Racism in Singapore: A new dinner series wants you to talk about race

Racism in Singapore: A new dinner series wants you to talk about race

Talk of the town

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Getty Images

More Than Just is an initiative that will host a three-part dinner series to encourage open conversations on race and racism in Singapore

You've been told of the three main topics to stay clear of when you meet someone new: Politics, religion and salary. In label-obsessed Singapore, race is also often taken out of the conversation in fear of awkward pauses and accusatory tones — with people taking their gripes and commentaries online instead. But for Lewis Liu and Liyi Chen of homegrown initiative More Than Just, it's a topic that forms the basis of their new dinner series.

Introducing a series of dinner conversations to talk about race and racism, the duo — who come from consultancy and social enterprise backgrounds — intends to explore what it means to fall under the ingrained categories that split and form Singapore: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others. Liu and Chen aim to engage diverse groups of seven or eight over three dinner conversations through March, anchored by questions such as "How racist is Singapore?", "Does race matter now?", and "What is the future of race and racism in Singapore?".

More Than Just serves as a positive step in opening up the conversation on race, notably in light of events last year that involved local media outlets in unfortunate foot-in-mouth situations. Triggered? Sign up at their website, which has also set up ground rules urging prospective guests to "listen with intent" and "disagree respectfully" — no keyboard warriors allowed here. Liu shares more below.

Did anything particular trigger this dinner series?
It was a painful experience reading the Facebook comments section over a post in The Middle Ground. There were two concerns that struck me. Firstly, there appeared to be a tension between multi-racialism and pragmatism, two concepts that we always associate with our national identity. Secondly, a lack of cross-"bubble" understanding was evident. It seemed that the various camps were airing their views from their echo chambers, and no side was listening and reconsidering their concerns against another side's.

Why do you think Singapore needs to have this conversation right now?
It's not just right now. We need the conversation to be ongoing for us to understand each other's concerns, so that we can figure out how best to navigate in light of new events and situations. And it's not just Singapore that needs it, but many other countries too. Seeing how surprised people are at the Brexit vote and Trump's presidency, I think many of us are starting to realise that we engage with others in our own echo chambers even as we think we consume more diverse sources of information than before. We all need to start the conversation somewhere, because this relatively new form of public discussions on social media doesn't seem to promote conversation as much as it does fragmentation.

Is there a reason guests must attend all three sessions?
We all need some time to be comfortable with each other before we can dive into a deeply personal issue. Pursuing an understanding of someone else isn't an endeavour for instant gratification. If you come for the first and not the rest, then it's unlikely you have gone further than pleasant introductions. Attending only the later session jumps the gun in relationship-building, while attending only the first is marginally better than the 90 seconds you would otherwise take to scroll over someone's Facebook profile and judge them.

How do you wish for this series to grow?
We're planning a fourth session where we are looking for participants to share their experiences from the three sessions. It'll be open to the general public and we are aiming to cater to 50 people. Beyond that, we are also creating a "Field Guide" to allow like-minded individuals to organize their own public dinner conversations to talk about difficult issues.

The More Than Just dinner series is limited to 25 participants. To sign up, click here.