Racialising the presidential race

Handy words for skin tones from joshroby.com

Handy words for skin tones from joshroby.com

This also sickens me: the use of the race bogeyman to justify changing the rules for electing a president. In its press release, 10 February 2016, the Prime Minister’s Office said the Constitutional Commission should, among other directives, make recommendations relating to “ensuring that minorities have the chance to be periodically elected to Presidential office.”

In Singapore’s political speak “minorities” always means racial minorities. It doesn’t mean religious, sexual, economic — or any other kind — of minorities. Even when it comes to racial minorities, this is largely seen through the grating that slices the picture into four politically-constructed races: “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other” (CMIO).

I will explain here why this justification for complex political rules should be rejected. It is no more than a (deceptive) sweetener to help the bitter pill of further entrenching themselves in power go down better.

Everybody is a minority in some way

The fact is, humans come with considerable variation; skin colour is not the only dimension. There are so many dimensions that the average person won’t even be able to recall or describe the full range of characteristics of his friends. We don’t always know exactly what religions all our friends profess, or their true sexualities. We may have no clue that so-and-so’s mother held outlier political beliefs and was persecuted for them; as a result so-and-so himself has strong views and is in a sense a political minority. We seldom know which of our friends are colour-blind.

In daily life, most of us simply ignore the attributes of the people we interact with unless a particular attribute is somehow relevant to the interaction in question. That’s why we don’t go around keeping an up-to-date checklist of the infinite ways our friends and acquaintances differ from us.

Best of intentions

Sometimes people get things wrong for the best of intentions. Years ago, I was in Budapest and a Canadian guy whom I met there, and who knew I was gay, suggested a night out at a bar he thought would interest me. “I walked past this place last night. It advertised ‘Lesbians making out’,” he said, confident that I’d find it irresistible.

Relevance is mostly a utilitarian consideration. We may need to know for example if somebody is an observing Muslim when we’re choosing a restaurant… but then we don’t go any further to ask if she is Sunni or Shi’a or whatever. We certainly should find out if someone is interested in Chinese opera before we plan an evening out, but if he says no, we’d rarely go on to find out exactly what genre of music and stage arts he is into.

Beyond the situationally necessary, most of us don’t normally care what distinguishes the other from us.

But relevance can be manufactured, and compliance with specified characteristics made necessary in our minds. We have all heard of certain churches where members are indoctrinated to restrict friendships to only other members of the church. I have overheard conversations on the train in which one cellgroup member is “advising” another not to go out with a certain person, “because she is not from our church”. Almost surely, similar injunctions are attempted in some mosques too.

By any utilitarian, objective consideration, such restrictions bring no benefit; in fact, they carry considerable cost in that they deprive the subject person of social connections with people who have skills, experiences and perspectives different from and possibly complementary to what he has. However, for the controllers of the group, such indoctrination cements their hold on the group. By manufacturing relevance, they consolidate their power.

Race as manufactured relevance

In a more subtle way, the same process has been underway in Singapore politics for fifty years. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) makes constant efforts to keep race distinctions at the forefront. Even their rhetoric about non-discrimination serves this purpose, because it continually highlights this particular dimension of difference.


Albeit highly visual, why race alone?

This is not to deny the fact that of the infinite number of characteristics, race is a particularly obvious one since it comes through visually — and the human is a strongly visual animal. Human societies have generally had long traditions of group solidarity where race was used as a key marker. It is therefore very easy for people seeking to manipulate us to let us assume that we are hardwired to always take race into consideration, and consequently, that active measures must be called for to counteract this hardwiring.

Once we allow that assumption of irreducible hardwiring, it becomes difficult to argue against measures supposedly in the interest of non-discrimination.

Yet, human societies have generally had long traditions of other kinds of discrimination. Gender and sexuality come foremost to mind. Economic class too.

The fact that the PAP makes no effort to enact complex rules for ensuring the periodic election of female, gay or economically underprivileged persons to the presidency should show us what their true motives are. Quite the opposite you might say: the whole social and political system created by the PAP for Singapore distinctly disempowers these groups, with not the slightest hint of repentance.

That rhetoric’s usefulness lies in how hard it is to take a counter-position: one cannot comfortably be in favour of discrimination. So when they roll out a policy with the justification that it is to bolster racial non-discrimination, it becomes difficult for anyone to argue against it. When more onerous rules are tacked along with the non-discrimination provision, the hope is that they too get enacted alongside.

What we too easily forget is that non-discrimination does not only arise from active measures, but is equally obtainable through passive neglect. If we ignore a certain characteristic, then we won’t be discriminating along those lines. For example, we hardly ever pay attention to whether people are right-handed or left-handed, and as a consequence, it doesn’t factor into our electoral politics. In fact, neglect is a more inclusive approach than active non-discrimination. This is because active measures require us to define exactly what is to be considered, that is, to slice people into subgroups. On the matter of race, it is CMIO. Yet by doing so, it erases any number of subgroups or blends that don’t quite fit.

The right thing to do is to reject any provision that classifies anyone by race. Anything that does not further the aim of ignoring race completely will serve the ultimate purpose of keeping race alive as a discriminatory tool, allowing people with power to use it as an instrument to consolidate their control.

If any active measure needs to be taken, it should be in educating people to think critically. When they do so, they will be immunised to any appeals to irrelevant characteristics — not just race — when making decisions and casting their votes.

The American example

For all the flaws of American democracy, and despite the country’s long legacy of slavery and race discrimination, we have lately seen the great power that trusting the good sense of ordinary people can do. The United States did not need any affirmative provisions in their electoral laws to get Barack Obama elected as president. Nor is it even clear that such provisions would have helped him, since he isn’t 100 percent African ancestry. Obama is 50 percent White; his mother was White. So is Black or is he White?

Likewise in the present 2016 presidential election campaign, just look at the leading candidates (even if you must hold your nose at some of them). Hillary Clinton is a woman. Bernie Sanders is Jewish. On the Republican side, among the leading candidates (as of today), there is a Cuban (or Latino) in Marco Rubio, and a half-Latino foreign-born candidate in Ted Cruz.

I do not believe that Singaporeans are any less intelligent and sensible than Americans. And considering the high polls numbers currently enjoyed by Donald Trump, no one can accuse me of thinking too highly of Americans. What I am saying is: if the Americans can do it, so can we.

We do not need elaborate schemes to ensure minority-race presidents, or for that matter minority-any-other-characteristic president. When the PAP tries to pull that fast one on us, it is completely self-serving.



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