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.
I remember the book and some reflections of the late Prime Minister quite vividly as it came out shortly before the 2011 general elections when I first stood as a candidate. Paradoxically in the same book though, Mr Lee identified “inter-marriages” as an example of how some racial communities integrate better than others.
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.
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. Their views tend to evolve towards greater acceptance when they see the happiness in their children’s eyes over the choices made, or when the grandchildren come along. Even so, most, if not all keep these views private and do not gratuitously share them in public.
A serious and fatal misjudgment 60-year old Mr Tan, a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic made was taking his views out of the private realm and into the public one. Bigoted views, even if privately held, have a nasty habit of showing themselves up opportunistically in day-to-day circumstances. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.