SINGAPORE - Half empty or half full - this is the usual way to describe the state of race relations in Singapore.
For the longest time, I took comfort in gauging it this way. It was an effective coping mechanism, whenever one comes across Singaporeans who fall back on stereotypes when dealing with one another, or who make insensitive remarks betraying ignorance about minorities. This was not representative, and not the only way to look at the situation, I could tell myself. My closest friends from the majority race are nothing like that. It was all a state of mind: the glass was still half full.
But sometimes things cause you to reappraise that position. A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies and OnePeople.sg was one such prompting.
First, the good news is that Singaporeans tend not to have a problem working with colleagues or having neighbours of another race. The survey did find that Malays and Indians feel they have to work harder to prove themselves at the workplace, but perhaps this is inevitable among minorities.
They also appear comfortable about having friends from another race but the figures decline markedly when it comes to other private- sphere decisions like accepting a spouse or in-law from another ethnic group. The gap between the public and private space comfort levels is not too unsettling, one could argue. As a country, we are told repeatedly our unity is fragile and that beneath us is a tinderbox of ethnic emotions that could go up in flames if an irresponsible person lights a match. So, we have been taught to tread carefully in the public space.
Indeed, the survey confirms the findings of a similar study done six years ago by two academics showing that when it came to public- sphere activities, racial and inter-religious ties are consistently sturdy.
But there are other findings from this recent survey that are harder to fathom.
Only 71 per cent of Chinese believe it is a good thing that Singapore is made up of people of different racial groups. The corresponding figures for Malays and Indians were 80 per cent and 79 per cent respectively. Although they make up a clear majority, it is astonishing to discover that three in 10 of the majority race would still prefer an all-Chinese nation.