Young people in Singapore are doing the right thing by standing up against racial insensitivity, said Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Saturday.
He was speaking about a photo of a birthday celebration taken in 2016 which depicted Raffles Institution students with their faces painted black.
In a Facebook post, Ong stressed that such acts of “racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person” of another race are not condoned, but urged people to also be mindful of how the situation in Singapore differs from that in the United States, which erupted in nationwide protests after an unarmed black man was suffocated in police custody on May 25.
The photo resurfaced on social media recently, depicted a group of Chinese students, some with their faces painted black and some wearing black masks, celebrating the birthday of an Indian schoolmate.
In the photo, they also pose with props such as a paper bag labelled “whitening kit”, posters of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and handfuls of cash.
A Facebook post on the incident on Thursday by Singapore playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at drew over 600 comments, with many people expressing outrage and hurt at the act.
The students sent him a note on the same day explaining that they had no malicious intentions, but acknowledging that it was no excuse for their insensitivity. They also issued a public apology.
In his first public comments about the issue, Ong said: “I can see many of our students, of all races, having strong feelings about the matter. It is good that our young are standing up for what’s right and what has been a founding value we strive to uphold in Singapore.”
Noting that the photo had probably resurfaced because of what is happening in America, Ong said Singapore’s situation is entirely different from that of America, which has “a painful history of slavery, a civil war, and a civil rights movement that had to struggle against racial segregation”.
Singapore, on the other hand, was founded as a multiracial country regardless of race, language or religion after it was thrust into independence in 1965.
He added: “That is not to say racial differences do not exist simply by decree. Tribal instincts are part of human nature.”
“This is why the Government implemented many policies over the years, enacted laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and established the Presidential Council of Minority Rights to guard against systemic racism”, he said.