Until I was 18 years old, I was raised in Penang, Malaysia, in an extended Chinese family steeped in Chinese tradition. I was educated in an elite Chinese-language school where preserving Chinese roots and mores formed the moral compass for young minds. Looking back, I would even go so far as to define my prevailing attitude about race as borderline chauvinistic. What started the change in my attitude about race relations was probably the 10 years I spent overseas for my tertiary education subsequently; the exposure widened my horizon beyond the confines of my ethnicity.
But, the real change happened when I came to Singapore 33 years ago. Singapore’s multi-racial environment transformed my values and outlook in life completely. The positive energy of an open society which recognises and rewards personal effort regardless of ethnic background drove that transformation. For me, meritocracy eliminated race and other barriers for personal growth. I am Singaporean now and will be among the first to agree unequivocally that ours is a people where all races live and work together. We are intertwined in every possible aspect; what’s more tellingly positive is that we are single-minded in our efforts to improve our lives. As the nation prospers, we have been able to create wealth and share it equitably among the races. It is this progressive environment that has shaped us as a people, and racial harmony binds us together to make this nation tick.
Still, embracing racial harmony as a necessity is not the same as generating genuine fondness among the races. To reach that state requires a conscious effort to engage each other in a meaningful manner, such as finding time for heart-to-heart conversations, family visits and sharing mutual hobbies. It means taking the time to discover the soul of a friend and appreciating his perspective about life and the world. It is about humility and the readiness to learn from others outside our race and be richer for it.
Given the common behavioural pattern of forging friendships within one’s own social circle, it is vital that we continue to provide opportunities for young Singaporeans from all races and walks of life to interact, and scale the social ladder together.
My close friends of diverse ethnicities include those who share similar interests in sports and music, those who are career-driven yet family-oriented, and those who care to appreciate and celebrate what we consider are the fine things in life worth pursuing. They are colourful and possess a good sense of humour. Our get-togethers are marked by the sheer joy of being in one another’s company and a genuine care for one another’s personal circumstances. They never cease to amaze me with their insights, even though we were raised differently. In fact, our diversity has probably provided the spark for our interactions. I have on many occasions been humbled by the refreshing takes on various issues by my friends of another race, and I admire them the more for it.
All these lead to the point that what lies beneath racial harmony is a reservoir of values, wisdom and strengths that define Singaporeans of different ethnicities. We can harness and integrate these qualities into our common psyche and move one step closer to genuine racial integration. While past campaigns have improved awareness of racial issues and tolerance of differences, in my view, we should take a great leap forward by promoting mutual admiration and reinforcement of values across races.
We know about the limitations of our little red dot which exposes our vulnerability and our constant grapple to ensure national survival. We will only be selling ourselves short if we do not strive to grow as a people and get the best out of our human assets. We can do this by making that leap towards active racial integration, rather than remain satisfied by trawling the surface of racial tolerance. It is time for us as a people, led by our capable leaders, to take the next leap of integration and transform ourselves into one national race.
BY YEOH TENG KWONG
(Dr. Yeoh holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and is currently a free lance consultant who provides management, media and marketing services and conducts public speaking courses.)