Harmony and Difference

Once upon a time, there was a storyteller. The moral of his stories were invariably about harmony. One day, someone regurgitated his plots and spun them, perhaps unintentionally, into tales of equality. This enraged the veteran storyteller who threw a hissy fit and yelled, “You are telling my stories wrongly!”

“But these stories are not yours.” one wished the second storyteller had retorted. “You are just another storyteller.”

As though the staleness of PM Lee’s National Day Rally about harmony (the racial and religious species, what else?) is not enough, many contribute their reverberations, adding stench to staleness. But suddenly, MM Lee seems strangely agitated about an NMP’s advocacy of equal treatment of all races?

Now, it might have seemed to many people to be quite politically correct to want all races to be treated equally. Surely, one might ask, the PAP which is so obsessed with racial harmony would have no problems with racial equality? As such, MM Lee’s strong reaction to Viswa Sadasivan’s view might seem rather odd at first. Is MM Lee against racial equality? Yes, if we assume that racial equality involves the equal treatment of all races. In a nutshell, MM Lee’s view is that the different races cannot be treated equally because the government has be sensitive towards minority races and take action or have policies that will reassure minorities that they will not be discriminated against.

And if we go on, we will be going in circles for the strength of Viswa Sadasivan’s point is precisely that if the government persists in the stance MM Lee has elucidated, racialcategories will become further entrenched. And Sadasivan probably has a problem with this because the emphasis on racial categories will ensure that the consciousness of race and of the perceived differences will always be present. Understandably, for a government that has played the race card for its strategic political benefit, any call to eliminate the need for racial categories is a travesty.

What we have are simply two positions but an uncannily common standpoint at their core. While Sadasivan talks about equality, MM Lee talks about non-discrimination, which in fact draws from discourses of equality. One says that there is no true equality if race continues to be visible, if the walls of race continue to be painted and repainted. The other says that, in practice, we cannot simply pretend that we have attained the ideal situation in which no one is bothered by what they consider to be race.

Perhaps it is not the difference in the two men’s positions that is significant. Perhaps the issue of equality as articulated by Sadasivan threatens to hit a sensitive spot in the discourse of harmony as propagated by the government. Suddenly, Singaporeans might be reminded that harmony is different from equality. It is possible for me live harmoniously with you even if I am (or you are) suffering social injustices. At the same time, you and I might be equals but we squabble from time to time. Which do you find preferable? (I do not mean that any racial group in Singapore is suffering injustices. This is just an illustration to distinguish the ideas of harmony and equality.)

Difference is an essential precondition of harmony. We can harmonize because there is you and I, because there is an other. With harmony is always the possibility of discordance; there is always a threat of sorts. If no one perceives difference, then the notion of harmony has to go. How painful that would be for someone who has built an entire city on that notion, who has made skyscrapers from the bricks of difference! More tragically, what would happen if people living in these glittery skyscrapers suddenly reject the buildings, the apartment-compartments, that have been built for them and in which they have been placed with a heavy hand. Worse, what if the inhabitants of the harmonious city decide to hire architects of their own?

Never throw away a child’s Lego set. It is devastating.

But is harmony not just harmony? Of course, but perhaps not. Perhaps harmony is not even harmony. The moment harmony is divided into types, with most types being invisible, there is silent disharmony. Or silenced disharmony. Racial harmony. Religious harmony. Why not gender harmony, for instance? Because, as a storyteller explains, many years ago, there were racial riots. And people died! So racial issues must be handled sensitively. Someone ought to send that storyteller to jail for sedition. For surely he is inciting riots on the basis of gender. What else? If we accord “racial harmony” importance because of racial riots, what is there to stop people from starting gender (or any other kinds of riots resulting in violence and deaths, something we fear so much?

The MM-NMP argument is ultimately not a racial issue. It is a political issue (as always). I feel as if I’m contributing staleness too. (But what else one have to offer?) When PM Lee warns of the danger of playing the racial/religious card (such as in the case of a group of Christians taking over AWARE), is he not playing the racial/religious card in a different way, not in the sense of being affiliated to any race or religion but in the sense of deploying race and religion to exact political benefits such as the restrictions on free expression on the part of the people. (Oh, but of course there is freedom of expression in Singapore, if you dare say this. Oh, but you are just been taken in by those Western ideals that simply don’t apply, if you persist in saying this. Of course we are democratic! .  . . We are not democratic because we are different from the West!)

I wonder if MM Lee remembered that he was telling someone from a minority race that he knew better what minority races need.

Bring people back to earth by all means, but please do not drag people down to hell.

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