How do we talk about race in Singapore writing?

Today I shared this link on Twitter about the overwhelming response to NYT journalist Nicholas Kristof’s invitation to readers to send in poetry about race in America.

This got me thinking to how we address race in Singapore poetry, and Singapore literature in general. Surely, in a cultural mix that is becoming increasingly more diverse, the literature has to reflect some of the richness of living in the midst of people from different backgrounds without descending into mistrust and xenophoia. And surely we have to do better than looking at race through the CIMO (Chinese-Indian-Malay-Eurasians and Others) lens in writing (Refer to the explanation under the ‘Ethnic/Dialect Group’ heading in the glossary of terms and definitions by the Department of Statistics Singapore). Coincidentally, there is an article today about the increasing diversity of views by different communities in Singapore — is this a sign of a maturing society? Is this a cause for concern? How should Singapore writing respond? (HT to @ashley for the Todayonline link on Twitter)

On my museum tours, tourists often mention how amazed they are at Singapore’s multiculturalism. After I cover the racial riots and the merger and separation with Malaysia and the wording of the Singapore pledge, they ask me, so how does the government manage all the races now? Sometimes I mention celebrations like Racial Harmony Day, which uses the sharing of food and culture and the wearing of clothing from different ethnic groups to encourage appreciation of different cultures. Or I talk about government policies such as the HDB Ethnic Integration Policy. I also mentioned the curry incident once, to explain how when friction happens, we have seen Singaporeans pull together to defend our unique cultural and ethnic tapestry.

I used Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech in my Primary 5 class once in an attempt to address the issues of racial discrimination that I noticed was happening in my class. We discussed why MLK wrote the speech, watched the video on Youtube and went over the lines. It had an impact on the culture of the class after that.

Educate, not isolate or ignore — that’s what we need to do.

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