chapter  1
Religious pluralism, state and society in Asia
ByCHIARA FORMICHI
Pages 10

In early October 2012 Ms Amy Cheong, assistant director with the NTUC Workers’ Union of Singapore, complained on her personal Facebook page: ‘How many *** days do Malay weddings at void decks go on for??? . . . How can society allow ppl to get married for 50 bucks?’, referring to the common practice for Malay families to hold wedding receptions in HDB public housing estate’s void-decks, and hinting at Malays’ lower socio-economic status. Ms Cheong was promptly fired within hours after the event (Straits Times, 9 October 2012).1 Such remarks, directed from a Chinese towards Malays, have been described

as ‘insensitive’, ‘ignorant’, ‘derogatory’, ‘racist’ and ‘profanity-laced’, reviving the city-state’s public debate on inter-ethnic relations. And government officials have used this event to make their statements on the importance and fragility of Singapore’s social harmony: Law Minister K. Shanmugam expressed his concerns that such words ‘reflect[ed] a deep seated racist attitude’; Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam commented that Ms Cheong had offended ‘all the rest of us who value Singapore’s multiracial spirit’; and as acting Minister for Manpower Chuan-Jin expressed his pride for Singapore’s diversity,2 PM Lee himself admitted ‘how easily a few thoughtless words can . . . undermine our racial and religious harmony’ (Straits Times, 8 October 2012).3 The storm had been stirred by cyber civil society, as Ms Cheong’s comment

had gone viral amidst support and heavy criticism, raising isolated concerns over the possibility for social mobilization of discontent4 and arguably strengthening the decision of firing her (Channel News Asia, 8 October 2012). In the following weeks, public opinion remained vocal, with Malay as well as non-Malay netizens expressing their views on the ‘Amy Cheong saga’. Many were simply outraged, some argued that a ‘forgive and forget’ approach would suit better the situation, and others tried to explain the cultural roots for holding Malay weddings at voiddecks as a substitute for the kampung’s (village) common space for the bride’s and groom’s family to meet before the ceremony.5