SINGAPORE — Kristine Koh, a Chinese student currently studying at Raffles Junior College in Singapore, ditched her smart but oh, so boring school uniform one day last month for a beautiful purple and gold sari.
She wasn’t trying to land herself in detention for breaking the school dress code. She was doing exactly what every other student in Singapore did that day – preparing for an islandwide celebration of Racial Harmony Day.
In a world where racial discrimination is still very much alive, Racial Harmony Day holds significant meaning, and particularly for everyone here on this multi-racial island.
The July 21 holiday – a day of celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday – is held in remembrance of a violent outbreak of race riots in 1964 that left 22 dead and 461 others injured.
In a prepared speech read aloud in schools throughout Singapore on this year’s holiday, Minister of State for Education Chan Soo Sen said, “The outbreak of the riots revealed that planning, clever use of the media and a simple trigger were all the ingredients needed to cause suspicions, distrust, and even animosity amongst Singaporeans.”
Since then, Racial Harmony Day is celebrated every year, in all schools ranging from primary schools to junior colleges.
On that day, students and teachers are encouraged to come in their own ethnic costumes or in one from another culture.
“The school population looks so colorful,” said math teacher Chien Chen Yee, who came to school in a traditional Punjabi suit herself. “I feel like the school has become a walking United Colors of Benneton ad!”
For the students, it was more than color that mattered to them.
“It’s really great to see so many of the Chinese girls wearing saris and Punjabi suits,” said Amrita Muruthi, who donned a traditional yellow Chinese costume called a qi pao. She said all the cross-cultural dressing “makes me realize how much we respect and appreciate one another’s culture and traditions.”
At school, there were several food booths set up in the canteen for “free tasting” of traditional foods from different cultures, as well as traditional games like capteh, a game which requires you to keep a rubber-based feathered toy in the air for as long as possible by kicking it.
Racial Harmony Day means more than school celebrations. It reminds Singaporeans of the very social fabric that the country is made of – a country united not by race or religion, but by the people’s goal to be one nation, made possible with an open-mind, tolerance and respect for one another.
But not everyone read the deepest meaning into the celebration.
“I wish it was Racial Harmony Day everyday,” said Vishal Vijay, another college student. “Everyone looks so much better… especially the babes in saris!”
Geraldine Soon is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
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