By Rachel Lin
A UNITED Nations racism expert's call for policy fixes to allow for freer discussion of sensitive issues like race and to provide more extensive help for some in the Malay community drew a quick response from the Government yesterday.
Special Rapporteur Githu Muigai, speaking after an eight-day mission here, said Singapore had performed well in combating racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, but 'blind spots' remain that could undermine the preservation of racial harmony.
Broadly put, these involved policies and programmes such as the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), the 'race' category on identification documents and ethnic quotas in public housing which he said reinforced, not reduced, ethnic categorisation.
They also included the status of the Malay community here, in particular, what he saw as their relative under-performance in school and the lack of high-ranking Malay members of the army and judiciary.
Mr Muigai also felt that Singapore society was mature and the time was ripe for the review of laws which may constrain free public debate on sensitive issues, such as race and religion.
Saying that he found a 'very vibrant intellectual culture' here, he was of the view that restrictions such as those in the Penal Code and Sedition Act were not as useful today as they were 45 years ago when Singapore experienced violent racial tensions.
'I think I would even go further and say that I think they stand in the way of a more robust, more engaging debate that is necessary for Singapore or Singapore society to move forward,' he said at a press conference.
His statements prompted a response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) last night giving the Government's position on these and his other initial recommendations.
'We must emphatically disagree with Mr Muigai. Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony,' the ministry said.
'This balance is only for the Singapore Government to determine because only the Singapore Government bears the responsibility should things go wrong. The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the Government's approach.'
[It is idealistic to believe that robust and engaging discussion and debate will remain at the intellectual level for visceral issues such as race and religion. The experience is that all too often such debates become passionate, positions become polarised, and attitudes become entrenched and intransigent. In any case, what gains does one expect from robust and engaging discussions? On matters of race and religion, there are mutually exclusive positions that ultimately cannot be discussed away.]
It also took issue with his comments on the Malay community.
Mr Muigai called for a fresh approach for Malay students, who perform below the national average due to 'acknowledged historical inequalities'.
The present community-based programmes, although partly funded by the Government, were not enough, he said.
'We must do more than give money for remedial teaching, for after-school teaching, for coaching for exams. We need a stimulus package, specific for this, within a timeline... Put in the money, the resources, the teachers, the equipment and then say, 'This has seven years to work'.'
Mr Muigai explicitly rejected ethnic quotas as a solution for Malay students here, noting that representatives of the community whom he had met were staunchly opposed to quotas.
The MFA said Mr Muigai was aware of the pitfalls of affirmative action and was surprised at his call for special measures in the area of education.
It too noted that key Malay leaders he met while here also told him that the community was proud of its ability to succeed on its own steam.
At his press conference, Mr Muigai said that he had heard concerns that policies such as the GRC system entrenched, rather than diminished, the significance of ethnic identity.
This could result in certain prejudices and negative stereotypes against certain minority groups taking root.
'The benefits of a society which allows for more permeability between ethnic categories, and in which social interactions are not predetermined by ethnic identity, cannot be overemphasised,' he said.
In addition, ethnic quotas in public housing posed problems for minorities, who had trouble finding homes near their families and could only sell their flats to members of the same ethnic group.
He recommended that identification documents should not indicate an individual's ethnic group. Having met officials while here, he came away with the view that the Government would not seriously object to this.
Addressing these points, the MFA yesterday said that ethnic categorisation was a complex issue for which there was no one correct answer.
Mr Muigai had, in his discussions with government officials, agreed that there were good reasons not to dismiss the presence of ethnic differences, it noted.
Mr Muigai who was here at the invitation of the Government to study issues relating to racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, met ministers, civil servants, MPs and members of the judiciary, as well as civil society representatives, academics, lawyers, students and other individuals.
He told reporters that he had come with 'an open mind' to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities and civil society and identify best practices that can be shared with the international community.
Speaking on his initial impressions, he noted Singapore's troubled legacy of racial violence and said that the peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups today was 'a remarkable achievement'.
The Government's fundamental commitment to tolerance and racial harmony has been demonstrated in many commendable policies, he added.
He noted that these provided a common space for people of different races to interact and learn from one another.
'I was deeply impressed by the work achieved and activities undertaken by, among other things, the National Integration Council, the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony, the People's Association, OnePeople, as well as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles,' he said.
He was pleased with the cooperation he received and the fruitful programme, and found that the Government was 'acutely aware of the threats posed by racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance'.
Still, he urged Singapore to sign the UN's many international covenants on human rights such as those to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination; on civil and political rights; and on the rights of migrant workers.
'I received assurances from the Government and was very pleased that this matter is under active review,' he said.
Last night, the MFA said that Singapore 'will accede to these conventions if there is substantive value in doing so and we are prepared to implement all their provisions'.
Yesterday, Mr Muigai also called for urgent action from the Government to protect transient workers, especially domestic workers.
'This is one area where the situation is quite dire,' he said, noting that domestic workers were not always given a day off or medical leave and were not allowed to marry Singapore men, and were automatically deported if found pregnant.
Mr Muigai, who has done similar studies in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, will present his full findings on Singapore to the UN Human Rights Council in June next year. It will be the first such report on Singapore.
The MFA said the Government looked forward to that report.
'We have an open mind because the maintenance of racial harmony is of such vital importance to us that we are prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal and is workable in our unique circumstances.'
[One may asks that if the SG Govt were not going to be receptive to criticisms, why bring in a UN special rapporteur to assess our performance and then reject everything he says. However, it is commendable that despite the peaceful racial relations here in Sg, the Govt had nonetheless sought an outside observer's views and assessment. This acknowledges that we may be blind to some problems and we should seek a second opinion.
That said, the swift govt reply may be a little reactive, rather than reflective. It would be good to go over the report, and consider the recommendations in a cold and dispassionate manner to see if there is something that we missed.]