SINGAPORE: Ms Swedha Rajaram was six years old when she heard a taxi driver telling her mother: “You know, I normally don’t pick up Indians. They are quite smelly. I didn’t know you all were Indians.”

Her mother turned “visibly upset” and told Ms Rajaram to speak in Mandarin.

“(It was) a language that my father insisted I learn because he thought it would be a useful skill. I spoke. The driver softened and he made conversation with only me for the rest of the ride,” recalled the Singaporean, who is now 23 and a final-year student at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

“That really shook me,” she added. “That would be the first time I questioned my place in Singapore.”

Ms Rajaram’s experience as a victim of racism was one of the stories shared candidly at a session called “Regardless of Race – The Dialogue” on Saturday (Sep 21). 

Organised by OnePeople.sg – the national body promoting racial and religious harmony – in partnership with CNA and supported by inter-faith group Roses of Peace, the session is the first in a series that hopes to discuss race relations in Singapore.

About 130 people from different backgrounds attended the three-long dialogue.

OnePeople.sg’s chairman Janil Puthucheary said while race is an issue that crops up constantly in Singapore, it is not easy to discuss.

“That line between meaningful engagement, being a little too sensitive, being appropriately sensitive, between finding something entertaining, engaging and offensive, is not prescribed. It’s not clear,” he said. 

“’Regardless of race’ is in our pledge … but it’s something that needs active work,” he added. “We want a series of dialogues and that’s what OnePeople.sg is hoping to kickstart today.”

READ: 8 in 10 Singaporeans satisfied with relations between different races, religions – MCCY survey

SPEAKING UP ON RACISM

For Ms Rajaram, that was not the last time she experienced racism.

Another was being told by her primary school friends that she would never become head prefect because she was Indian. 

Constant questions about her nationality also leave her wondering. 

“I can’t help but compare this to my Chinese friends who never get asked the same question. They automatically assume they are from Singapore, whereas I am from India,” said Ms Rajaram, who was part of a four-member panel leading the discussions. 

Another panellist, Mr Imran Rahim, recalled being told that he spoke well for a Malay. Being in an inter-racial relationship, the 31-year-old lawyer has also been asked if he is “going to get married at a void-deck”. 

While those who spoke acknowledged that these comments may sometimes be non-malicious or meant as “jokes”, some wondered if such remarks should not have been made in the first place. 

“Overt racism generally is frowned upon so people are careful about it, but we are talking about the kind of casual, seemingly inoffensive type of comments. It doesn’t seem offensive to the majority, but there’s something to be said about highlighting someone’s physical or cultural characteristic and turning that into a caricature or mockery,” said 32-year-old Sadhana Rai. 

“It may appear as a joke, but perhaps that comment shouldn’t even be made at all.” 

In such instances, members of the minority groups should be allowed to feel that they can speak up, even against seemingly “light-hearted jokes”, said Ms Rajaram. 

Members of the Chinese majority can also do their part. 

“Because it may not always be easy for a Malay or Indian person who may be made to feel like they are too sensitive and they cannot take the joke,” she added. “So when you’re in that position of privilege, use it to help others.” 

READ: Class – not race nor religion – is potentially Singapore’s most divisive fault line

RELEVANCE OF SAP SCHOOLS, CMIO MODEL

Others had questions about Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools and the annual Racial Harmony Day celebrations in schools. Many of those present pointed out the need to foster more “meaningful, sustained interactions” between the difference races here. 

SAP schools, where Chinese is the only mother tongue on offer, inevitably excludes students from other ethnicities, said Mr Leonard Lim, a former researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies. 

Opportunities to interact with those from non-Chinese backgrounds are also often “too fleeting experiences” for meaningful friendships to be formed. 

“Take the ethnic integration housing policy, for instance. It’s there to prevent the formation of enclaves but aren’t SAP schools in a way encouraging the formation of enclaves and ethnic segregation?” asked Mr Lim, who suggested increasing opportunities for SAP school students to interact with their non-SAP school peers.

READ: Special Assistance Plan schools remain relevant: Ong Ye Kung

A member of the audience questioned if activities held by schools here to commemorate Racial Harmony Day are “very token and basic”, and that the schools should pursue deeper issues regarding race with students.

The topic of whether more needs to be done to stem racial prejudice at workplaces was also raised.

A recent survey had showed that while relations between racial and religious groups in Singapore were positive, the proportion of Malay and Indian respondents who said they felt discriminated against when applying for jobs had increased since 2013.

Mr Lim, one of the panellists, shared an experience that he felt was “clearly very discriminatory”. 

“Someone had said (the) hiring of a minority candidate for a particular role in the company affects the way people from outside of the organisation see us, treat us or talk to us. That to me was clearly very discriminatory and I said ‘No, I don’t think it’s an issue at all’.” 

READ: Survey finds rise in perception of work-related discrimination among Malays, Indians in Singapore

Meanwhile, several audience members shared their views on Singapore’s long-standing Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) framework. 

One of them named Kenneth asked if the framework was still relevant amid a rise in inter-racial marriages. 

He cited friends from mixed-race families that felt like they did not belong to any specific race.

He also wondered: “Inherently, racial harmony stems from social mixing. Is it possible to remove the CMIO framework if we need to remove the races before we can mix the races?”

“SAFE ENVIRONMENT” FOR TOUGH QUESTIONS

Participants that CNA spoke to said the dialogue was a good platform to hear other points of view.

Ms Norami Aliza said she had been hoping for an open discussion and was not disappointed. She added that the dialogue had provided a “safe environment” for sensitive topics to be asked, particularly about discrimination at workplaces.

READ: Complaints about language discrimination in job applications on downtrend: TAFEP

Mr Joshua Tan, 67, said: “It is a timely dialogue given how Singapore has developed as a country … Back when I was younger, it would have been difficult. We weren’t ready.” 

OnePeople.sg will be holding the next dialogue session on Sep 29. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam is the keynote speaker and will be addressing some of the issues raised at Saturday’s session.