Monday 26 November 2012

Hiding ethnic data won't solve problems

Fight stereotypes about minorities with better logic, not by hiding facts
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2012

A Facebook picture caught my eye recently. It was of a Malay couple posing on a staircase.

They were newly- weds. The groom, a dashing young Singaporean; the bride, a pretty girl. The reason the photo jumped at me from the incessant stream of Facebook postings was that the groom was wearing his Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) uniform.

For the most important day of his life, this Malay-Muslim Singaporean had chosen to include in his wedding pictures - along with the customary ceremonial wear - the clearest possible fashion statement of his loyalty to his homeland.

I wonder if it was a message for his fellow citizens, in a country that might not have trusted many of his older relatives with the honour of being called up to defend their nation, shoulder to shoulder with Chinese, Indians and others.

The pictures of ourselves that we choose to present to the world say a lot about both who we are as well as who we want to be.

This is true of wedding photos as well as national snapshots such as socio-economic data. And because such pictures can have an effect, including unintended negative effects, it is not surprising that they are sometimes hotly debated.

Recently, the age-old discussion surfaced of whether ethnic breakdowns of educational achievement or drug abuse should be made public. Malays do not come across particularly well in such statistics.

It is a complex issue because there are different ways of looking at it. You could say that we should focus instead on the positive, because we need to inspire young minorities and dispel negative stereotypes. There is enough factual evidence to show that Malays are making progress and capable of excellence. The community has self- made millionaires, successful professionals, top students at national examinations, a recent President's Scholar and an SAF general.

But there is the other side of the picture, and many Malays do not believe it is right to close their eyes to it. This explains why organisations like the Association of Muslim Professionals and Mendaki continue to attract committed volunteers, putting in time and effort to do right by their community. It is hard data that prompts them to act, and allows them to track progress or the lack thereof in national policies as well as in the work of self-help organisations.

Then, there is the compelling view that we should be working towards a post-racial Singaporean Singapore and stop describing social issues in ethnic terms. There is some wisdom in this approach as well, because class could be a greater predictor of life chances than race. A university-educated professional Malay probably has more in common with a Chinese Singaporean of the same class than with someone of the same race from a one-room rental flat.

One blogger put it this way: "A racial approach to social issues is no longer relevant in our society today and it merely serves to articulate and entrench racial and cultural stereotypes. Instead, we must attempt to adopt policies that address the social-economic inequalities from a societal level. The real fracture isn't between Mariamman and Mohammed, it lies between the Maserati and the MRT."

In Parliament recently, Nominated MP Eugene Tan expressed concern that the public release of data on the educational performance of different ethnic groups would reinforce racial stereotyping and undermine self-esteem.

Thinking selfishly, I know I would be more comfortable in a Singapore that was race-blind. It would have spared me the overt prejudice that I encountered when I was new to the working world. Even today, it would be nice not to have to deal with Singaporeans who assume that if they receive a phone call from a "Zuraidah" (which they usually remember as the more familiar "Zubaidah", but that's another story), it must be a secretary calling on behalf of her boss. Or the quizzical questions from members of the elite asking if I have mixed heritage, for they do not know how else to rationalise my job title with their own ethnic stereotypes.

I know a Malay entrepreneur who, when waiting to greet a business partner's private plane, was directed by airport staff to the waiting area for drivers. And a Malay doctor who, while shopping for an apartment in a prime area one weekend, was approached by an expatriate resident inquiring how much he charged for washing cars. But most of us are sufficiently sturdy to laugh off these slights.

Far more damaging are the countless times that Malays would have been penalised in the classroom, the job market or the workplace without them even being aware of it - when their mistakes were interpreted as evidence of their fixed genetic or cultural deficiencies rather than something that could be rectified with the right help; or when their successes were seen as flukes rather than indicators of their true potential.

Thus, the pictures in people's heads can be not only demeaning but also debilitating in very real ways. So, it is moving to see Singaporeans - including members of the majority race - speak up against ethnic stereotyping.

But the call to conceal data as part of that battle is misguided. Race-blind statistics may be welcomed by some who have already arrived, and members of the majority who prefer to pretend that our country has achieved racial equality.

But they do not help those who most urgently need help, most of whom do not have the opportunity to make their voices heard in public debate and need data to speak for them. Information is power, and making relevant information public allows us to discuss it and act on it. We should be asking for more information, not less.

If we suspect worrying patterns in Singapore society, the authorities with relevant data should be pressed by MPs, journalists and other thinking Singaporeans to make that data available - not encouraged to sweep it under the carpet.

Indeed, we need more transparency not only on social indicators such as educational attainment and substance abuse, but also on hiring practices, the numbers of minorities at senior levels in the public sector, and so on.

There is, of course, the important point that it could be class rather than race that makes more of a difference. The answer to that is again more data, not less. For example, we know that few Malays make it to university. More data can help us figure out the relative effects of class and culture, thus helping Singapore develop the right policies. Simply denying that a problem exists is not the answer.

Mr Tan suggested a middle way: Why not release the annual data only to the ethnic self-help groups rather than the wider public?

This proposal ignores the reality of the politics of self-help groups. If it were accepted, it is quite certain many members of the community would accuse these organisations of a cover-up - hiding the evidence of real problems in order to gloss over their lack of effectiveness.

The public release of relevant data is essential for holding our leaders accountable. If there are positive numbers, citizens need to know so that they can support policies that worked, including those that may entail more public funds. If numbers are stagnating or getting worse, citizens should also know so that officials can answer for them.

Some of the negative reaction to the public release of data confuses two separate issues: whether to make information available, and how to interpret that information. Anyone with some basic commitment to transparency would probably agree with me that secrecy is not the way to go. Their real worry, I suspect, is how their fellow Singaporeans might misuse the revelations.

This is a credible concern. We've seen in Singapore how ethnic data has been cited to support genetic theories and blind prejudice. In some bigoted minds, it is an all-too-short leap of logic to go from the fact that most convicted drug abusers are young Malay men to suspecting that most young Malay men are would-be drug abusers.

But the solution is to challenge the logic, not to conceal the facts.

As civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that".

To the growing number of non-Malay Singaporeans who empathise with my minority community, I can say I wish there were more of you, and earlier on, when discrimination was greater. But I also want to say that you are sometimes overprotective of my feelings. If you want to take up a cause, it is the reality of a disadvantaged community, not just its image.

Which brings me back to the picture of the SAF groom. I would like to believe that because we dared to talk openly about the painful subject many years ago, there was a change, for the better.

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