Alfian Sa’at: Race should not be a taboo or sensitive topic


To live in Singapore is to take the above statement as self-evident. And yet Singapore is a very racialised society, with one’s race imprinted on one’s identity card. If you look ethnically indeterminate, taxi drivers will often ask you what race you are, as casually as they ask you for your destination. There are self-help groups and SAP schools, bilingual policies and charts broken down by race.

So we are faced with a situation where we are surrounded by racial images and racial discourses, but are then told that to speak about them is dangerous.

The bogey examples that are commonly cited are ‘racial riots’—the consequences of irresponsible racial speech. But it is very important to also examine the political conditions that gave rise to so-called racial passions. In the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots, for example, there were grievances directed against a colonial court system that was perceived to take sides with Europeans. In the 1964 Sino-Malay riots, there were grievances on the issue of whether Malays would be granted special rights like the rest of the Federation.

Neither of these erupted as an expression of some kind of ‘natural enmity’ between those of different races. Instead there were instances of desperate violence where some people believed that neither the courts nor the government was able to deliver justice to the disenfranchised.

Personally, I have never thought of race as a ‘sensitive topic’. To me, race is sensitive only when we lack a language to talk about it. And we only develop this language when we stop treating race as a taboo subject. As society matures, the discourse must also develop in tandem. In the early years, politicians would talk about race using terms like ‘ultras’, ‘chauvinists’ and ‘communalists’, terms that were lobbed at political enemies and which ultimately obscured the real relationship between race and power.

Gradually, people started discussing race in terms of ‘stereotypes’ and ‘prejudice’. And I see encouraging signs in recent years, where the discourse has been enriched by discussions about ‘privilege’, or ‘majoritarianism’, or ‘anti-racism’.

Maybe some people might think that I am too idealistic in believing that words have the power to transform how we think, and that language can help us understand certain (racial) feelings that have long been thought of as primordial and irrational, beyond the reach of speech.
But then again, that’s what writers are supposed to do.


Source: Alfian Sa'at