Lee Kuan Yew once said that he would rise from his grave if he ever felt that “something is going wrong”.
Few Singaporeans would have expected to see him reincarnated as Tan Boon Lee, a senior lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Engineering.
On June 6th, Tan is seen on a Facebook video publicly admonishing Dave Parkash, who is of mixed Indian-Filipino ancestry, for dating a Thai-Chinese girl (behind the camera).
“I have nothing against Indians, but I think it is racist for an Indian to marry a Chinese girl,” said Tan, in a statement so puzzling and prejudiced yet also so familiar to minorities in Singapore, in its inversion of racism. You are the racist, not me.
The aesthetics of the moment are perfect, in a kitschy, somewhat stereotypical way. We see Tan in a red “Singapore” polo t-shirt, with the Singapore flag stitched over his right breast, and the (Singapore birthday) number “51” printed on his sleeve.
Across him Parkash is in brown suede shoes and a white Zegna t-shirt, an appropriate canvas for his dyed locks that dangle below a tight bun.
The conservative unker from AMK faces down the millennial from Haji Lane.
Their only seeming commonality, their only sartorial overlap, is the standard-issue black mask. (Did Parkash forget his handmade batik one?)
The backlash was immediate. K Shanmugam, home affairs minister, expressed surprise. “I used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction on racial tolerance…I am not so sure anymore.”
Chan Chun Sing, education minister, said: “”These incidents are striking, precisely because they go against what we stand for in Singapore.”
Presumably Chan and Shan are not that familiar with the words of their idol Lee. His infamous quote on mixed couples began circulating almost as soon as Parkash’s video. One could be forgiven for thinking that Tan recited directly from the gospel of Lee.
I looked up Lee’s entire quote and found a slightly more complex perspective. The quote was from a speech he made in 2004 on bilingualism and language policy. He was referring to the period around independence when he said this:
“Mr (S.) Rajaratnam was the exponent of “we can create a race of Singaporeans”. Idealistically, I would go along with him. But, realistically, I knew it was going to be one long, hard slog; maybe we’ll never get there, but we should try.
Ask yourself this question. If your child brings back a boyfriend or a girlfriend of a different race, will you be delighted? I will answer you frankly. I do not think I will. I may eventually accept it. So it is deep in the psyche of a human being.”
As happens with quotes, many have forwarded the second paragraph without the preamble. Lee’s recognition of homophily alongside an idealism to “create a race of Singaporeans” reminded me of a conversation I had in Ipoh, Perak in 2004, when my best friend Sumana and I cycled around Malaysia. The anecdote concluded the chapter on race and religion in my first book:
“In Ipoh, Pak Zamin had presented us with a simple answer to Malaysia’s ethnic, religious and identity conflicts. ‘Different groups spend time trying to convert people and win them over. Instead, the government should just go all out to encourage inter-racial marriage. That is simply the best way.’
According to him, it made no sense to try to figure out what it meant to be Malaysian. That would take many hundreds of years of miscegenation. ‘The true Malaysian has not been born yet.’ “
Yet the complexity of Lee’s view must not excuse its inherent racism.
The problem, as Pritam Singh, our leader of the opposition, put it (in reference to Tan), is with “taking his views out of the private realm and into the public one.”
Essentially, Lee belongs to a school of thought where every racist sentiment and bone can be made public; and then policy formulated to adjust for that.
One of the many dangers with that is that you validate racism.
On the one hand, Lee, like any individual, is entitled to his own view of inter-personal relationships. As Singh recounted, Lee once said that if his daughter wanted to marry a “black African”, he’d have no qualms telling her “You’re mad.” (So, “white African” can?)
On the other, Lee should never have disseminated those views. It is all the worse when it emanates from somebody with power and status, what with scores of acolytes hanging on his every word. There is a direct line one can (and must) draw from Lee’s words to the incident between Tan and Parkash.
Shanmugam said in his post that “…some try to explain away, each time something like this happens.”
He’s right. If he and his party refuse to acknowledge the full impact of Lee’s racist words and policies, if they refuse to allow an interrogation of Lee’s rights and wrongs, then history will remember them as the ones who explained away, who swept everything under the carpet.
All this is not to imply, of course, that Lee alone is responsible. Many other factors, from the rise of nativism globally to localised anti-Indian sentiment, might have contributed to the encounter between Tan and Parkash. Yet let’s not be naive about Lee’s influence on our little red dot, especially when it comes to issues, policies, and systems around race and religion.
The unmistakable similarity between Tan Boon Lee’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s positions on interracial relationships offers Singapore today an opportunity to deepen the conversation about the latter’s legacy.
Let’s not waste it.
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– I have written at length, including in my first book, about LKY’s complicated racial and religious policies. He strove to build a race-neutral meritocracy, yet ultimately it was vulnerable to Chinese majoritarianism, reflecting his own inherent racism. More in a recent blog piece here: “Should the opposition be speaking out more against racism in Singapore?”
– The PAP should consider involving Singh in all its anti-racist work. He has repeatedly shown that he has more perspective and sensitivity than other politicians in dealing with racial issues. In his post, for instance, he captured well the contradictions in Lee’s words, policies and positions. Put politics aside, involve Singh.
– Lakshmi Ganapathi, a Singaporean friend who lives in Boston, wrote a lovely response to this incident in which she synthesises many anti-racist thoughts of Ibram X Kendi. You can read that here.
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