Thursday, July 21, 2011

Future of Singapore is mixed

This week, a law student told me about her Chinese friend, who used to date an Indian boy. The parents of this boy found the relationship so objectionable that they used to lock him up to prevent him from meeting his girlfriend. He would be left with little choice but to climb out of windows to meet her.

This difference became a frequent cause of misunderstanding, and eventually her friend ended the relationship.

I asked the law student what she would do if she were in those shoes. She replied that, even though her parents were very liberal, they would not accept an inter-racial relationship. As such, she would give her parents' interests precedence.

I realised things have not changed very much since I left school. Acceptance of our differences remains a relevant issue. In this context, I was reminded of this view I wrote for New Sintercom on 2 May 2006 (updated version below).


There is something consistent about a good portion of the Singaporean Indians that have been introduced by the People’s Action Party to be its parliamentary representatives in the last decade. They either married an individual from another race or they are themselves fruits of an inter-ethnic marriage.

While this increasingly reflects the changing face of the Indian community in Singapore, it is also reflective of an evolving Singaporean identity and the ruling’s party desire to hone bi-cultural or multi-cultural leaders.

Quite a few non-Indians in the current political leadership are likewise married to someone from another race.

There are two primary ways one can get married in Singapore; under the Women’s Charter or Syariah Law. The Singapore Department of Statistics keeps count of both these methods.

Between 2002 and 2004, about 10% of marriages under the Women’s Charter was inter-ethnic, that is where a person married someone from another race. During the same period, about 20% of marriages under the Syariah law was inter-ethnic.

This month, a report of the Department of Statistics noted, "In 2010, 20 per cent of total marriages were inter-ethnic marriages, up from 12 per cent in 2000. A higher proportion were inter-ethnic marriages among Muslim marriages (33 per cent) than among non-Muslim marriages (18 per cent)."

Taking into account these statistics, political and community leaders, who marry a person from another race or are results of inter-ethnic marriages, are in a position to speak for a substantial group of individuals in Singapore.

Some believe that inter-racial marriages represent the glue for bringing our races together, in light of the post-911 years which have been testing times for race relations in Singapore. They tell you colourful stories to persuade you.

A few years ago, one Chinese chief executive officer of an insurance company shared with me how, when he was much younger, he would date non-Chinese girls and bring them home to make his parents more culturally sensitive!

While his first love was an “ang moh”, he respected his parents’ wishes and married within his own ethnicity. (He harbours hopes that his child will “do what Papa couldn’t do”.)

To these people, leaders with inter-ethnic backgrounds are role models.

But to others, questions ruffle:
a. can these leaders appreciate or emphatise with the concerns of the majority, who still marry someone from the same ethnic origin?
b. can these leaders fully relate to the issues affecting their own ethnic communities?

The assumption in such questions is that the problems affecting the people of Singapore can be apportioned along ethnic lines. The people who raise such questions are quick to point to the existence of organisations such as:
1. Mendaki
2. Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP)
3. Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA)
4. Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC)
5. Eurasian Association (EA)

They say, “The fact that these “self-help” groups exist shows that our problems are fundamentally racial. Due to this, it will not be easy for our ‘inter-racial’ leaders to relate to them.”

The assumption however is cursory.

For example, through its programmes, some of SINDA’s priorities can be identified, which include helping:
a. students to do better
b. individuals to manage their finances better
c. women to be more empowered
d. families to become more computer literate and embrace a learning culture
e. displaced / retrenched workers find suitable employment
f. keep vulnerable persons out of trouble

These areas of focus obviously do not just affect one community alone. While it may be true some of these areas affect one community more than others, they are undoubtedly issues affecting Singapore in general. These are issues which any competent leader in Singapore, regardless of background, must be able to handle.

Leaders with inter-ethnic backgrounds have also been able to extend their appeal beyond their community to Singaporeans in general.

At the community level, many of them are highly-regarded. They have displayed a willingness to listen and learn. They have shown that they are capable of translating feedback into policies and actions beneficial for society. Their oratory prowess is what Singaporean legends are made of. Several of them are multi-lingual (or are learning to be multi-lingual). They are sensitive to cultural nuances and cosmopolitan. Their popularity has prompted some to boldly argue that these leaders do not need the constitutional buffer that Group Representative Constituencies provide them to win elections.

Leaders, who either married a person from another race or are themselves fruits of an inter-ethnic marriage, represent a future of Singapore that cannot be ignored. The success of political leaders with such inter-racial backgrounds means we can look forward to more such leaders in years to come.

The future of Singapore is mixed. (To which some of my friends retort, "But you are still looking for your non-Indian bride!")

Dharmendra Yadav

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