Singapore prides itself on being multicultural. It embraces its past as a meeting point for people of different cultures and religions. It accepts the diversity of its population and their various religions. The government has a Presidential Council for Minority Rights to ensure that laws and motions passed by the government do not alienate or disadvantage any of Singapore’s minority groups. One of Singapore’s Five Shared Values is “racial and religious harmony”. On the surface, it’s a state that has fully embraced multiculturalism, where Chinese, Malay, Indian, and ‘other’ minorities live in harmony.
Speaking to members of ‘Transient Workers Count Too’ during their talk today and our tour of Little India told a very different story however. We talked about the Singapore government’s stratified migration scheme that supports a skills-based hierarchy amongst migrants which in turn limits rights of work permit holding migrants. We also spoke about implicitly racial policies and punishments in Singapore, such as declaring the dormitories of migrant workers ‘public spaces’ and therefore impacted by Singapore’s strict public drinking laws. We also discussed the fact that Malays are often given lower positions in the military and usually sent to the police force rather than the army or air force, presumably due to a perceived threat that comes from them being predominately Muslim and also the belief they possess inherent sympathies towards Malaysia.
Even a visit to the Peranakan museum demonstrated a shallowness in cultural understanding in Singapore. Although the museum is supposed to represent the ‘Peranakan’ – a word to describe mixed ethnic groups between historical Indian and Chinese migrants and local Malay, the majority of the museum seemed to heavily focus on Chinese culture. Although it is undoubtable that Chinese culture heavily influenced aspects of Peranakan culture, its dominance in the museum didn’t seem to reflect the mix of cultures suggested from the quotes in the first room.
“Being Peranakan means being a cultural hybrid drawing from and identifying with different racial groups” – Ibrahim Tahir, Peranakan Museum Singapore
The only bit of today I didn’t enjoy was dinner in one of the food bank style ‘restaurants’ designed to provide food to migrant workers who require it. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good or the people weren’t friendly, it was simply that it felt inappropriate. It enjoyed seeing what the charity does first hand, but sitting there eating food when we could afford to go elsewhere and buy it made me feel deeply uncomfortable.
Overall, today was eyeopening. There are definitely inconsistencies with the line of racial and religious harmony expressed by the government, as well as contradictions between the official line and policies. Still, Singapore definitely offers some lessons in multicultural living that other states could learn from…