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"Racial Harmony" and Lexical Pedantry by Janice Heng

"Racial harmony" is too strong a phrase to use in terms of Singapore. "Racial tolerance", more like, because there are undercurrents of discomfort and racism in Singapore - it's just a quiet, sanitised, safe and lazy racism ( like almost everything else in Singapore - the media, for one thing, is very much sanitised, the island is safe, any feelings of resentment tend to be quiet, and the youth, or at least the youth that I have seen, tend to be rather lazy in terms of political interest ) and thus not so many people witness it. It is not such much harmony as lack of blatant disharmony; a wary, detached acceptance, but not quite co-operation.

Admittedly this is much better than violent, bloody, enraged racism, but the thing is, also, that many exhibiting said racism do not consider it racism at all. Let me state now that I applaud the current racial tolerance exhibited in Singapore, and that I admire and am honestly proud of the efforts being made to forge closer ties between our people, and of our lack of bloody inter-racial or inter-religious clashes. The only thing I am taking to task here is the way our claim to "racial harmony" is being rubbed into our faces, and the seeming assumption that racism is something truly alien to Singapore, when in truth it is as much a part of Singapore life as homeless people - and almost as hidden a problem.

Nevertheless, even if it is hidden, you can still see it - in the uninformed lies told to children, full of generalisations about various races or religions; in the unknowing, not-quite-innocent teasing by primary school children, which is often accepted by those on the receiving end; in the people, some saturated with an old wariness of those of different races. But all these are subtle, easy-overlooked signs, and perhaps that a reason that no one really believes that there is racism in Singapore.

Racism is, however, especially and painfully obvious on Sunday nights, when taking a bus that travels along Little India. Many Chinese - middle-aged females in particular, for some reason - are loath to take seats next to Indians, and also tend to make offensive remarks regarding said Indians to their children. Certain schools, according to friends of mine who are studying in them, are also blatantly racist, though from what they have seen the non-Chinese take it in their stride. And then there is the fact that some tend to assume that Indians and Malays are more likely to commit crimes than Chinese, and that they tend to be less well off. This sentiment only extends to "Indians" and "Malays" in general, though - the same people are friendly and have no unpleasant feelings towards specific Indians and Malays.

Of course, it is entirely likely that these individuals who have deep-rooted prejudices are a mere minority, and the younger generation may come to form closer inter-racial ties than their precursors. And things are much brighter now than they were a few decades ago - especially with the advent of various Racial Harmony Day celebrations, co-racial and religious activities and the like. Over the next few decades, the ugly situation upon buses that travel across Little India, and the gross misconceptions some have may become nothing more than memories consigned to the past. I sincerely hope that that will become truth. Only then can Singapore proudly speak of its racial harmony - only then can children celebrate Racial Harmony Day with more than cynical disillusionment.