How to talk about race in Singapore: a conversation with Mohd Imran Taib

Academic Views, Interviews / Sunday, June 14th, 2020

The scale and intensity of the Black Lives Matter unrest in the United States has caused ripples throughout the world. In Singapore, it marks another occasion to reflect on the republic’s own progress in racial equality. Discussing race in Singapore, though, is fraught with assorted risks. One of the country’s most experienced and respected advocates of such conversations is MOHAMED IMRAN MOHAMED TAIB, who not only writes on these issues but also facilitates workshops to encourage dialogue and understanding among different communities. Academia.SG editor Cherian George interviewed him about how to talk about the perennial issue of race in modern Singapore. [Photo of Imran Taib by Foo Chuan Wei]

Cherian George: Race is an eternal issue, but of course it’s very much in the news now because of what’s going on in the US. Are you surprised that events so far away, in a very different context, are resonating in Singapore?

Imran Taib: Well, racism is a global issue, connected to the nature of the world system itself. Colonial conditions since the 17th and 18th centuries created a kind of hierarchy of races, and that continues to be part of the modern nation state in many countries. It also intersects with the global economic system, in terms of the supply of labour and the divide between the Global North and Global South. America had the history of slavery, which is not quite a similar experience to Singapore. But we had some systemic racism implemented when we were a colony of the British Empire.

CG: Including indentured labour, the coolie system, pushing opium to the Chinese population, and so on.

IT: Exactly. And the whole categorisation of the races came from the British system. It entrenched certain prejudicial views towards these races, and a lot of stereotypes continue to inform some of the ways we view issues of race here.

“River Merchants” by Aw Tee Hong. (Photo: Terence Ong)

CG: Though the issue is constantly in the background, public discussions tend to spike with controversies in the news. Every two or three months, something will surface, there’ll be a flurry of debate about race, and then it’ll subside again. What do you make of that?

IT: What’s interesting is that it has become much more frequent in more recent times. One factor could be the opening up of spaces for people to talk about those issues. Social media, of course, has facilitated the airing of grievances, and making unintentional or intentional remarks that can be constituted as racist, as well as being informed of what is happening elsewhere.

CG: It is striking that the Sedition Act fell into disuse but had to be revived in the internet age because Singaporeans were suddenly able to bypass media gatekeepers and say things about race and religion that, according to prevailing norms, you were not supposed to say in public.

IT: But there’s something to be learned from these incidents. Because we had not been talking about those issues for a long time, many of the prejudices and stereotypes seemed to have been festering. And when people want to talk about race now, they are not sure how to do it. Or it comes out in ways that are offensive. I think we are in a transition stage. We know we can no longer not talk about it. But how to talk about it is something we are grappling with.

“It helps, particularly for those who do not believe there’s such a thing as racism in Singapore, to listen to the stories of those who felt they have encountered racism in their personal lives. It’s important to provide a safe space for people to engage with these issues.”

CG: So it’s partly a lack of experience? We sometimes overstep the lines, and then because we’re not used to hearing such things, we also overreact?

IT: Yes, that is one of the major factors.

CG: Staying on the subject of controversy-driven discussion: in general, we talk about race when there is bad news. That’s not true of your own work, though. Could you explain your approach?

IT: Well, firstly, a relatively peaceful period is the best time to talk about many of these controversial issues — when we are sober and able to manage those discussions. Once a problem emerges, sentiments are heightened, and people are more reactionary. Secondly, there are a lot of nuances that need to be uncovered, beyond calling out people for being racist. It’s important to understand what has shaped the individual’s thoughts, and what triggered certain reactions, and what is the whole conception of race itself.

For example, recently, there was a controversy over the Masterchef Australia contestant. She is an Australian-born Chinese, and a radio host greeted her with “ni hao ma”. She felt offended because it seemed to be pigeonholing her into a particular race marker, and she saw it as a kind of mockery. Of course, it would be different, for example, if I were to go to my Chinese neighbour, whom I know quite well, and then in a friendly tone, say, “Ni hao, how are you doing?” It would not be construed as racist. So, different contexts and dynamics need to be understood. When you are feeling subordinated or discriminated against, you’re a bit more sensitive to cues that seem to reinforce those discriminatory views.

Masterchef Australia finalist Sarah Tiong. (Photo: Masterchef Australia)

CG: I guess we are all constantly trying to work out which of our many identities to foreground in any situation. Individuals need the freedom to choose which identities they emphasise at any point of time, and we need to respect that choice.

IT: Yes, we are all hybrid creatures, in one way or another. This whole idea of the authenticity of race is a myth promoted as part of the racist structures that emerged in the past: the idea that there is an authentic, pure, version of Malay-ness, Indian-ness, and all that. There’s no such thing. All cultures inter-mix and we have a bit of every culture within us.

In the past, a lot more people wanted to be identified as Malay. That’s why you find that Arabs and Indians who speak Malay and practice Malay culture, have no problem with identifying with the Malay community. Being Malay had its advantages at that time, perhaps because it was a lingua franca, and there was a lot more access to community resources and support systems.

But the dynamics have shifted. When the idea of Malay-ness came to be seen as something backward, then people started to dissociate themselves. This is one aspect of racism that has not been analysed or talked about much: the internalised racism, even among the Malays themselves. Successful Malays, in particular, will try to detach themselves from the community, thinking that they are a different “kind” of Malay. To them, Malay-ness is not something that they want to be proud of.

CG: That certainly goes on within the Indian community. And it is rampant among Chinese. Ironically, the first time I heard people say “so cheena” was at Hwa Chong Junior College, where my English-educated Chinese schoolmates encountered crowds of SAP school kids. I thought, huh, what’s happening?

IT: And now it’s still happening with the influx of the migrant workers from China, and local Chinese try to dissociate themselves from “those kind” of Chinese.

A clip from the interview

The psychology of denial

CG: There are several mental blocks or conversation stoppers that get in the way when Singaporeans try to talk about race. One common one is denial: we say, sure, Singapore has problems, but we’re not as bad as Malaysia or the US. How do you get past these responses, which may have a factual basis but also have the effect of cutting off conversations?

IT: Yes, of course, you will find in society a whole spectrum: those who say we have no problem with racism at all, and people who think we are similar to countries facing insurmountable problems. In my work, it’s important to bring both sides together, to listen to the way they articulate their positions and see whether they can listen to each other’s narratives and then come to a kind of — I wouldn’t say agreement — at least a mutual understanding: where have we done well, and where we have failed or need to do better.

“There seems to be quite a big conservative ground that is not exposed to the racial discourse that is going on in critical circles. The way they react to it has largely got to do with their inexperience in dealing with the issue, and not understanding their own privileged position.”

It helps, particularly for those who do not believe there’s such a thing as racism in Singapore, to listen to the stories of those who felt they have encountered racism in their personal lives. We facilitate that process of bridging the gap and the cognitive dissonance that might occur in the process. There are certain pedagogical ways of doing that within a workshop. It’s important to provide a safe space for people to engage with these issues.

CG: Public Facebook is not necessarily the best place to do it?

IT: I don’t think it’s necessarily the best place to do it. Unfortunately, in this Covid-19 situation, we have to really push ourselves to think of how to do it online.

CG: But in your experience, if you create these safe spaces, you find people willing to talk and listen?

IT: Yes, because we set the ground rules for participation. We value you telling us what you think, but you must be willing to also listen.

CG: You value the sharing of personal experience, but some misconceptions can be addressed through objective evidence, can’t they? It is possible to prove the existence of some of structural discrimination in Singapore; and it is a fact that there is no anti-discrimination law prohibiting discrimination in employment. It is also possible to prove that we are not as bad as the worst. For example, there is no campaign in Singapore to suppress minority votes, like there is in the US where minorities are being effectively disenfranchised. So, facts matter too.

IT: Yes, but what constitutes relevant facts can also be debatable. Someone, for example, who goes for a job interview wearing the headscarf, or hijab, and then doesn’t get the job, and then feels she’s being discriminated against on the basis of her dressing — how do we prove that the employers discriminated against her on that basis?

If you were to look at statistics, then maybe you can show, oh, a large proportion of people who apply for this job from a minority race don’t get it, and therefore, it might imply that there is some kind of systemic discrimination going on here. But again, the statistics can be interpreted in different ways. So that is the difficulty with conversations on race.

A conservative backlash?

CG: Another conversation stopper is the argument that you should not push the majority too fast, too far, or else there will be a backlash.

IT: But if there is a problem, it needs to be addressed. What would constitute pushing too far and too hard?

CG: Well, we hear comments like, why are these minorities being so sensitive about a harmless joke? To me, that’s an indication that members of the majority feel they are being forced to conform to a new multicultural order that they don’t quite understand. And if we communicate poorly, we may just confirm the impression that minorities are being too demanding. You already got a Malay President. Tamil is a national language. What more do you want?

IT: I agree that there seems to be quite a big conservative ground that is not exposed to the racial discourse that is going on in critical circles. The way they react to it has largely got to do with their inexperience in dealing with the issue, and not understanding their own privileged position.

I think at the root of it is that people don’t like to confront the possibility that they are potentially racist, or in fact racist, in how they think about certain issues. That’s the most difficult part. Nobody wants to admit that they are racist. When you bring up evidence, then that’s where the cognitive dissonance comes in. Then, you’ll find that they will try to defend themselves in whatever ways to show that they are good people and not racist. I think that’s just part of a natural human survival mode. People react with the emotions first and then they try to rationalise.

“We start from the presumption that all of us are potentially racist, and then we try to uncover our own demons. In that process, once we are able to forgive ourselves and learn to be better people, then I think we can be more charitable also towards others who are struggling to get out the demons from within them.”

So I would come from a more open-minded position. Let’s hear their stories and see how we can help them to understand our perspective better. We might want to come from the standpoint that people are naturally good. It’s just that they are not necessarily able to see certain things they can improve in themselves. I agree with you that if you do it the wrong way, then it will entrench further, and there’s no education process for them to get out of that mode.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, speaks about this polarisation in America — why good people seem to be polarised on issues of religion and politics. So I think we need to understand a bit of human psyche in order to advance the more productive discussion.

CG: So, the starting point should be that “even” the majority is capable of being good. In contrast, some of the more extreme antiracist discourse tells whites they are irredeemable by virtue of their race.

IT: Yes, that’s not going to be helpful in terms of advancing equality for people of colour. In order to dismantle a whole systemic racist structure, you really need ally-ship. You need a broad-based movement of people who are committed to the same ideals regardless of whether you are Chinese, Malay, etc.

But it is also important to recognise the notion of privilege of certain races. It needs to be understood. It needs to be confronted with. You can use that privilege to either create a more equal structure, or to benefit yourself. You cannot be part of the struggle until you recognise your own privilege first.

I don’t agree with the rhetoric that you need to be colour blind in approaching the issue. You need to recognise the racialised structure, and then you need to work towards creating a more equal structure. That is much more helpful than saying, I don’t see colour, just hold hands, kum ba yah, as if this will somehow resolve the issues.

Colour-blindness won’t solve the problem, says Imran Taib. (Photo: Loo Beng Chye)

The antiracist vocabulary

CG: The term “privilege” and many others in the antiracist lexicon are imported. And this is sometimes used to push back against multiculturalism in Singapore.

IT Singapore being a cosmopolitan, open city state, with high internet connectivity, I mean, what is this notion of importation? We are constantly importing things and constantly connected to ideas that are transnational.

We are constantly having to negotiate with all kinds of ideas from around the world. It’s how we make use of the ideas, in our context. This requires two things. First, you need to understand your local context very well. Secondly, you also need to understand the context from which a particular term or concept emerged.

CG: How would you apply that in the “brownface” debate?

IT: Well, we can’t deny that the term brownface, or “brown” issues, is relatively recent. We know that there have been discussions on discrimination and colourism in Singapore, but we do not specifically use the term “brown” in this context. It emerged in a situation where people had been talking about blackness and whiteness; then there were people of colour who did not fit into this discourse and said, hey, what about us who face problems in America or Canada, maybe we need a new term.

So when we use the term “brown”, you will find that there’s a bit of disjuncture here in Singapore, because people do not think in terms of those categories. So, I don’t like to force-feed it into the local situation. I would rather people work through the local situation and come up with your own analysis and your own terms that can be helpful in addressing your own local situation. If some of the imported terms might be useful to articulate some of these local issues, that’s good. But come with your own local materials first.

CG: So if I’m hearing you correctly, globalisation makes it inevitable that some terms will catch on among some circles here. But you don’t think that that is necessarily the most productive way for us to start thinking through questions of race in Singapore.

IT: Yes, I think that may not be necessarily productive at this stage. When some activists use these terms, they are quite detached from the lived reality of the so-called brown people that they’re talking about. A more productive way is to get involved on the ground, experience the lived realities of people on the ground, and out of that come up with materials to articulate what the real issues are. You cannot be discussing these issues only online because it does not give the picture of what’s happening on the ground.

A OnePeople.SG workshop at Temasek Polytechnic. The organisation creates safe spaces for discussing race and religion. (Photo: OnePeople.SG Facebook)

CG: What does such grounded work look like in practice, and who’s doing it in Singapore?

IT: I would see grounded work on race as having two components. First, to connect lived experiences with structures, sort of connecting the personal biography with the policies and systems in place, and making sense of the whole situation. There have been quite a few initiatives, mostly state-led or government-funded, such as the Explorations-into-Ethnicities programme by the quasi-government organisation,, which pays attention to personal experiences of race and racism, but stopping short of raising critical questions on the structural dimensions of racism. 

Second, is to connect theory and practice, or praxis, where critical perspectives on race are then connected to an antiracist pedagogy on the ground. The theoretical work is done largely within academia or academically-inclined groups or individuals, but I find their critical ideas do not translate into pedagogies on the ground that take into consideration the complexities and nuances of a very diverse population.  

A more grounded work is also hampered by the fact that community organisations tend to be racialised and therefore work within their own silos of race categories — the CMIO self-help groups, for example. I can’t speak of other communities, but what I observed within the Malay grassroot organisations is that discussions on race do not take into serious account how it intersects with other identities — class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and many more — and how such intersections inform how we view and experience race problematically, be it our own race or other.

Community organisations tend to be racialised and therefore work within their own silos of race categories — the CMIO self-help groups, for example. … Inter-marriages — religious or ethnic — complicate our neat and conventional view of race and racialised structures.

Do we, for example, talk much about how access to certain resources are accounted for by your social capital, which comes along with class and privilege, rather than merit? What about a Malay person who belongs to a minority group within that community, and experiences race very differently from the mainstream public? Inter-marriages — religious or ethnic — also complicate our neat and conventional view of race and racialised structures.        

So, I do not find any group that is taking into account all these nuances and complexities, and developing a sort of coherent strategy to deal with the issue of race and with an antiracist approach. We find pockets here and there, but not entirely grounded in praxis nor connecting the biography with the wider structures. Perhaps it is because we have only started to view issues of race from a more critical lens in the last few years. Even the word racism was a taboo up to the last decade. But we have to start somewhere.  

A long journey. (Photo: Jennifertn, Pixabay)

CG: So it’s not surprising we resort to borrowing concepts from abroad.

IT: Yes, it’s not surprising. I think also it’s within a certain demographic. It is more of the younger generation who are much more exposed to critical discourses. I mean, if you try to bring this “brown” issue to the makcik or pakcik on the ground, they do not understand what you’re trying to say, unless you start from their common experience.

CG: Partly because of what you referred to earlier as our own internalised colourism? I don’t know about the Malay community, but there are of course many Indians who favour fair over dark.

IT: In the Malay community, too. So there’s a hierarchy within the minorities themselves. It’s quite common to find Malays having pejorative terms to refer to Indians. If you marry a Chinese, it’s like marrying up. But if you marry an Indian, it’s marrying down. Or Malay mothers saying, oh, you need to drink more milk so that your child will be fairer.

CG: And stay out of the sun, or else you’ll turn black.

IT: Part of my work is to help people see their inconsistencies and not be hypocritical about it. We start from the presumption that all of us are potentially racist, and then we try to uncover our own demons. In that process, once we are able to forgive ourselves and learn to be better people, then I think we can be more charitable also towards others who are struggling to get out the demons from within them.

People normally would react to racist remarks against themselves or against their community or identity, but they may not want to see that they are doing the very same thing against minorities within minorities. Until they can see that, they will never get far in this whole antiracist project.

Taboos and signals in public debate

CG: Traditionally in Singapore, race and religion have been taboo areas for public discussion. Should we be more open? What is say-able and what is not say-able?

IT: It’s difficult to have a broad generalisation. But I think it has to be made clear that you can engage in such conversations as long as you do not overstep certain boundaries, like, for example, making hate speeches or incitement to violence and things like that. That’s clearly not okay. When it crosses that line, the police have to come in and manage the situation.

How clear are the lines? (Photo: Cherian George)

Sometimes, you think it’s okay, but then there will be someone who gets deeply offended and then it becomes not okay. So it’s really a very grey area. That greyness itself allows us to try and see where we can push a little further towards more productive ends of the conversation.

But at times people are thin-skinned, they get offended easily. They would rather run off and make a police report. We would rather leverage on state agencies to clamp down on people we disagree with or we do not want to hear. That is a problem because it doesn’t allow us to mature. It also entrenches certain authoritarian ways of dealing with things that it may not be healthy in the long term.

CG: This goes back to your point that we don’t have enough practice or experience dealing with these issues among ourselves. Our dependence on the state perpetuates this lack of experience.

IT: Of course, you can’t deny that there will be a few individuals who are just out to create trouble and be provocateurs. These people need to be dealt with differently. But, I would say that generally people are just inexperienced and a bit more education would help, rather than the hard-line approach.

“If we are hearing more racist remarks, it is an opportunity to then educate and explain why it’s not okay. The way we call it out also needs a bit more skill: does it aid a person to understand why it’s not okay to make those remarks?”

There was one recent case of this mother and son who used the N-word. Someone made a police report and they are now under investigation. In this situation, why do we have to make a police report on this basis? It’s different, for example, with that 19-year-old guy who mentioned his dream of wanting to kill Muslims and all that.

CG: We are hearing a lot more of all this than we used to.

IT: If we are hearing more racist remarks, it is an opportunity to then educate and explain why it’s not okay. This requires people to have the courage to call out certain things. The way we call it out also needs a bit more skill: does it aid a person to understand why it’s not okay to make those remarks?

I would also appreciate a bit more signalling from the top of what is okay and what is not okay. Sometimes we get mixed signals. Of course, occasionally we do have some ministers coming out and saying this is not okay, this is denigration of a particular race. But you also hear ministers sometimes making remarks that are really problematic, making us question the whole multicultural model.

Like saying you cannot be a prime minister if you belong to a particular race because you will be rejected by a certain segment of people. That is framing it in a very negative way, and it does have an impact on the minority psyche — that we will always be not good enough, that there is a glass ceiling, and that glass ceiling is being maintained by a particular type of people who are not willing to re-examine their positions.

Glass ceiling? (Photo: Cherian George)

A more positive way is for leaders to challenge that very conception in order to educate the wider society. Like, for example, they can say there’s nothing in our Constitution that stops a minority from making it to the top post. Whether it’s going to happen now or not, is up for society to choose. Frame it that way, so that at least we know that it’s open.

That kind of conversation coming from the top could have been done better to be consistent with the whole messaging that we are a society that sees all races as equal. Then at least we can aspire towards that, rather than putting it in a form that entrenches further the kind of perception that people already have and the minorities already experience in their everyday reality. When you go to work, you think that you’re not able to have the top position in the office, and then you connect that with what the top leaders are saying about the whole political structure. It compounds the whole frustration being felt by minorities.

CG: It lowers your aspirations, too.

IT: It lowers your aspirations and you put yourself in place: I’m a minority, and this is as far as I can go. It also doesn’t help that some community leaders also, with the good intention of trying to help, keep reinforcing that by saying, for example, oh, you just have to work doubly hard. That is a painful thing to hear, if you have to face that same sentiment in your everyday life.

CG: In hate studies there is an argument that, although we pay most attention to the obvious hate speech and the extreme racist remark, what actually does more damage is so-called “reasonable racism”, including pseudo-scientific and seemingly civil ways of speaking. Speech that is obviously extreme activates resistance. But the reasonable-sounding stuff catches us off guard and may be more influential.

IT: Yes. For one of our workshops, my friend was facilitating an experiment where they go out to a job fair and this Indian person was going from booth to booth. At one booth, she was told the jobs are all taken, no forms for you to fill. Then she observed from afar that when Chinese job seekers come, they are still giving out the forms.

She confronted them, and the person was apologetic that these positions needed Mandarin speakers and the jobs were not suitable for her. Regrouping at the workshop, she was explaining how she felt at that moment, that she felt she’s being discriminated against on the basis of race. There was an academic there who said, no, I’ve done all the statistics, which show that people do not discriminate on the basis of race in jobs; maybe it’s just you feeling that way.

That’s a terrible remark to make, and she got really upset. So that is an example of putting it in a very “objective” way, which misses the point of the lived experience of the person who has to go through it on an almost daily basis. How do you prove it’s racism for some of these things?

How does discrimination affect social mobility? (Photo: Pixabay)

Who gets to be heard?

CG: Who gets to speak about race? There is a kind of a hierarchy, isn’t there? There are authorised representatives who, we are told, speak for different races; and then there’s the rest of us. These authorised representatives could be seen as playing a moderating role, not only speaking up for their communities but also strengthening the larger national project. Their critics, though, say that they have been co-opted by the system, wedded to the status quo and preventing progress.

IT: I think we need to start from the standpoint that we are all co-opted, whether you like it or not. I mean, there’s no way you can override the system. The challenge is how to negotiate within the spaces that you have, and to try and push the envelope a bit more. That will be much more useful, rather than immediately categorising people between the co-opted and the not co-opted, which has the effect of splitting the whole movement towards reform. What is needed is the galvanising of resources and groups that are addressing the same concerns.

CG: That’s the value of alliances, which is the term you used before.

IT: Exactly. But at the same time, you can’t run from the fact that organisations that have been seen as traditional representatives of the people want to protect that space for themselves to speak on behalf of the community.

I would like to see more academic research on these middle structures. On the one hand, there is research that looks at the systemic, structural dimensions of race. Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s The Singapore Dilemma is a good example. On the other hand, you have studies that bring out personal stories: qualitative research that surfaces the lived realities of people. One missing element, I feel, is the middle structure: the people who are helming community institutions, and how they replicate the systemic problems we are seeing. There is a kind of duality going on here. They see themselves as representatives and saviours of the community, but at the same time also project the same problematic ideas onto their own community.

Sometimes we think that a lot of the problems come from the state. Not necessarily. We also have to give credit, that the state does want to resolve certain issues downstream. But they work via proxy institutions, or community organisations, and I think that is where the main problem lies. That is not being examined. Why not look at the community institutions and how much they are part of the problem? Is there any way of reforming community organisations?

I don’t think that means that the state is not listening to pockets of people outside the established groups. There has been a fair number of engagements with non-formal groups, non-established groups, because the state also wants to know what is happening within the wider society.

Parliament House. (Photo: Erwin Soo)

So we need to educate people also on the whole politics of representation: that no single organisation can speak on behalf of the entire community, because the community itself is diverse. We may have our views on how much or to what extent the Malay MPs are able to represent Malay interests in Parliament. But this seems to catch us in a bind: while we keep telling ourselves we do not want to engage in racial politics, we are in fact replicating racialised representations in the political system by expecting Malay MPs to speak on behalf of all Malays — not just their constituents. Those who think that the Malay MPs are not doing a good job then turn to Malay organisation leaders to do so. 

But then, the question is, who elected these organisation leaders to speak on behalf of every one of us? The only ones who voted for them are members of that organisation, which is a smaller pool. So it is a myth that any single organisation can speak on behalf of the entire community. In any healthy democracy, we find multiple representations, political or otherwise, because the people are diverse. If we find ourselves in a neat, hierarchical structure of representation, be assured that there will be voices unheard and suppressed. This will be the seed for resentment and strife. It can also be setting the ground for populist leaders to emerge, or maybe they have. A populist leader, by definition, is antipluralist. Hence, it subverts the plural nature of our society, including the plurality we find within the racial categories we inherited from the British.

“I want to advocate for reform while taking into consideration the complexities of the issues, the nuances, and how we can galvanise the best resources in order to move the agenda.”

That’s part of the citizenship education and discourse that I think is currently missing. There’s a lot of confusion. For example, people are expecting MUIS [The Islamic Religious Council] to speak on issues that run contrary to state policies. How can that be? MUIS is constituted under AMLA [the Administration of Muslim Law Act], which means it is an extended arm of the state. So some of the demands coming from the community are unreasonable.

CG: So if I were to gather these thoughts, you are suggesting we shouldn’t write off any group or any organisation just based on where they stand in relation to the state. Each serves a purpose. Each has its own form of legitimacy. Work with them to the extent that they align with your own agenda, but also be realistic about what their limitations are. Don’t have unreasonable expectations of the group, since they are bound by their own structures and constitutions.

IT: Yes, and if our goals are also aligned with the state’s, we can work with the state. And even when we talk about the state, we have to understand the state itself is diverse, you can’t come from the standpoint that it is a monolithic entity, or that there are leaders who wake up every morning thinking of how to screw up the lives of minorities. I don’t think that happens.

There are avenues in which we can move ideas. We must have clarity in what we want to achieve, and we can work with different components of the state as long as they agree with the same ideals. Some people may not be too happy with this position. They think that it is kind of centrist. I don’t think so. Being centrist means you are not willing to take any stand and you just maintain the status quo. I want to advocate for reform while taking into consideration the complexities of the issues, the nuances, and how we can galvanise the best resources in order to move the agenda.

CG: You are describing a principled position that sees opportunities across the political spectrum, across state structures and organisations. You hold fast to your principles, but don’t deny yourself opportunities to work with others.

IT: Yes, because to me that is the only way positive change can happen.