Will Singapore be able deal with race and religion intelligently?

December 29, 2011

Watching as a terminally ambivalent bystander the post SMRT fallout involving Ah Seng’s Freudian slip on how Malays and Indians cannot seem to speak good England – this raises a far more interesting question in its wake:

Why do we have such difficulty in dealing intelligently with the issue of race and religion?
It seems to me, we (as a nation) may have lost the capacity to question our present sense and sensibilities when it comes to dealing intelligently with race and religion and have even much less to offer in terms of alternatives. Except perhaps to outsource the problem lock, stock and barrel to the mata-mata – the police, I am sure would certainly put a stop to it, but if the goal is to resolve the issues of race and religion in sustainable terms – then I don’t really see them playing a significant role in furthering understanding which I believe is key, if we are to come to terms with the twin headed hubris of dealing effectively with race and religion hand grenades, be it in the real world or the virtual?

This should prompt all of us to ask: is it time for us to revaluate our current methods of managing race and religion? To paraphrase, is it time to see beyond the present means to conceive a different set of arrangements to deal with this issue of race and religion without involving the police or resorting to threats of coercion? Would the problem be better solved by society as a whole?

I suspect one reason why many haven’t really dwelled on this question may have something to do with our collective lack of urgency to see the growing fault lines in our age – the way I see it, two main factors will conspire to stress out Singapore’s medieval methods of dealing with race and religion.
The first hardly requires any elaboration – the internet is set to grow exponentially and whirl its way deeper into the lives of millions of Singaporeans. Judging by the lamentable news print sales, you could even say, this migration from the real to the virtual is inexorable. Hence, it’s only a matter of time before the frequency and intensity of race and religious flare up’s would increase.

What are we supposed to do then – call in the mata-mata? Yes, very intelligent response.

The second factor (which I consider much more pressing and urgent) that will combine to exacerbate our already moribund methods of dealing effectively with race and intelligence – is the frenetic pace of immigration brought forth by globalization – it is not by sheer coincidence that in the last 10 years, we have seen a marked increase of incidences of race and religious infractions involving either new citizens or residents (curry wars)– it stands to reason: as the Singaporean demographic landscape shifts from a homogeneous to multicultural society – this hardly requires any elaboration: mistrust and mutual suspicion will be likely to be more acute as compared to the past. In the past, these problems were well masked, as most new residents and citizens were culled mainly from neighboring Malaysia – because they are like you and me and see the world as you and me. There was always a shared cultural and historical understanding that fostering good relations irrespective of race and religion was vital – a willingness to give and take that rested on the tacit understanding: our cohesiveness will always be greater than the sum of what can divide us. These days with the flood gates of immigration flung wide open – I am not saying the same social compact that once held race and religious sensibilities in check has gone to the dogs. But no one can deny they appear less self confident and increasingly stressed.

Against this backdrop of social cultural change, it is incontrovertible (to me at least) that traditional methods of dealing with race and religion will at some point in the foreseeable future face serious practical challenges. Our shortcomings in dealing with race and religion, can at best be describe as discursive in the polite language of the diplomat – in less polite company such as the Brotherhood, it may even be aptly described as infantile and fairytale like. In a nutshell, we simply do not know how manage conflicts arising from race and religion whenever those sensibilities are ruffled. All we seem to be able to do is reenact the final moments of Chekov’s play, the Cherry Orchard. Take offence, preferably with lashings that this has somehow impinged our good personage, make a police report, this is followed by the offender having to apologize publicly (after that he is presumably packed off the equivalent of our Guantanamo Bay) and this is followed by a series of quick steps by state officials who will dish out sobriquet fortune cookie statements about – how “evil has been defeated, the forces of light has prevailed! We are one happy family again!”

This happy picture however misleads on a few serious accounts. For one since racial and religious harmony was purchased on the cheap (without any attempt to explore further on the causal links, if any) -and since we haven’t really figured out how to deal effectively with racial and religious infractions without the active participation of the state and its apparatus, none of us can really figure out how to contain the fall out next week, month or year.

Where does that leave us? As for the last fifty years or so in our history of managing race and religious conflicts – we have consistently failed to ask ourselves the questions that we should have asked, if we are really genuine about managing race and religious infractions intelligently. Like whether perhaps we have been over reliant on the state to resolve racial and religious conflicts which are after all societal problems? Or even whether outsourcing the problem to the police is the most intelligent method to obliterate our stereotypical beliefs we may harbor about certain races and religions (which is incidentally may be the root cause of our many of our race and religious flare up’s that we commonly see these days).

Instead, we continue take cold comfort in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard coda: the mass of humanity can always be counted to react far better and wiser than they could ever have hoped too whenever the multi hydra headed monster of race and religion rears its ugly head. Somewhere in this infantile narrative of course – the politics of sectarianism, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity, the politics of how most of us harbor stereotypical images regarding certain races and religions has somehow magically been elided and replaced by the perfidious tale – good will always prevail over evil.

The paradox of our ongoing lack of confidence to speak and write openly about religion and race may well be – instead of fleshing out whole narratives to further our collective understanding concerning race and religion – all we really have today is a bracketed account with serious gaps that will continue to create fertile ground for ignorance and parochialism to fester. It stands the test of reason, where angels fear to tread, you will get charlatans, hucksters and bent pastors stepping into the public square spewing unmitigated diatribe to a mesmerized crowd – neither will we ever be able to inoculate our sense and sensibilities sufficiently from feeling a sense of disproportional outrage whenever the bogey man of race and religion appears, as the right to be self confident can never be claimed by those who have never really invested either the time, effort or risk to understand the complexity of sectarianism and religious fervor beyond the superficial – neither will we be able to reclaim the idea, any infraction by any member of society involving race and religion is not the governments problem as it remains society’s. To end on a prosaic note, like the Chekhov’s, tragic starry eyed main protagonist Ranevskaya’s failure to come to terms with the many problems dogging her estate means that she eventually loses everything. Her petulant refusal to come to terms with the truth of her past, present and future is her downfall. She ultimately shuttles between her life in Paris and in Russia singing “all will be well, when the sunshines”. A dumb broad who lives in an illusion and none the wiser for it – but as vapid as Ranevskaya’s was, she had at least one redeeming feature, there were no phones in her day and as for the police in Tsarist Russia, they were all either drunk or communist. We on the other hand in perfidious faced Singapore can still take cold comfort from the fact, should that bogeyman of race and religion show up again all we have to do is ask Mr Gahmen to kiss it better and all our problems will melt away like lemon drops, till of course, when he decides to pop up again for another quickie.

I have no answers, only questions and more questions. I have to go now, I hear trees being chopped.

Darkness 2011

The final days of the Ascension Wars somewhere in the Carpathian Plains on Armistice Day during dinner.

General Adrill from the Aryanian Delegation: “For 2,000 years, we have waged war…this is a form of madness Darkness.”
Darkness from the Confederation: “Yes, I agree Adrill. But tell me, what is it about us that you hate so much?”
General Adrill: “We have been fighting for so long over this piece of worthless rock that it is hard to even recall, it is faint my friend, very faint.”
Darkness: “Yes, I imagine many of us also feel and see it that way General.”
General Adrill: “Tell me is it true what they say about you in the real world – that you are seven feet tall ……”
Darkness: “No Adrill, I would be quite a disappointment if you saw me in the flesh.”
General Adrill: “I happen to be a professor in a university in the real world. The law faculty. And you?”
Darkness: “I am an engineer.”
General Adrill: “You must visit me one day in Budapest. It seems, when we were eyeballing each other across the trench lines, we have nothing in common Darkness. But after being your prisoner here for over a month and dinning every night, I feel that we are certainly kindred spirits cut from the same cloth. Perhaps both our people were rash. We should have just sat down for some vodka and salmon!”

Footnote by the Chronicler of the Brotherhood: During the reign of PandiShah IX, the Emperor of the known universe decreed – no Aryanian shall be spared in the battle spanning 2,000 years – during the signing of the Armistice, Senator Darkness, then commander of Legio IV and IIV who vanquished the last remnants of the once great Aryanian army countermanded a direct order from the Imperium to take no prisoners – that evening, when the last of the shots had been fired – over 800,000 Aryanians were allowed free and unencumbered passage to return back to their homeland under the auspices of the Ottomans who enforced the Irrulian Protocol (The Geneva Conventions) – three days following this incident, the Imperium issued a warrant of arrest for Darkness and the entire command post of the Eastern front for treason.

The Aryanians have never invaded the Strangelands since. General Adrill and Darkness continue to remain good friends.

Extracted from the Book of Ages under the Chapter: “The Great War” Page 7,299 – The Brotherhood Press 2011

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