Amy Cheong and racial relations in Singapore

Amy Cheong, an assistant director who oversaw the service department at NTUC, has been relieved of her position. It was just hours after she had made some insensitive remarks deemed ‘racist’ by a flurry of online comments. I think that there are two points of contention here: firstly, the fact that Amy Cheong’s actions may reflect a wider and latent social problem; secondly, the fact that the responses of the authorities bear the assumption that hard solutions suffice in addressing the problem.

As soon as I read this piece of news, I knew I’ve seen this before. The sense of deja vu was overwhelming but bitter at the same time. Online insensitive remarks like this have made Internet headlines as early as 2005, such as in the case of Gan Huai Shi, or more recently, in the case of Lai Shimun. So I searched online for Amy Cheong’s specific post. It has been taken down, but netizens have posted screenshots of it elsewhere. I was taken aback by the extent of the insult. Yes, an insult! – not a remark. Apart from spewing profanities, she has insulted the heart of another community by mocking and ridiculing how marriages are carried out in their culture. Is this an impulse-driven, isolated incident? Or is this the tip of an iceberg which looms over our society?

A latent social problem?

In Amy Cheong’s post, she ridiculed the fact that “society can allow people to get married for 50 bucks”. Basically, she assumed that “society” refers to her community and her community only, which is obviously not true in a country who prides herself over her multi-cultural society. In doing so, she has imposed the values of her culture onto another person’s culture. She somewhat justifies herself in calling the other culture guilty for certain social phenomena. For example, she attributes “society”‘s allowing of cheap weddings, as well as the fact that the Malay community doesn’t “pay for a real weddings” as causes of Singapore’s burgeoning divorce rate. (on that note, is she married?) She didn’t considering the viewpoints of other cultures at all.

And from there I am worried that this may be a reflection of a latent social problem. The words Amy used and even her posting of the comment online shows she felt that the world was hers. That other cultures don’t seem to co-exist. I am sure that she had felt as such owing to (or at least partially) the environment she lives in. Her community molded her to think in a certain way, and therefore she is presenting what she has learnt. So it wasn’t exactly her fault, wasn’t it? I don’t even think that we should be worried about what she did. Rather, we should be worried about why she did it. I don’t care if she apologizes or not – that’s merely addressing the problem on paper, there’s a larger problem. At this point you may realize that I am approaching this case from a specific perspective that associates someone’s actions to his or her upbringing, and so you may argue otherwise, but I present this as a possible source explanation, elaboration, and concern.

Steering in the right direction

That’s not all. As for the solutions to this problem, I am also concerned about some of the methods we take to solve this problem. Laws have muted the racists and prevented the deadly racial riots as we have seem half a century ago. Indeed, racial tolerance has been an achievement that Singapore can be proud of. But what about racial harmony? From this incident and several precedents, I feel that racial harmony hasn’t been achieved, really. There are two major institutions in society: first of which being the official and government while the second of which being the culture and family. While gaps between cultures have been closed up on the official level (for the lack of a better word), unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the same on the cultural level, as evident from the case of Amy Cheong. Sure, NTUC can remove her from her post, but that is merely addressing her action. What about her underlying mindsets I talked about earlier? So I think that no, Singapore doesn’t deserve the title of a racial harmony.

To better understand each other, we need to communicate. A netizen felt that Amy shouldn’t have posted this comment and that she should “refrain from unnecessary comments”. That’s what many Singaporeans are doing, and which is why this issue is a latent problem – everyone refrains from taking about it. As such, some people commenting as such may reflect what they think about the other cultures, therefore we understand some other people’s differing mindsets and we can more adequately solve the problem. Just another way of looking at the issue at hand.

So what can be done? I think it’s interaction. Education in the form of textbooks is not enough. Punishment is definitely not enough. Interaction on the personal level – mind you, I mean “organic” forms of interaction that aren’t pretentious and that don’t serve ulterior purposes. That’s how we can grasp the notion of racial harmony from the bottom up.

I think that this is how we can plant the seeds of racial harmony into our social fabric. Fortunately, the soil is still fertile!

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