When I first heard the news of the Little India riot, I hadn’t turned on my TV set yet since arriving back from my fellowship in the United States. I haven’t watched the local news for months and had only kept myself abreast of Singapore news through Facebook updates I read on my timeline because I really didn’t have time to surf news websites.
So, the Little India riot came to me as like a premonition that I’d second guessed throughout my entire fellowship.
I had gone on this fellowship to take a break from the day to day work that I do in Singapore, as a social entrepreneur and as a grassroots volunteer to look at the issues facing Singapore and the challenge that lies ahead in times of globalization. Throughout my entire fellowship, I had met and spoken to many leaders involved in diversity and peace education programmes and was under tutelage from one of the world’s best conflict negotiators.
In my research and development of a project under the theme of Tolerance and Conflict Resolution, I had been tracking the trend of major incidences that had shaken Singapore’s fragile social structure from the years Singapore was known as a state till today and my observations showed that there was a lot to be worried about. In other words, it was just a matter of time before something as huge a scale as the riot or bigger, would happen.
In fact, I don’t think the Little India riot is the last that we will see in the coming years to come.
If structured programmes focused on encouraging understanding between faiths and cultures and integration are not implemented and institutionalized, I’m afraid that Singapore will be heading for disaster, not only politically but also economically and socially. The problems in Singapore are deep rooted and have almost always been swept under the rug, the policies implemented do not reflect the social needs of society but only serve to improve economical needs of the country.
Having undergone diversity and conflict resolution training aside from attending countless seminars in the US, it all boils down to two key things:
Conversation, as a form of communication to build trust and understanding of one another.
Even my mentor, Eboo Patel, one of many advisers to President Obama’s interfaith relations speaks about it in his speeches and implements it in his programmes. Unfortunately, having open conversations to discuss race and religion is not encouraged in Singapore.
This is policy failure number 1.
Structure, to institutionalize trust and understanding between one another.
The HDB may have been intended to encourage social interaction (aside from better use of land resources) and People’s Association, to build social cohesion between communities (aside from helping society understand government policies) but unfortunately, living in HDB has caused more people to live in seclusion because of a lack of available common space and People’s Association hasn’t been as effective as it should because its activities simply lack the very element it needed, understanding.
The MOE also fails in its ability to engage and encourage students to build trust and understanding of one another through its Social Studies programme. With a focus on achieving academic excellence, teachers are spending time to rush through the curriculum than to build positive relationships between students (some do).
In short, the entire structure wasn’t build for success at building trust and understanding and positive relationships between individuals and communities. Evaluation indicators were probably measuring or monitoring the wrong markers, partly due to how statisticians like to play with numbers and statistics to ‘look good’ rather than to reflect the overall situation.
This is policy failure number 2, 3, 4 and 5.
The latest news that I read recently was on how MND was considering to house foreign workers on offshore islands. This is the biggest failure in integration that Singapore can make if it does go through. It’s bad enough that foreign workers are placed in dormitories, away from the cultural norms of Singapore, making it hard for them to understand the subtle nuances that we all need to learn to live peacefully and harmoniously.
In words that I can describe from a conversation with a Californian friend who came to Singapore with hopes of settling down here, Singapore is a sad country to live in. You don’t see happy faces on the streets, Singaporeans are pessimists and will probably live their whole lives never to experience life fully beyond going to work to earn a living.