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Princess Diana once said, “ The greatest problem in the world today is intolerance. Everyone is so intolerant of each other.” It is indeed true that intolerance is one of the greatest problems faced by the word today. Intolerance refers to lacking the capacity or willingness to recognize and respect the beliefs, practices or traits of others. In the past, there has been uncountable number of incidents of one being prejudiced against another individual who is unlike the majority of the population. For example, in the context of my society, Singapore, intolerance has been displayed towards racial minorities, religious minorities, single mothers, foreigners, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community and many other marginalized groups. Some might argue that intolerance of these minority groups is less prevalent in my society today as compared to the past. However, I personally feel that intolerance is still widely seen in my society today, due to the conservative nature of Singaporeans, globalisation and the increasingly competitive Singaporean society.
Some schools of thoughts argue that the intolerance towards those who are different is gradually being reduced today as there are greater opportunities for education that have led to increasing integration of people who are different. Education in Singapore promotes social integration among the different racial groups in Singapore. Schools in Singapore provide a common space for social integration not only among locals from various ethnic groups, but also between the local and foreign students. Schools in Singapore also place strong emphasis on Civics and Literacy education to inculcate respect and appreciation of different cultures in Singapore. For example, through the celebration of Racial Harmony Day and International Friendship Day, students are able to appreciate the different cultures of their peers better. Another aspect in which education has led to a reduction in intolerance is the alternative education pathway for children with special needs.
Special education programmes that cater to these children aim to help them become independent and enable them to function well in society. This is evident through the increasing number of social enterprises that cater to those who are physically or intellectually challenged. These people gain not only a chance at being employed but also have a chance to interact with members of society on a more frequent basis, something which is not as common in the past. This is likely due to the developing special education sector in Singapore, which has seen success in public education and in helping children with special needs to integrate into mainstream society. Therefore, education has been a platform that has moved my society into a more tolerant one.
Intolerance towards those who are different is gradually being reduced in my society, as there are increasingly more ground-up initiatives that have successfully raised awareness and understanding. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Voluntary Welfare organisations (VWOs) or even individuals that have engaged in advocacy that sets out to raise public awareness about minority groups. Thus, prejudiced mindsets towards several minority groups in Singapore are gradually being eroded. An example of this is the Yellow Ribbon Project that started out in 2004, is organized by CARE network Singapore, which aims to help ex-convicts reintegrate back into society. Inmates are encouraged to sign up for skill training courses so as to be able to take up more jobs after their prison sentence. It was reported that by 2008, through awareness of the programme in Singapore, 560 new employers had registered with the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) to offer jobs to ex-offenders. Though this may not yet reflect the mindset of the entire population towards ex-convicts, it signals an opening up of attitudes that are gaining speed. Therefore, intolerance is less prevalent in my society due to the efforts undertaken by various organisations to successfully raise awareness and understanding of the public towards these marginalized groups.
While there are merits in the above arguments, it is too naïve for one to simply assume that with education and efforts by activist groups, intolerance towards those who are different are not as common as in the past. In fact, intolerance towards those who are different is still widely seen in Singapore today because of the fear of erosion of national values in this increasingly liberal-minded world, in turn driving us to promote our conservative beliefs with greater intensity. With globalisation, there has been an increasing influence of the Western Culture. Due to the fear of erosion of traditional family values that are the foundation of social institutions such as the family, people are becoming more intolerant of changing values and remain conservative to ensure that these traditional values are not threatened by foreign cultures and values. In order to protect traditional values and social institutions, institutionalized discrimination towards certain groups of people in society exists in the form of government policies implemented. This reveals an unwillingness to accept those who may be different and accord them with equal rights. For example, in the case of Homosexuality, section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises acts of gross indecency between men in Singapore.
The Woman’s Charter also does not recognize marriages that are not between men and woman in or outside of Singapore. The refusal of the government to recognize the legitimacy of homosexual marriages reveals an unwillingness to respect the range of sexual orientations that are different from the traditional concept of sexual orientation the society may have. Another example is the Pink Dot rally on the 28 June 2014, which generated strong responses among Singaporeans. An Islamic religious teacher launched the “Wear White Campaign” in retaliation to the Pink Dot LGBTQ movement. The Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) supported this campaign whereby over 6,400 members of the church dressed in white to attend a special “family worship” service conducted by the church. This was done to protest the annual Pink Dot rally with their Senior Pastor, Lawrence Khong, who views this movement as a “decline in moral and family values.” Thus, this shows that despite the increasingly liberal and Western influenced world we live in, Singaporeans still remains a largely conservative society that is still strongly rooted to our traditional values. Therefore, intolerance is not only still largely prevalent but it has in fact intensified over the years.
Next, intolerance towards those who are different is still prevalent today because the increased mobility in a borderless world today has heightened the level of interaction amongst people from different cultures. Thus, increasing the incidence of cultural clashes. Globalisation has enabled greater mobility of people and there has been an increasing migration of people to live or work in foreign lands. With more foreigners entering the country, the chances of cultural clashes between the foreigners and local residents rises, especially when foreigners do not assimilate the local culture. An example of Singaporean’s intolerance towards foreigners is evident through the Not In My Backyard movement. In 2008 when the government announced plans for an unused technical school at Serangoon Gardens to be converted into a dormitory for foreign construction workers, residents of the Serangoon Gardens housing estate responded with an online petition, which was signed by 1,600 out of 4,000 households in the immediate vicinity. They cited fears of threats to their security, the possibility of increased crime in the area, and fears about maids hooking up with foreign workers as reasons to object the construction of the dormitory. Therefore these mindsets and prejudices towards foreigners in society reflect intolerance of those with different cultures from the local cultures in society.
Lastly, in the competitive world today, the threat to one’s livelihood has made intolerance of the different still prevalent in Singapore. Singapore is seen as a land of opportunities for migrants with skills. Many foreigners are attracted to work or settle in Singapore as they can earn more in Singapore to improve their standards of living. However, many Singaporeans view the increase in the number of foreigners as a threat in terms of competition of jobs and living space. This has led to their discontentment with foreigners. An example of Singaporeans viewing migrant workers, as a threat to their livelihood is evident through a recent incident of the cancelation of the celebration of Philippines Independence Day event in Singapore. Organisers of a planned Philippines Independence Day celebration in Singapore on the 8 June 2014 decided to cancel the event altogether, owing to difficulties in getting an alternative location for the event. The event was supposed to be held at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, in Singapore’s shopping district but this had stirred up much unhappiness among Singaporeans as they opposed to the choice of the venue.
Some even threatened to resort to violence if the event were to take place. The organisers had to remove a Facebook page about the event after it dew hundreds of anti-Filipino comments. Through these actions and discontentment of Singaporeans towards such events further emphasizes the point that Singaporeans view these foreigners as threats to their lives and are thus unaccepting of the activities they carry out. Therefore, intolerance is still prevalent in the Singapore society. In conclusion, despite efforts made by the government and various activist groups to promote inclusiveness and multiculturalism and reduce intolerance towards marginalized groups of society, intolerance is still widely seen in my society today. This observation is largely attributed to the fact that our essentially conservative Asian society skews our perception of tolerance in order to maintain its position of power.