be doing a lot more.
In particular, we want to reach out to groups of people that we haven’t had opportunities to do so yet. And extend our conversations to wider groups of youths as well. We try to publicise our efforts to have people come forward to have discussions, and more ground-up partnerships and so forth. So we’re going to do a lot more of that.
Regardless Of Race premieres on Channel NewsAsia on Aug 15 at 8pm, as part of the CNA Signatures belt of innovative programmes. You can also watch it live streamed here