Musings from the general election campaign: race, language and religion


At one of the election rallies, I met an American who moved to Singapore only a year earlier. Of course he didn’t have the vote, but he was curious what election rallies were like. I had met him before, and so went up to him to say, hi.

He was glad to see me as he had a question he didn’t know whom to ask. “Will they ever speak in English?” was the question.

I laughed. “Why do you ask? What’s been happening since you got here?”

“I’ve seen three speakers already, two spoke in Chinese and one in some other language,” he replied. “I still have no clue what any of the speeches are about!” Then, partly in jest, “Is English banned?” The question is not as far-fetched (to foreigners) as one might think, considering Singapore’s very arbitrary bans over this and that.

I assured him the candidates would eventually come around to speaking in English.

“It’s still a little weird, though,” he said, conceding that it’s not Singapore’s fault in any way, but it’s just his American background, “to witness a rally in so many different languages. Do people actually understand it all?”

In an earlier post, I wrote about a Malay candidate who tried to raise battle-cries after his (Malay-language) speech by shouting “Merdeka!”. There was no reaction from the crowd. I pointed out in my article how absurd it was to expect to be able to work up a crowd through a language most did not comprehend.

pic_201509_68smallNow that I have some time after polling day, I decided to search for some data about the linguistic terrain. The data I found from the 2010 Census is presented in graphical form at right. Click on the image to enlarge it. I am not trying to make any argumentative point from it, but am just sharing what I found.

The data is for Singapore residents (i.e. including Permanent Residents) aged 5 and above. The area represented by the disc or segment of a disc correlates with the population numbers of that group. The Census had fine detail of unusual groups, e.g. people who identify as Malay, but who say their most frequent home language is Mandarin. However, for simplicity, my graphic leaves out groups that number fewer than 1,000 persons.

Most Singaporeans are bilingual, some trilingual. Most of us speak English (even if it’s not our most frequent home language), so there is an inescapable centrality of English in Singapore society. But as you can see from the graphic, Mandarin is just as frequently spoken at home too. There are also significant “bubbles” of Malay, and Chinese-dialect home-speakers.

I was just being curious looking up these statistics. But I come away seeing how sensible most parties are in their choice of, and time-allocation for the various languages when conducting their rallies. While it is true that, given the widespread bilingualism, it is entirely possible to conduct the rally all in English and still be able to reach the vast majority of attendees, there are probably many voters who are more comfortable in another language. Especially if you want to engage emotionally with your audience, it makes sense to use Mandarin, dialects, Malay or Tamil too.

* * * * *

pic_201509_70In another recent post, I recalled a speaker at a Singapore Democratic Party rally who devoted a good part of his speech to arguing against a ban on nurses wearing the tudung (also known as hijab). No doubt this was a matter very close to his heart, but (at least when he was speaking in English, following his speech in Malay) he made very little effort to explain how this issue should factor into the voting decision of non-Muslims. It is unlikely he would have explained that either in the other half of his speech when he spoke in Malay.

Here was a candidate whose main election appeal was essentially based on religion, which mapped closely over a particular race community. I feel quite strongly that we should never encourage such tactics. Singaporeans need to be watchful and require all candidates to confine themselves to public interest arguments when making election appeals.

This is not to say that it is impossible to argue for a liberalisation of tudung rules, but to do so, one has to couch it in public interest terms, not religious terms. Saying “You should let me wear a tudung because it is my religion and my religion requires it” is a bad and dangerous argument because it tacitly gives religion a veto over other rights, rules and laws. Such an argument should be rejected out of hand.

It is however, possible to couch the argument in terms of the right to self-expression.

At the same time, however, the speaker needs to convince us that he genuinely believes in fighting for the right of self-expression, and is not merely using this right selectively to cloak a sectarian demand. How is a speaker to convince us of such? He or she has to, in almost the same breath, argue for the equal right of others to self-expression, for example:

  • Transgenders should not be discriminated against in their choice of attire and gender presentation;
  • Writers who criticise my religion have every right to do so;
  • and Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab shall have their free choice equally defended.

Short of that, don’t be surprised when accused of hypocrisy.

* * * * *

This election campaign was marked by complaints that on four or five occasions, PAP candidates were seen on stage at getai events. Getai is a kind of street show staged during the Chinese seventh lunar month (or Hungry Ghost month), and is heavily infused with Taoist significance. There were reports that emcees urged audience members to support those candidates.

Frankly, the presence of PAP candidates at getai events is not as sinister as it may sound. It is normal for members of parliament to grace such events; and quite likely, they would have agreed to do so before the election was called, even if the event itself was held during the campaign period. To not show up might cause offence. That said, emcees shouldn’t be putting in partisan words.

More serious are reports that a Christian leader effectively asked his congregation to vote for the PAP, as mentioned in a Facebook post (13 Sept 2015) by Andrew Loh:

Red flag:

Another little said observation of GE2015: the PAP’s use or exploitation of religious conservatives to win votes (PM and ministers attending the Christian Jubilee Prayer event mere weeks before the elections) and PAP keeping silent over Lawrence Khong’s political letter to his followers at the height of hustings.

And PAP MPs appearing at getais during the election itself, in spite of the police advisory on keeping getais and election activities separate.

The PAP has always slammed those mixing politics and religion but when it comes to itself, it seems to turn a blind eye.

Even when the Catholic Church issued a statement about the “Marxist conspiracy” in 2012, the govt came down on it, and the church asked for the letter to be returned.

As I said earlier, with the overwhelming electoral endorsement, we need to watch this govt closer, that it does not obscure these lines for its own political agenda.

A government with such overwhelming powers is always prone to abuse it.

The ‘Lawrence Khong’s political letter’ he referred to can be found here at this link. In case it is taken down later, I will excerpt the key passages:

The Bible commands us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NKJV) saying, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” As Christians, the Word of God holds us responsible to pray for those in governmental authority so that the right people will lead us to ensure peace and harmony in society.


First, please vote wisely. Use your vote to secure another 50 good years. There are things in life that are too serious to get it wrong. This is one of them. There is no need to use your vote to play ‘checks and balances’ as this is not how we shop. You don’t use a portion of your hard-earned income to pay for something that keeps ‘in check’ what you really want, do you?

Lawrence Khong issued a statement to say he had been “misconstrued”, and that “Nowhere in my statement did I name any political parties as it was not my intention to do so.”

To that, Andrew Loh pointed out in a subsequent Facebook post that “Pastor Khong here is being dishonest”and that “his original sermon …. had argued that ‘there is no need to use your vote to play ‘checks and balances’.'” Andrew asked: “Now, which party has been calling for ‘checks and balances’? Certainly not the PAP. In fact, it was only the PAP which objected to this.”

Concluding, Andrew wrote, “He had clearly veiled his call for his followers to vote for the PAP, but it was a call nonetheless.”

* * * * *

Lastly, another memorable snippet, this time pointing to the issue of race. On the face of it, it was an extremely embarrassing moment, but with a little reflection, you’ll see how progressive it is, albeit in a completely unintended way! Paradoxically, it came from another candidate of the Singapore Democratic Party, whose candidate in Marsiling-Yew Tee I had criticised for restricting himself to the tudung issue. You should be able to find it on Youtube with key words “Sidek Mallek” and “SDP”.

Sidek Mallek, pic from SDP website

Sidek Mallek, pic from SDP website

This candidate was asked by a reporter what he would do for the Malay community (implicitly, in the event he was elected). Moreover, it appeared that there was a request for him to answer in Malay (perhaps the reporter was doing it for a Malay-language news programme on TV). Sidek was at a complete loss for words. After an excruciating few seconds, he asked to “deflect” the question.

Jufrie then explained to the audience that Sidek might not have been able to fashion a reply because to do so required a Malay vocabulary he is not used to deploying.

I felt really sorry for him.

But a few seconds later, I thought, “That’s wonderful! This is what I want to see.”

The problem was really in the asked question. It was a loaded question that, in a different setting, I would have thrown back at the reporter. Its framing needed to be challenged. It latently boxed Sidek in by the colour of his skin: expected to speak a certain language, expected to have certain responsibilities. Any time you box someone in by the colour of his skin, it is a form of racism.

Moreover, why should Sidek be expected to “do” things for the Malay community? He was standing for election to represent all Singaporeans in Holland-Bukit Timah. If somebody asked me what I would “do” for the Chinese community, I too would be like a deer caught in headlights. It’s not something that would ever have occurred to me; it’s not something I feel any obligation to fulfil. So why put it on Sidek’s shoulders?

That moment of speechlessness on his part was very revealing of his post-racial Singaporeanness — and it is something we should celebrate.


4 Responses to “Musings from the general election campaign: race, language and religion”

  1. 1 Avinash 14 September 2015 at 11:58

    I suppose the reason they include as many languages and dialects as possible into a single rally is because political speech is so restricted in Singapore.

    What’s really interesting to me, though, is how Tamil figures in the whole equation. The impression I carried was that, beyond the respectful “vannakam”s at the beginning or the “nandri”s at the end, there weren’t any Tamil speakers in Opposition rallies at all.

    Which in itself is okay; Singapore historically has been more multi-lingual than the four official languages would hint at. What was unforgivable, though, was how patronising SingFirst’s attempt at Tamil was; they just put up some gibberish on their banner, a bunch of Tamil-looking letters in place of actual words. Tan Swee Jay blamed it on the printer; absolutely no ownership of the mishap, or even awareness as to why it was a big deal.

    My Tamil-speaking neighbours have lived in and around this estate for about four generations, right from its kampung days; only those born after the 70’s actually think in English first. That’s about ten-odd votes in that family alone who can be reached primarily through Tamil; many more if you can be seen to be not patronising.

  2. 2 The 14 September 2015 at 15:40

    On the getai issue, the Election Department has issued a new rule that election campaigning and getai should be kept separate. The issue is not whether it is sinister. The problem is that rules are broken by the PAP candidates, yet nothing is done.

  3. 3 Alfred H 22 September 2015 at 09:17

    Wait a minute. Confused here. Isn’t the purpose of a GRC to have minority representation? If so, nothing wrong with the reporter asking what Mallek can do for Malay community.

    • 4 yawningbread 22 September 2015 at 16:31

      There’s a difference between minority representation and expecting the minority member to be one “looking after” of his/her minority. The aim of diversity in politics as well as business is to have different perspectives, to avoid groupthink. But it never means that the woman director on the Board of Directors is the one “looking after” female staff in the company, for example.

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