SINGAPORE: A “race-blind society” should not be confused with being blind to genuine differences and contexts across race, said Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman on Thursday (Sep 3).
Speaking on the fourth day of the debate on the President’s Address, Dr Maliki said that as Singapore strives for a society without racial prejudice and discrimination, differences exist and must be recognised.
“We must not confuse this with being blind to the genuine differences and contexts across races, neither should we ignore or underestimate the severe and sometimes unintended negative consequences that can easily occur with unrestrained comments on race relations and related issues," he said.
He noted several “fundamental principles” of social inclusion, such as accepting differences across race and approaching these differences “constructively”.
These could be differences in cultural traditions and practices, emphasis on priorities and what matters more in life, or specific community issues that a race group has to grapple with, that require dedicated attention and assistance.
“An inclusive Singapore must recognise, appreciate, understand, and accommodate these differences; and allow this positive sense of racial identity to exist and develop, and have a comprehensive set of policies and community initiatives, including self-help groups, to address and be part of a larger ecosystem that provides help and solves problems effectively and with empathy,” he said.
“NO INHERENT CONTRADICTION”
On the issue of the Government’s CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) model, which Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim referred to on Tuesday as “problematic”, Dr Maliki said there is “no inherent contradiction” in having a strong racial and strong Singaporean identity.
“To be truly Singaporean does not at all mean that we must forgo or dilute our racial identity, or pretend that we are not of a particular race, or can’t see the race of a fellow Singaporean,” he said, adding that doing away with the CMIO framework “does not mean we will become more Singaporean”.
Ms Lim on Tuesday suggested that instead of the CMIO model, it would be better to talk about “citizenship rights”.
She also expressed her hope for Singapore to become a “race-blind society”, proposing other changes in areas such elections along ethnic lines and the Housing and Development Board ethnic quotas.
READ: Opposition MPs urge review of national policies on race, balance of interests between locals and foreigners
Being aware and respecting differences has contributed to the “richness” of Singapore’s culture, said Dr Maliki. As such, policies, practices and public discussions must “avoid playing up (or) misunderstanding the ethnic differences” or “(deny) or mask genuine differences”.
While discourse on race will evolve over time, society must remember to put “concerted effort” to be inclusive - especially when interacting in common spaces - and to build mutual understanding, he said.
“The underlying value and guiding principle must be mutual respect for differences and strengthening social cohesion.”
In July, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that going forward, younger Singaporeans have to decide the limits on discussions of race and religion and they should lead ground-up efforts to discuss these issues in their respective communities.
ACHIEVING GREATER SOCIAL MOBILITY
Dr Maliki also addressed the need to have progress for all in achieving greater social mobility and reducing inequality sustainably.
Relative social mobility, while important, is a “zero-sum game”, said Dr Maliki. “Where a step forward for one is a step backward for the other.”
Therefore, absolute mobility - where everyone progresses - is also necessary for mobility to be “meaningful”, he said.
“If the escalator is moving up, being overtaken by someone matters less. The differences between each step is less stark,” he said, citing Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who used the analogy at a dialogue in 2018.
Greater equality of opportunity also supports better social mobility, he said.
He cited several initiatives by the Education Ministry to provide opportunities to students, such as changing the education system to recognise students of diverse talents, abilities and learning styles, and allowing students to pursue diverse aspirations.
It also improved access to higher education and pre-school education, while providing more manpower and funding to schools with “greater needs”.
In addition, the Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce (UPLIFT) helps disadvantaged students get the help they need, he said.
Greater equality of opportunity is “not just about access to education, health, and other public goods”, said Dr Maliki.
“But rather, that our starting point in life should not dictate our ending point, and that with hard work, ability, and ambition, we can succeed. We must strive as much as possible to level uneven starting blocks, and to provide opportunities at every stage of life.”