After weeks of drift and despair, this was a speech we needed to hear. There is still some way for the establishment to go — but then it wouldn’t be called the establishment if it were capable of radical quantum leaps.
Here is what I liked:
1. At last, a PAP leader expressed empathy for the lived experience of minorities, and asked the majority to be more sensitive: “So, it is important for the majority community in Singapore to do its part, and be sensitive to and conscious of the needs of minorities. This cuts across all aspects of daily life.
It matters to someone who faces discrimination when looking for a job. It matters when someone feels left out when everyone else in a group speaks in a language that not all can understand. It matters to potential tenants who learn that landlords do not prefer their race. It matters to our students, neighbours, co-workers and friends who have to deal with stereotypes about their race, or insensitive comments.” The most universal and everyday of racial exclusions is the use of Chinese in work and social settings, so it was especially significant that the minister mentioned this. (Today and ST dropped this from their news reports, while CNA paraphrased the quote, which is why I’ve reproduced it above.)
2. While an announcement of policy changes was never on the cards for this occasion, the minister said more than once that all race-related policies, from the GRC system to HDB quotas, were open for discussion and periodic review. Is this enough? Well, if he does not have strong convictions that the PAP is more right than wrong, he would not be a PAP leader. That said, he was not excessively defensive, and showed a receptiveness to other points of view, especially in the Q&A.
3. He found a palatable way to urge minorities and antiracists to be patient if fellow Singaporeans still don’t get it. Too many establishment types – oddly obsessed with American culture wars and sounding as hysterical as Fox News – have been talking as if antiracists are a greater threat to Singapore than racists.
Wong did none of that. He just made the reasonable point that if we are all in this together, we can’t leave behind Singaporeans for whom antiracist discourse is very new and alien. Call out racism. But play the ball, not the man. It reminds me of what a liberal Dutch cartoonist told me about why he chooses not to take cheap shots at the Right by, for example, comparing them to Nazis: “You can’t open someone’s eyes by slapping his face.”
4. While he appealed for care in the choice of means, he did not fudge about the ends: Singapore must be more equal. This wasn’t like the PAP’s atrocious split-the-difference approach to gay rights: liberals want this, conservatives want that, so let’s keep 377A but not actively enforce it. No, at no point did Wong suggest that racists and others who are comfortable with the status quo should be allowed to set the agenda. Racial equality is non-negotiable.
5. Wong made it clear that he welcomes civil society engagement on this issue. This is important because there are things that could be done for which we can’t expect the PAP to be at the cutting edge. Before the speech, I told myself that I’d give Wong an 8/10 if he announced an independent race commission to look deeply and holistically at this issue. I was not surprised he didn’t. But I was very happy that NTU sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu, speaking on the IPS panel immediately after Wong’s session, proposed exactly this. It wasn’t picked up by the moderator for further discussion. But this is something that civil society should explore.
What we can reasonably demand of 4G is that the PAP exercise better moral leadership on race.
In 2019, Sudhir Vadaketh declared in a vodcast that he could no longer trust politicians to lead us on race. The problems that led him to this conclusion are probably still present. Major political movements, like religions, contain multiple conflicting tendencies. On Friday, Wong showed a side of the PAP leadership that many can get behind, or at least work with.
Time will tell if it prevails.
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