Real interaction is key to racial harmony

Real interaction is key to racial harmony

It was Racial Harmony Day last Monday - which made me recall my time in school and why I never wore my baju kurung on the one day a year saris, qipao and baju kebaya would mingle in school stairways all over Singapore.

The sights were heartwarming: an Indian schoolmate tussling a rogue sari into submission around her Chinese friend's waist; friends asking to "salam" me, clasping my hand before clutching their own to their chest, just over the heart - a gesture I've always found more intimate than the functional handshake; a succession of performances from all ethnic groups and students pecking at unfamiliar foods at makeshift stalls in the canteen.

But the way we marked it made me wonder whether that was all there was to Racial Harmony Day - food, fashion and festivities?

It was a day that became, to me, as the years passed and the novelty faded, an empty symbol - a medal around the country's neck that we'd got so used to wearing that we'd forgotten its weight.

In 1964, race riots killed 22 people and injured 461. My grandmother spent nights huddled with her family behind locked doors. Darkness closed over her kampung like a fist, oil lamps lying cold for fear that lights would draw rioters looking for trouble.

But I never feared for my life growing up.

Now, we have ethnic quotas in our public housing estates to encourage mingling. And yet, hairline cracks remain. There's still not enough real interaction to foster understanding. Some of my friends from Special Assistance Plan schools grew up with only Chinese classmates up until university. Some madrasah friends admit their close friends are all fellow Muslims.

Even at age 24 now, I am still told by some: "You're my first Malay friend." (This is sometimes accompanied cheekily, by: "You're not what I expected. You're not very good at singing.")

There have to be more opportunities for interaction. Students should find ways to step outside the confines of the social circle their school has knitted for them.

Volunteer, perhaps, for a self-help group that does not cater to your own ethnic group.

In secondary school, I volunteered with the Indian self-help group Sinda to teach children to read - and received a thorough schooling in Hindu epics.

After my session, my student's parents would sit me down for a late breakfast of putu mayam heaped with sugar, regaling me with tales from the Ramayana and telling me - with great gusto - about their courtship years.

At a friend's school, the first lesson on Racial Harmony Day would see form teachers inviting students to ask classmates about cultural practices in a bid to coax unasked questions to the surface.

That's one way of stopping misunderstanding in its tracks.

Last year, a Harmony Fund was introduced for ground-up efforts that promote racial and religious harmony.

And this is a good step forward. I hope more people will start coming up with meaningful ways to promote interaction that deepens mutual understanding.

Because racial harmony cannot grow through dates marked on the pages of a calendar, or with the Government's hand tight on the wheel.

Individual Singaporeans must play a part - and must, most importantly, want to. Racial harmony has to come from the ground up, and the willingness and drive of a community that has its heart set on being not just multiracial, but good at it.

Then maybe one day, I'll dust off my baju kurung for a Racial Harmony Day I really believe in.

This article was first published on July 27 2014.
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