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No room for racism

Publication Date : 12-10-2012

 

The gratuitously offensive remarks about Malay weddings that earned Amy Cheong the sack are an example of a line that must never be crossed in Singapore. The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), where she had been a senior staff member, was obliged to mete out the punishment given the seriousness of her vulgar racist diatribe.

Anything less would have exposed Singapore's apex union organisation itself to charges of racial insensitivity. The argument that she deserved milder censure because she had made the comments in her personal capacity on her own Facebook page does not hold water because the NTUC was dragged willy-nilly into the controversy given her affiliation with it. While there can be no delight in seeing a person lose her job, Cheong unfortunately brought this upon herself.

This case draws attention to the issue of racist mindsets and attitudes. There have been several instances of racially abusive remarks on the Net in recent months which have attracted the wrath of public-minded Singaporeans. But it would appear that the message - that racism does not belong in Singapore - has not sunk in. It did not sink into even an educated and experienced person in a socially-responsible position like Cheong. How could this be so after decades promoting multiracialism?

One reason is that Singapore's patent vulnerability to ethnic tension ironically was once a safeguard against it. Citizens by and large spoke and acted with probity because they were acutely conscious of the calamitous consequences of a breakdown in racial and religious peace.

That awareness was heightened by proximity to the racially-charged 1960s. But as subsequent years passed by without incident - thanks in no small part to the watchfulness of the state, which nipped incipient tensions in the bud - ethnic harmony became an everyday affair. Harmony began to be taken for granted in the belief that the Government would be able to control any untoward situation.

There is no complacency as deadly as that born of the illusion of security. Although no one doubts the determination of the state to contain an outbreak of strife, the harm caused would set back race relations by years if not decades.

It is this recognition that should make plain the boundaries of public discourse touching on race and religion in Singapore. This applies to artistic or satirical films as well, where seemingly innocuous messages might be misunderstood by a mass audience. In the Amy Cheong case, the NTUC has rightly sent out a strong signal that assaults - intended or otherwise, online or elsewhere - on the core principle of multiracialism will simply not be tolerated in Singapore.

 

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