More issues on segregation and unnecessary sensitivities

Working together as volunteers

Published on Oct 20, 2013

When a photograph calling for grassroots volunteers made the rounds online this month, it sparked anxiety among some Singaporeans over the role of foreigners here – not in the workplace or the school, for once, but in a Residents’ Committee.

The picture was of a sign, written in Tagalog, which called for volunteers for a Filipino sub-committee in the Compassvale Villa RC.

Though the sub-committee was never formed, those who decried the idea had a point: Creating identity-based groups is not the best approach to integration.

But the kneejerk anger which greeted that picture may have missed another, more important aspect.

It was ultimately still an attempt to integrate, not to divide. And that cause is worth supporting, even if its methods can be improved.

The incident occurred months ago, with the poster only up for a few days until grassroots adviser Teo Ser Luck found out about it. When the photograph was circulated again earlier this month, it attracted complaints that a “segregated” group should not be formed.

Mr Teo himself had recognised this. Last Monday, he said that he had counselled the RC members that such sub-committees were not the right approach. “The best integration is to work together in the same group,” he said. And this point is one that critics of the sub-committee idea should take on board.

If they are genuine in their objection to segregation, then they should support having grassroots volunteers of different backgrounds.

After all, Residents’ Committees were introduced to “promote neighbourliness, racial harmony and community cohesiveness amongst residents”, in the People’s Association’s own words.

Neighbourliness cannot exclude some just because they grew up elsewhere.

So there should be no objections to the principle of calling for volunteers from other countries. But the call could have been better made, especially in the light of the rapid influx of foreigners in recent years and the attendant unhappiness that it has generated.

A better approach would be what Mr Teo suggested: for volunteers to work together.

There might be merit in, for instance, a sub-committee dealing with integration. But membership should not be restricted by background.

What else could be improved? Well, for a start, putting up signs in only one language is likely to alienate those who do not speak it.

A sign in an unfamiliar language, without translation, could reinforce a sense of “otherness”.

Calls for volunteers could also stress that all nationalities are welcome, rather than focus on one specific group.

Once volunteers have been found, what then? Simply working side by side on RC issues can help integration, as people see each other as fellow residents rather than as defined by differences.

If more proactive integration measures are sought, then the offending poster itself suggests a way forward.

It was illustrated with photographs of food and cultural performances. These are simple, accessible ways for cultural exchange to happen, whether it is over dishes at a block party or dance performances at a community celebration.

The poster provoked comments condemning segregation. Let us instead focus on the other side of the same coin: promoting unity.

janiceh@sph.com.sg

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