The Paradox of Racial Harmony Day

By Syd

Today is Racial Harmony Day in Singapore. In schools across the country, students will don the ‘traditional’ costumes of other ‘races’. For one day only, out come the baju kurung, the sarees, the shalwar kameez, the cheongsam! They will hear of the Maria Hertogh riots and the 1964 Race Riots. Oh, terrible unharmonious times! They may learn how to fold ketupats and draw kolams. How fascinating the other is! How harmonious we are now!

Goh Chok Tong and S. Jayakumar engaging in racially harmonious behaviour during launch of Racial Harmony Street Parade at Bedok Stadium. July 21, 2002. Source: National Archives of Singapore

On this day, harmony is everyone’s focus: what is it, how to maintain it, and so on. Harmony, harmony, harmony. But ‘race’ is taken for granted. Why shouldn’t it be? After all, we are all equally racialized in Singapore (although the effects of that racialization are anything but equal). Javanese, Bugis, and myriad other ethno-linguistic categories are flattened into ‘Malay’; so too, Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka, reduced to ‘dialects’, into ‘Chinese’; and, of course, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Telugu into ‘Indian’. Everyone else is dumped unceremoniously into ‘Other’.

When we emerge from our mothers’ wombs, they certify us as ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, or ‘Other’ (CMIO). We are stamped right at birth with a racial marker that will never leave us. It is on our identity cards. It defines our ‘mother tongue’ in school. Yet, as many of us must be aware, often neither our mother’s nor father’s ‘tongues’ (much less the tongues of our forebears) correspond to our second language in school… Classified Chinese at birth, you are willed to learn Mandarin in school, a language possibly entirely foreign to your parents and their parents.

While the state’s consistent and purposeful racialization of all its citizens may seem antithetical to its goal of preserving harmony, this is its chosen method of governing (by) race in Singapore. Readers familiar with colonial history (here and elsewhere) will recognize this flattening out of internal group diversity for administrative convenience from right out of the playbook of our erstwhile colonizers.

For the PAP, still deeply influenced by the racialism and racism of Lee Kuan Yew, race is an inherent attribute and racial differences thus perpetually threaten to undermine social order. The danger of ethnic factionalism, riots, and violence is never far off. This being their starting point, the PAP then sees it as logical to adhere to strict racial categorization, while carefully policing the contact points between each category. In other words, we are strictly racialized into CMIO in order to better discipline our supposedly natural proclivity for racial violence.

Having definitively racialized every citizen, policing the contact points between the categories ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, and ‘Indian’ concretely implies the intervention of repressive state apparatuses when faced with any discourse and action that can be construed as threatening racial harmony. As sociologist Chua Beng Huat suggests, the PAP’s framework of state multiracialism has become “a master narrative for governance.”

We have seen how political opponents in the past have been called “Chinese chauvinists” or “Malay chauvinists” and, in some cases, subsequently disciplined through litigation. The sustained attempts to intimidate and silence Raeesah Khan for pointing out institutional racism are still fresh in our minds. Within the PAP’s framework of state multiracialism, institutional racism is perfectly fine as long as you don’t point it out…

All of this to say that the PAP has consistently led us to believe that, without strict controls, Chinese, Indians, and Malays would be at each others throats. By constantly invoking fears of race riots, communal violence, ethnic politics, the PAP has found a dynamic tool to stifle any form of contestation or dissent, if it even so much as encroaches on the topic of race (and, by extension, religion). Paradoxically a system with the supposed intent of protecting racial harmony also makes it next to impossible to discuss racial discrimination, systemic or otherwise.

To quote my colleague, Gopal:

It ought to be clear that the fetishisation of “multiculturalism” and “racial harmony” in this country represents a tool for the PAP to quell dissent. In order to “protect” this “harmony”, all forms of coercion are permitted. True “harmony” will only come in the post-PAP era.

Gopal, “GE2020: The People Stood with Raeesah and the Workers’ Party,”, July 11, 2020.

On this Racial Harmony Day, let us try to move beyond this restrictive framework of multiracialism and have open, critical, and, ultimately, productive discussions on race, racialization, casual racism, and institutional racism. This is what will allow us to come together, finally, as a people, beyond the strictures of capitalism, and realize the egalitarian ideals of our diverse socialist ascendants who founded the original Barisan Sosialis.

One comment

  1. […] She rested her chin on the arm of a sofa, stretching her hand forward before inspecting it. Are stories of national solidarity not themselves a hindrance to true community and inclusivity? Surely, that had to be the case, if in the name of some national celebration, valid environmental concerns were reduced simply to the “agenda” of  “any interest group”.10 Or, Celia humored, if  restoration of this supposed religious harmony came at the sacrifice of the very minority voices it was meant to support.11 […]


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