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Food For Thought:
Intercultural Exchange - Getting to Familiarity

Koh Chye Hock [1]

One would think that the benefits of inter-cultural exchange are so plain that no justification is needed. For a multi-racial and thus, a multi-cultural society like Singapore, this should be intuitive and obvious. Things that seem clear at first blush seldom draw our minds to examine them deeper. The aim of this article is to draw out the inconspicuous from the conspicuous. It is because they seem so clear we do not see them in their true value and depth, and as such inter-cultural exchanges are seldom on any organization’s agenda. The Centre for Singapore Tamil Culture (CSTC) is uncommon in making inter-cultural exchange a core mission.

This article carries themes which are not possible to be fully explicated or argued because of the limitation of space. The intent is to offer a frame for an extended future discourse on these themes in a separate forum.

We, the common laity, intuitively know and feel our culture, and notice the culture of another. We are born into a culture; we grow up in a culture. So much of our life, values, and outlook are shaped by culture. Yet, cultures are sprawling, overlapping, inter-penetrating and relational. This collective cultural experience, in turn, shapes the general culture in a dynamic society such as Singapore. There is always work to advance in this space.

Culture is an expression and reflects our social nature. In the Politics, Aristotle writes: “Man is by nature a social animal.” A homogeneous society’s culture will be homogeneous and a multi-racial society’s culture will be diverse. Singapore has always been identified by the latter, without which it would be unrecognizable. History, geography and demographics have favoured Singapore’s cultural milieu. In a small island, the descendants of several major civilizations have lived cheek by jowl since its founding more than two hundred years ago. This has been possible because each culture has looked at the others with appreciation. They have all enriched and ennobled this island nation; as a result, the combined Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western cultures have become the identity of Singapore.

In most situations, culture is exchanged subconsciously. Such evolution is slow and might lack robustness. Just like any fabric, the social fabric of Singapore will decay without proper maintenance. If the yarns are not twisted tightly, if the bonds lack strength, they will fray at the slightest provocation. By the time we see holes in the fabric, it is too late. In Singapore, we do not wait until there is a trust deficit. Constant work is needed to strengthen and reinforce, to invigorate and renew our societal bonds. Cultural societies such as CSTC do this as daily deposits to our national cultural bank by creating spaces, activities and conditions for cultural exchange between the Tamil community and the others to flourish so that the unfamiliar will become familiar.

Generally, when people do not know another race, group, even a neighbor we do not talk to, engenders a sense of strangeness which can easily sour into estrangement and alienation. The “unfamiliar” is strange, odd and mysterious which gives rise to fear and distrust, marginalization and withdrawal. Familiarity removes strangeness and smooths out awkwardness for friendship to sprout and bloom. Cultural exchanges gradually turn the unfamiliar into familiar, and familiarity breeds conversation, discourse, tolerance, and ultimately, trust and concord.

The importance of getting to cultural familiarity is as important in nurturing relationships among members of a community as among nation states. This significance is best illustrated during the first meeting between Dr. Henry Kissinger and Premier Chou En-lai on July 9, 1971.

Dr. Kissinger: “Many visitors have come to this beautiful, and to us, mysterious land.”

PM Chou: “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not be as mysterious as before.”[2]

Prime Minister Chou’s response to Dr. Kissinger reflects the wisdom of one who understands the importance of familiarizing oneself with another’s culture in international relations.

Cultural exchanges are the abutments on which the bridge of trust and learning can be built; something found at the core of any culture expresses our common humanity. The immortal words of the Universal Poet (Bishwa Kobi) Rabindranath Tagore in the opening stanza of the Gitanjali best represent the universality of unity in diversity: “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measure.”

In whatever sphere, cultural exchange is compelling because it is reciprocal. Reciprocity implies equality and the highest form of equality is the respect for each other’s culture. In an equal exchange, no side is disadvantaged and all sides benefit. In such exchanges, the minority race is equal to the majority race, where number is not a factor in measuring the intrinsic value of a culture.

Each of us is a living, breathing ambassador of our culture. It behooves us to understand our culture better. When different races intermingle, it behooves us to understand the culture of the peoples with whom we interact. In Singapore, cultures come together in the public places: in the neighborhood, community, marketplace, workplace, schools and even in parliament. At these cultural intersections, without deliberate effort, exchanges and inter-penetration of cultures might not take place, or even sour into points of contention.

I participated in a CSTC forum which discussed what is in the idea of “New Year” in our four major cultural traditions: the Western, Chinese, Islamic and Indian traditions. I was struck by the fundamental differences in the way each New Year was conceived and commemorated and I also sensed the common thread that ran through all of them. The need for marking time has been universal and the idea of commemorating the beginning of the annual cycle is also common. Yet the basis of marking time is so different in each culture and the attendant activities to signpost the beginning of the year are also so different. This one event alone showed so much richness in our cultural tapestry that I decided to attend other such events by CSTC. Its work in enhancing the Tamil community’s understanding of its own culture and sharing its rich culture with other communities is laudable and worthy of support.

Who would reject cultural exchange? I argue that culture in essence reveals our social nature; and sharing one’s culture is the highest form of expression of this nature. It is what makes us human, something that gives life to the biomechanical corpus. Sharing cultures is likened to opening the door to each other’s precious living heritage.

I commend CSTC for opening the door of the rich Tamil culture to all and stepping out into those of other cultures.

  1. Mr Koh Chye Hock is lawyer in the corporate world and has an abiding interest in intercultural issues. He has participated in CSTC events.

  2. The National Security Archive Document 34.

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