Today is Racial Harmony day in Singapore. This was established to commemorate the first day of an intense period of racial rioting, 42 years ago, and aims to foster inter-racial links to ensure that violence of that nature does not flare up again.
Some background - After the British pulled out of Singapore its Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, believed the island state would be unable to stand alone with its limited resources and sought to be integrated into its neighbouring country, Malaya. The Malays were concerned, as the large Chinese population in Singapore meant that the ethnic demographics of Malaya would be significantly altered. However, various political reasons persuaded the government in Kuala Lumpar that it was safer to absorb Singapore than allow it to controlled by any rival state.
The inclusion of Singapore in 1963 added the "SI" to Malaya to give us the current name, Malaysia, and PM Lee essentially found his role diminished to that of a regional governor. Unfortunately Lee's dreams of a harmonious union never really worked and tensions between the Chinese (a majority in Singapore but a minority now in Malaysia) and the Malays eventually erupted into rioting a year later.
The following is an extract from an article published yesterday and written by Charles Tan, a Singaporean who lived through the rioting (I am unsure of the original source as I have received this fourth hand through e-mail). The title of the piece is A Race To Survive
:-...I nearly became an innocent casualty in an infamous and shameful chapter of Singapore's history — the Prophet Muhammad Birthday riots, which broke out with clashes between a Malay procession and Chinese spectators and passers-by near Geylang Serai..Returning home from work that evening on July 21, 1964, I had to cross Geylang Road from the car park where I had alighted from the bus. As I crossed, I noticed a group of youths overturning cars, dousing them with kerosene and setting them alight. There were groups of Chinese and Malays fighting with parangs [a type of Malayan machete] and choppers. Debris was strewn around and I saw mutilated bodies lying on the road..I was frightened and the more scared I became, the more difficult I found it was to try to run across the road to look for refuge in someone's house. I could see flashes of parangs coming towards me. My heart beat furiously. As I got to the other side, a group of parang-wielding youths began to chase me, shouting: "Orang cina, orang cina" (Malay for Chinese person). My survival instincts took over. I ran more than fifty yards in less than 10 seconds flat, and charged into a house along Lorong 3 hoping for refuge..Perhaps fearing reprisals from the house's occupants, the attackers retreated. But far from being sympathetic to my plight, the occupants were furious at me for bringing the "rioting" to their doorstep. As soon as my attackers were gone from sight, I was cursed and chased away..As historical sources would have it, four people were killed that first day of rioting and 178 injured. For the next 11 days, a curfew was imposed and Geylang, which had a heavy concentration of Malay inhabitants, was where it was most strictly enforced. Geylang Road was covered with Black Marias (police vans) and there were road-blocks at regular intervals, manned by Gurkhas — those fearsome Nepalese mercenaries — armed with sub-machine guns and knives. It is no exaggeration to compare Geylang Road to a scene straight out of Black Hawk Down — burning cars, charred bodies and heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the street strewn with concertina wires..When the curfew was finally lifted on Aug 2 and I returned to work, 23 people had lost their lives, 450 had been hurt, and 2,500 arrested. Afterwards, "goodwill committees" of community leaders were set up to help restore harmony between the Malays and the Chinese, by addressing their concerns. Dare I say that we have since learned from the destructive nature of racial disharmony, and that Singaporeans today can say we are among the world's most tolerant and harmonious people?
A year later Singapore was 'kicked out' of Malaysia - more trouble than it was worth, it seems...
Tan's article is an interesting insight for me, as someone who barely knew that a place called Singapore even existed a few years back - and as someone who sometimes struggles to differentiate between lighter skinned Malays and darker skinned Chinese anyway! But I am perturbed slightly by the final statement - Dare you say it, indeed, Mr Tan?
Has any culture truly learned from destructive racial disharmony? I was working in Bradford a few years back during the riots - thankfully I was not living there so I only saw the 'before' and 'after'. Over the last 12 months we have also had racial rioting in France and Australia. And as anyone who trawls the blog-universe will know there is a lot of racial bigotry out there.
Singapore tries to avoid this by having rigid policies in place to enforce racial harmony, including setting quotas in government housing blocks to ensure that no one area becomes solidly Chinese, Malay or Indian. Yet is this not the wrong way to approach the situation? Rather than enforcing a physical closeness should we not be trying to break down the barriers that exist on a more intellectual, emotional and spiritual level?
Charles Tan, you are correct that people live in some
kind of harmony in Singapore - but attitudes have still not completely changed. There are some companies who advertise vacancies as "must be fluent in Mandarin" when there is no real need, knowing this will result in a Chinese employee. And it is not just the older generation that harbours grudges, as evidenced by the youths that were recently taken to court for their racist blogging. Inter-racial relationships are also still heavily frowned upon, even to the extent that walking down the street with someone of the opposite sex who is not of your ethnic background - be they partner, friend or simply work colleague - can elicit glares.
Remember July 21st in Singapore. Remember all the racial violence that happens the world over. But never make the mistake of thinking that the attitudes that caused the violence have been consigned to history's dustbin - that would be a fatal error.
Labels: Asia, Bigotry, Sinless City, Xenophobic shit