So former Presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian took a bus and posted a photo of Indian passengers, with the accompanying caption:
It caused quite the furore, with readers berating him for publishing such “racist” remarks.
To seal the deal, dear Mr. Tan poured enriched uranium on the fire, calling these readers “Internet brigade dogs” (online lapdogs of the ruling political party, if you need context)
He subsequently apologised for his initial post of the bus passengers, but qualified that his apology was “extended to “local Indian friends who feel offended”. It is not extended to IB dogs, racists, rude people and foreigners (who think they now own Singapore)”.
And yes, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that this man didn’t come close to office of the President.
But the question remains, was his initial post racist?
The post in and of itself doesn’t offer much. If I stood in Chinatown and exclaimed that I felt like I was in China, it would be a compliment to the authenticity of the recreated experience. A lot is inferred by how readers interpret the tone of Mr. Tan’s post, and whether he meant it in a derogatory manner.
It is true that there are times, especially when taking public transportation, when I feel a sense of being in a foreign land. Oddly enough, this feeling often excites and fills me with a sense of awe.
In our history, even predating that of our independence, Singapore has always been the interchange of many cultures. Starting as a trading post between India and China, Singapore today is a product of those tradewinds that brought different people together. It is by no small measure of God’s grace that we banded and forged this country together. The natural instinct, as shown even in online comments today, is for our patchwork community to shear. As we search for some permanence to anchor whatever newfound collective identity we have, we need to remember that this moment is but a sliver in the annals of time. The cliché that change is the only constant is even more evident here in Singapore.
We are small and nimble. We have survived and thrived by windsurfing on global trends. These are traits that we cannot abandon if we are to remain relevant to the rest of the world. As the world becomes increasingly connected and globalised, national barriers fade and workers made infinitely more mobile, Singapore serendipitously possesses the prize: a successful experiment of how people from all corners of the world, speaking different languages, having different religions, found enough common ground to live in harmony while still celebrating our unique identities.
The essential question for Singaporeans today is whether what we have is scalable. Or whether we want it to be.
It is sad that Mr. Tan Kin Lian seems more eager to pander to our baser instincts to segregate, divide, discriminate and hate. Those feelings, while understandable (just as I can emphatise with my children’s tantrums), are not the qualities to reside in higher office. We need more people to see that anti-foreigner sentiment isn’t about preserving Singapore. Singapore’s defining quality has always been openness. What we need to add to that is a layer of compassion, for what good is a prosperous, global city if it has all the means but not the will to take care of those left behind?
When I take the train or bus and it feels like I’m in a different country, I smile and thank God for the opportunity to experience such a range of cultures right here in Singapore. I know every one is here to make a living, just as in days of old; to carve out a better life for themselves and their families, and all of us, with a bit of nudging could get along and make this work.
We know, because we’ve done it once before.