Is Singapore Racist?
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The recent #blacklivesmatter protests brought to the world’s attention the racial crisis in America, where racism can be a daily occurrence, with even killings and police brutality taking place. In contrast, we here in Singapore live in relative racial harmony, and racial differences here in our sunny island thankfully do not have such a savage calibre. However, before we pick at how our neighbours do the dusting, we might need to ensure that we, first, have a clean house. In this OP-ED, I hope to check under the proverbial rug and see if, perhaps, there are unconscious racism and racial stereotypes ingrained in our culture, and why it is important to address them.

To have privilege refers to having certain social advantages, prestige or respect by virtue of belonging to a certain social identity group.   In Singapore, the Chinese make up 76.2% of our population. As a majority race, I wonder if we have what is commonly dubbed as “Chinese Privilege”. 

To put things into perspective, I found this checklist online by The Octant to help determine if we have “Chinese privilege”:

I can turn on the television or open up the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.

When I am told about our national heritage or about civilisation, I am shown that mostly people of my colour made it what it is. 

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, in a hawker centre and find the foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a cinema and find films in my mother tongue or at least subtitled in it.

I can choose concealer, blemish, cover or bandages in flesh colour that more or less match my skin.

When I went through the checklist, I realised that I myself tick all the boxes, and thus recognize that I do have Chinese Privilege. I grew up in a very Chinese household and watching Channel 8 dramas was a big part of my childhood. Every newspaper I saw in my house had a Chinese actor printed on the front page. I never felt that I was not being represented enough in the mainstream media. Most recently, in school, because of COVID-19, many canteen stores closed early, but I never needed to worry about not eating something that suited my taste buds. However, my classmates of other races and religions couldn’t say the same. When the only two stores that sold food that they could eat closed early, and they had to settle for something that either didn’t make them full, or just drink a cup of Milo, or have nothing at all for recess.  

Next, I took to Twitter and asked my friends from the minority races to message me if they had experienced any struggles that their Chinese counterparts didn’t. I got a few messages sharing their various experiences.

Faith (not her real name) shared with me that she had to throw away her food because her Chinese classmates said it smelled “weird”.  

Vivian (not her real name)  said that sometimes she feels that she doesn’t fit in, and that growing up, she felt that people didn’t take her culture seriously, and saw it as a “joke”.

Li, who is not Singaporean, but has lived in Singapore for a while, said that she felt a lot of discrimination, self-doubt and her mental health took a huge toll as a result. She said: “Unlike most Singaporeans, who had a “Singlish” accent, I had a very “American” one”. When I was still going to a local school, I would get bullied for my accent and appearance. I continuously bullied myself for how I looked as well. I was ashamed of myself and felt as though I would never be as pretty as the Chinese girls in my class with long black hair and pale skin. The bullying got to the point where I wanted to end my own life.” 

These honest, and perhaps not often heard, sharing made me reflect on how I treated or acted around the minority races while I was younger and ignorant. I myself made racist jokes, thinking that they were just jokes that meant no harm. I laughed and added on to the jokes that my mainly Chinese friend group cracked. Until this day, I still have things to learn. The truth is, we all still have things to learn.

The government has tried many ways to promote “racial togetherness” such as making Racial Harmony Day compulsory in most mainstream schools. The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) implemented in all HDBs in Singapore established ethnic quotas for HDB neighbourhoods and blocks, and aimed to ensure a better racial mix in HDB estates. However, in our modern society, many Singaporeans do not interact or even acknowledge their neighbours. According to a Straits Times face-to-face poll of 3,066 Singaporeans, permanent residents and non-residents, only 23 per cent said they exchanged greetings with their neighbours more than three times a week, down from 29 per cent in from 2016 

So this begs the question, does the EIP really prove effective in ensuring that different races mingle together? Or do Singaporeans still continue to mingle with people of the same race and continue to ignore their neighbours of different races, effectively defeating the main aim of EIP?

Casual racism can even extend to the workplace. While the Ministry of Manpower encourages fair employment practices, for many ethnic minorities in Singapore, even something as simple of having a “Malay sounding” or “Indian sounding” name can be a direct turn off to the employer, and they may not even have the chance to get an interview. According to a CNA survey, a large proportion of minorities – 73% of Malays, 68% of Indians and about half of others, which includes Eurasians – felt that they had experienced discrimination when it came to applying for a job. In contrast, only 38% of Chinese felt that way. 

To get into the specific details and obstacles minorities face when applying for jobs, I interviewed some of my friends. I asked my friend, Karen (not her real name), about the struggles she faced finding a job. She shared: “My old agency which managed part time banquet workers saw that I was a Muslim and asked me if I wore the hijab, and said that it would be good if I didn’t wear one”. In another instance, when she checked with her employer if the food was halal, the response was “it should be”. However, when she was eating her food, “I realized the sausages were weird. They had some weird plastic wrapping around it and I remembered my friends telling me how pork sausages looked like that. I spat out my food and worked on an empty stomach at 7am.” When she emailed the agency, her concerns were dismissed. 

Despite all the lengths the government has gone to make Singapore as “racially harmonic” as possible, the grim truth is that ridding Singapore of any form of racial discrimination or casual racism is not something that can happen overnight, in the next couple months, or even years. Racism is a systemic thing – there is not a single person or entity to blame for this. However, systemic racism shows a lack of concern for the needs of the minorities, and creates an environment where those of minority races in our society can feel neglected and disrespected.

However, having privilege does not mean that we need to have “privilege blindness”. So, what can you do to help out, as someone with Chinese Privilege? 

Firstly, recognize the fact that you have privilege. Educate yourself on the privilege you have and what you should or should not do. Call out friends and family who are being insensitive and cracking racist jokes or are being casually racist, and educate them on why they should not do these things. My own classmates have personally made many of these “casual racism jokes”, and I have tried to call them out and educate them, and those that refused to listen were dealt with strictly by the teachers. 

Secondly, weaponize your privilege. Make your voice heard, and speak up for those who might feel silenced by society. When you see someone being racially discriminated against, be it online or in real life, do not hesitate to step in. Utilize your privilege to stop and disengage whatever discrimination was going on. 

Together, with each step forward, I believe Singapore can be a better place for all, where everyone is valued and judgements are made based on one’s character, actions and values, not someone’s race, religion or ethnicity.  

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