Expanding our common space is inadequate for racial harmony

Photo by Muhd Asyraaf on Unsplash

Much has been said and done about maintaining our common space since I first understood this principle during Singapore’s National Day Rally 2009. Today, it might be timely for us to also further explore a less spoken counterpart — our uncommon spaces.

In the face of growing diversity in Singapore, maintaining our common space has become harder, thus, the need to nurture and expand it. However, recent events related to racism and xenophobia in Singapore raise questions about this principle. For most, if not all, of these unfortunate events, the common space was unsafe and uncomfortable for the victims.

Increasing our common space today is necessary but is still inadequate. We need to use both our common and uncommon spaces to tackle racism thoroughly, especially when boundaries between the two begin to blur from the enhanced use of technology, for instance. A deeper understanding of our uncommon spaces will boost our chances at long-term racial and religious harmony.

Our (un)common spaces

Our common space is described to be neutral and secular where everyone can feel at ease and at home. People of all races and religions interact at tangible common spaces such as workplaces, schools, and malls, whereas intangible common spaces include the shared experience of performing National Service and of having meals with people of varied dietary requirements.

Our uncommon spaces are also ones that we can work with and yet, have not properly come to grips with. Psychologists have partly attributed public misconduct including racism to the stress of a long fight against the pandemic. Other experts have pointed to deeper roots such as systemic racism. For the masses including me, it might be simpler to tackle racism by beginning with our uncommon spaces.

But what exactly are our uncommon spaces? I suggest using the antithesis to identify them. If our common space has to be neutral and secular, then our uncommon spaces are partial and ethnic. Our uncommon spaces — such as our homes, places of worship, upbringing, cultural activities, and the unique resulting beliefs, experiences and perspectives we have — are where key differences between groups in Singapore lie. While a part of our uncommon spaces are truly private, each of us have different capacities of unique experiences that we are willing to share with people of other races (see Figure. 1 below).

Figure 1. We have varying unique experiences from within our uncommon spaces that we are willing to share.

As we have been focussing on maintaining and expanding our common space over the years — and rightly so — we may have found ourselves to be ill-equipped when broaching one another’s uncommon spaces. Treating racism as taboo for decades has not helped us either. Inter-religious efforts, while useful to better understand one another’s faiths, may not unpack the topic of race. The “Regardless of Race” documentary, dialogue series, and live conversation are commendable. We need to build on these by further exploring the uncommon spaces.

Two actionable agreements

To this end, I propose two agreements we could make with one another when learning about our uncommon spaces. They are tried and tested tools I had the privilege to learn from the team at APS Intelligence Ltd which can be adapted to the Singapore context.

First is the ‘Safe Space’ agreement where we create a safe space for people of another ethnicity to feel more comfortable within our uncommon spaces. It encourages everyone to lean into any arising discomfort because that is how we can understand on a deeper level what other groups experience.

Second is the ‘Clumsiness’ agreement in which we all can have moments of concern about whether we are saying the right word or describing something the right way. It gives us the license to be clumsy but not opportunistic. We have all been clumsy and it is part of the learning process. Forgive others when they make some of those mistakes.

Working on both our common and uncommon spaces need to go hand in hand. Let us start talking widely about the latter for all of us to have a better chance at living in peace and harmony in Singapore.




I write about understanding human behaviour through my lens and wonder how different it is through yours.

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M. Salman M. Khair

M. Salman M. Khair

I write about understanding human behaviour through my lens and wonder how different it is through yours.

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