Racist episodes sparks soul-searching in Singapore: ‘Why is this still happening?’


Some critics blame imported ‘foreign ideas’ for sowing dissent, but scholars say the younger generation is unafraid of the vocabulary of global racial discourse.

SINGAPORE: When a Singaporean woman of Indian descent was struck by a flying kick from an ethnic Chinese man spouting racial slurs last month, the attack was so alarming that it prompted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to call it a moment of national embarrassment.

Racially motivated assaults are rare in Singapore, which is known for its laws aimed at maintaining peace among the majority Chinese and minority Malay and Indian communities, but the multi-ethnic city state of 5.7 million has long had to contend with episodes of racial intolerance.

The victim of May’s attack told local media that the suspect - a 30-year-old has been arrested - had approached her from behind while she was walking briskly through a park with her face mask lowered. The 55-year-old ethnic Indian woman said the man repeatedly shouted at her to pull her mask up, before becoming verbally and then physically abusive after she tried to explain that she was exercising. Pictures shared on social media showed the woman’s hands and arms covered in scratches from where she hit the ground.

Writing on his official Facebook account soon afterwards, Lee said the “wrong and shameful” attack on May 7 “goes against everything that our multiracial society stands for, and the mutual respect and racial harmony that we hold dear”, adding: “It harms our international reputation more than we realise.”

More than a month later, and Singapore remains embroiled in a wide-ranging debate on race – with questions being asked about the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on the issue, the extent of subtle discrimination such as microaggressions that members of ethnic minority groups face, and whether “institutional racism” is pervasive.



Much of the discourse has taken place on online platforms frequented by millennials and members of Generation Z, such as Reddit and Instagram, with the latter playing host to popular accounts like @minorityvoices that publish swipe-through galleries featuring pithy text and visuals to aid discussion among their many followers.

The language of social justice popularised during Black Lives Matter protests in the United States features heavily in some of the posts, which variously assert that members of ethnic minority groups must be “centred” in discussions on race, that “allies” must “hold space” in the struggle for racial equality, and that “Chinese privilege” pervades Singaporean society in a similar fashion to white privilege in the West.

Several of Lee’s key lieutenants such as K. Shanmugam have also added their heft to the conversation. Speaking to local radio network CNA938 on June 10, the powerful home affairs and law minister said it was important that racism was called out “sensibly”, adding that the problem was “cancerous ... divisive and it undermines the values of our society”.

Those who had grown up in a more “stable” environment had a different approach to thinking about race than older generations, he said, adding: “You’ve got to accept younger people’s perspective and you need to find a way of engaging in issues relating to race and religion with the younger people in the way that they find acceptable.”

Further catalysts for Singapore’s current bout of soul searching came earlier this month when footage from two separate incidents – both of which are under police investigation – was circulated online.

The first showed a middle-aged ethnic Chinese man, later identified as a lecturer at a polytechnic, telling a young mixed-race couple “I’ve got nothing against you personally, but I think it’s racist that Indians prey on Chinese girls.” The man’s employer later said he would be fired because of the incident.

The second video showed an ethnic Chinese woman interrupting her Hindu neighbour’s prayers by loudly clanging a gong behind him. The ethnic Indian man who posted the footage said he rang a bell at his doorstep as part of a “five-minute, twice-a-week” prayer routine.

To compound matters, a debate has simmered for weeks over a separate episode in which the government’s grassroots arm last month used a Malay couple’s wedding photo for the Hari Raya Aidilfitri decorations without their permission.



The agency, the People’s Association, apologised for the episode and offered to meet the couple, but later rescinded this offer, saying it was unfair that the lady involved had suggested the incident may have occurred due to staff members and volunteers being “blind to racism”.

Netizens backing the couple have since angrily countered that the PA was not an arbiter of what was and was not racism.

A TROUBLED HISTORY

Singapore’s government takes an iron-fisted approach to race relations, having learned from a brief but fraught merger with neighbouring Malaysia in the 1960s and the deadly ethnic riots that followed.

Yet despite laws aimed at curbing acts that damage social harmony, the city state is no stranger to bouts of self-reflection on the matter of race – though for years the events that triggered such soul searching have not involved overt violence.

One such incident occurred in 2012, when an ethnic Chinese woman working for the National Trades Union Congress – which has links to the ruling party – posted a vulgarity-laced diatribe against Malay weddings on Facebook, in which she implied that their low cost was the cause of the high divorce rate among Singapore’s ethnic Malays.

The offence caused by her remarks elicited sharp ripostes from the prime minister and other officials, and caused the national conversation to briefly centre around the stereotypes that the country’s ethnic Malays have long contended with.

The way I see it, we just don’t want to accept racism because we don’t think this is right

Devika Satheesh Panicker, 27-year-old activist

More recently, opposition politician Raeesah Khan was issued a “stern warning” by police for old social media posts that were investigated during the campaigning period for last year’s general elections.

The 27-year-old’s backers initially decried the investigation, which found the posts promoted “enmity” among different racial groups, though Khan later accepted the police warning in lieu of prosecution, saying she understood the need to frame difficult conversations in a “considerate and accountable manner”.

Unlike older generations, who “probably just feel a lot more defeated because they have lived a lifetime of racism”, younger members of Singapore’s ethnic minority groups display more of an appetite for discussions about race, said Devika Satheesh Panicker, an activist who has been among the most vociferous participants in the latest round of online discourse on the topic.

The 27-year-old, who has posted a number of straight-to-camera monologues on race to her nearly 9,000 Instagram followers in recent weeks, said younger people were unwilling to “stand by” in the face of microaggressions because “the way I see it, we just don’t want to accept racism because we don’t think this is right”.

“These are not isolated events,” she said, dismissing assertions that pandemic-induced economic pain was fuelling heightened racism in the country. “They have been happening before the economic crisis, but back then, we chose to ignore it and nobody spoke about it. But now when we are talking about it, everything under the sun seems to be an excuse.”

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Sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu, who researches ethnic relations in Singapore, said she had sensed a “definite increase of awareness” among younger members of the city state’s ethnic minority groups, who tended to adopt a more inquisitorial tone than older generations when discussing race matters.

The assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University said a similar line of questioning was often apparent, namely: “Why is this still happening? We’ve been a multiracial and multicultural society for decades. We’ve been living together for so long ... Why is there this level of unacceptance and aggression?”

“Many people are saying this shouldn’t be happening and it should stop,” she said.



SYSTEMIC ISSUES

Scholars have also identified systemic issues with the way Singapore manages race relations – such as the government’s continued use of the so-called CMIO, or Chinese-Malay-Indians-Others, framework to present statistics on key indicators such as marital status and education levels among residents – as underpinning aspects of racist behaviour in the country.

The government says the breakdown by ethnicity is done with the “best of intentions” and is aimed at enabling policy intervention rather than fomenting divisiveness or finger pointing.

But Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer of comparative literature at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said data that showed disparities in the education levels of the four groups fed into the self-defeating idea that poor-performing groups “are naturally like that” – even though outcomes arise out of a variety of factors including parents’ education and income levels.

Other aspects of the government’s complex race-relations toolbox, such as ethnic quotas in public housing estates and the retention of schools exclusive to Mandarin-speaking students, have also been called into question.

Pedestrians cross the road in front of shopping malls on Orchard Road in Singapore earlier this month. Photo: Bloomberg

Pedestrians cross the road in front of shopping malls on Orchard Road in Singapore earlier this month. Photo: Bloomberg

As of last year’s census, 74.3 per cent of Singapore’s 4 million citizens and permanent residents were ethnic Chinese, 13.5 per cent were ethnic Malay and 9 per cent were ethnic Indian, with 3.2 per cent classified as “others”.

Much of the current debate surrounding race in the city state has focused on government policy and the actions of the majority Chinese community, but there is also a problem with members of ethnic minority groups internalising damaging stereotypes, according to Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, founder of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding in Singapore.

Among the examples he gave were Malay community leaders who said ethnic Malays had to “mix with other races to succeed”, a Malay-Chinese man who distanced himself from the Malay community by highlighting that his mother was Chinese, and a student from an ethnic minority group who dared not dream of being more than a cashier.

“Racism in the form of negative stereotypes and prejudices doesn’t only go one way, it can also be expressed and internalised by your own community,” Imran said. “It becomes a hindrance to your own progress when you imbibe these very ideas”.

‘FOREIGN IDEAS’

A common retort among critics of Singapore’s ongoing debate on race – as aired by the Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao in a June 9 editorial – is that it represents the importation of “foreign ideas” by left-leaning activists who have helped sow dissent among different racial groups with the introduction of “copied” concepts such as Chinese privilege.

The editorial claimed critical race theory, the academic movement which underpins much of present-day anti-racism activism in the US, was malignant and “encourages racist hatred of white people”.

In response, more than 200 scholars signed an open letter voicing their dismay over these views, saying the newspaper’s mischaracterisation of critical race theory “promotes a narrative of Chinese victimisation that implicitly rationalises these acts of verbal and physical violence against minorities”.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore and signatory to the open letter, said the editorial “seized upon the language of the American right to deflect discussion, claiming that there may be some conspiracy to stir up hatred toward ethnic majorities”. He said it used language designed to promote fear and division, which was “unhelpful and can even exacerbate misunderstanding at a time when ethnic relations are already tense”.

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Lianhe Zaobao said it acknowledged there was disagreement with the views expressed in the editorial, but urged readers to consider it in its entirety.

The emergence of new vocabulary in Singapore’s conversation on race was likely the result of activists “finding resonances from like-minded people and finding a common language to talk about certain things”, said Nazry of the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Rather than something to be feared, such terms could actually help increase social harmony, according to Imran of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, who highlighted the need for those with majority privileges in the city state to “hold that space and listen, and try to at least understand the lived reality” of ethnic minority groups.

Refusing to “believe that racism is a reality despite overwhelming evidence that it exists” can result in “racial gaslighting”, said a widely shared Instagram post by Beyond The Hijab, a website focused on Singapore’s Muslim women, using the term for a form of psychological manipulation in which a person is made to question their own memory, perception, or judgment.

The post, which offered pointers on how to deal with people who sow such seeds of doubt, said “racial gaslighting does more than silence the voices of racial minorities. It shifts the blame onto them and makes them even bigger targets for harassment and discrimination.”

“Legitimising people’s experience as real and as a problem” is important, said Kathiravelu, the sociologist, as this “will go a long way towards making people feel secure and seen and recognised as important parts of society”.

On the government’s part, law minister Shanmugam said authorities’ answer to racism and “racial preferences” was to ensure that the rule of law applied equally to all and that the country’s system of meritocracy worked to give “people of all races fair opportunity”.

Activist Devika, meanwhile, said all parties, including the government, needed to realise that “just because we acknowledge there is racism in Singapore doesn’t mean that we have failed as a country”.

“I think acknowledging that we have racism is the first step to doing something about it. The more we are in denial, the more we are building up pressure, and that could get out of control one day.”

The second video showed an ethnic Chinese woman interrupting her Hindu neighbour’s prayers by loudly clanging a gong behind him. The ethnic Indian man who posted the footage said he rang a bell at his doorstep as part of a “five-minute, twice-a-week” prayer routine.

To compound matters, a debate has simmered for weeks over a separate episode in which the government’s grassroots arm last month used a Malay couple’s wedding photo for Eid ul-Fitr decorations without their permission.

The agency, the People’s Association, apologised for the episode and offered to meet the couple, but later rescinded this offer, saying it was unfair that the lady involved had suggested the incident may have occurred due to staff members and volunteers being “blind to racism”.

Netizens backing the couple have since angrily countered that the PA was not an arbiter of what was and was not racism.



A TROUBLED HISTORY

Singapore’s government takes an iron-fisted approach to race relations, having learned from a brief but fraught merger with neighbouring Malaysia in the 1960s and the deadly ethnic riots that followed.

Yet despite laws aimed at curbing acts that damage social harmony, the city state is no stranger to bouts of self-reflection on the matter of race – though for years the events that triggered such soul searching have not involved overt violence.

One such incident occurred in 2012, when an ethnic Chinese woman working for the National Trades Union Congress – which has links to the ruling party – posted a vulgarity-laced diatribe against Malay weddings on Facebook, in which she implied that their low cost was the cause of the high divorce rate among Singapore’s ethnic Malays.

The offence caused by her remarks elicited sharp ripostes from the prime minister and other officials, and caused the national conversation to briefly centre around the stereotypes that the country’s ethnic Malays have long contended with.

More recently, opposition politician Raeesah Khan was issued a “stern warning” by police for old social media posts that were investigated during the campaigning period for last year’s general elections.

The 27-year-old’s backers initially decried the investigation, which found the posts promoted “enmity” among different racial groups, though Khan later accepted the police warning in lieu of prosecution, saying she understood the need to frame difficult conversations in a “considerate and accountable manner”.

Unlike older generations, who “probably just feel a lot more defeated because they have lived a lifetime of racism”, younger members of Singapore’s ethnic minority groups display more of an appetite for discussions about race, said Devika Satheesh Panicker, an activist who has been among the most vociferous participants in the latest round of online discourse on the topic.

The 27-year-old, who has posted a number of straight-to-camera monologues on race to her nearly 9,000 Instagram followers in recent weeks, said younger people were unwilling to “stand by” in the face of microaggressions because “the way I see it, we just don’t want to accept racism because we don’t think this is right”.

“These are not isolated events,” she said, dismissing assertions that pandemic-induced economic pain was fuelling heightened racism in the country. “They have been happening before the economic crisis, but back then, we chose to ignore it and nobody spoke about it. But now when we are talking about it, everything under the sun seems to be an excuse.”

Sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu, who researches ethnic relations in Singapore, said she had sensed a “definite increase of awareness” among younger members of the city state’s ethnic minority groups, who tended to adopt a more inquisitorial tone than older generations when discussing race matters.

The assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University said a similar line of questioning was often apparent, namely: “Why is this still happening? We’ve been a multiracial and multicultural society for decades. We’ve been living together for so long ... Why is there this level of unacceptance and aggression?”

“Many people are saying this shouldn’t be happening and it should stop,” she said.



SYSTEMIC ISSUES

Scholars have also identified systemic issues with the way Singapore manages race relations – such as the government’s continued use of the so-called CMIO, or Chinese-Malay-Indians-Others, framework to present statistics on key indicators such as marital status and education levels among residents – as underpinning aspects of racist behaviour in the country.

The government says the breakdown by ethnicity is done with the “best of intentions” and is aimed at enabling policy intervention rather than fomenting divisiveness or finger pointing.

But Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer of comparative literature at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said data that showed disparities in the education levels of the four groups fed into the self-defeating idea that poor-performing groups “are naturally like that” – even though outcomes arise out of a variety of factors including parents’ education and income levels.

Other aspects of the government’s complex race-relations toolbox, such as ethnic quotas in public housing estates and the retention of schools exclusive to Mandarin-speaking students, have also been called into question.

As of last year’s census, 74.3 per cent of Singapore’s 4 million citizens and permanent residents were ethnic Chinese, 13.5 per cent were ethnic Malay and 9 per cent were ethnic Indian, with 3.2 per cent classified as “others”.

Much of the current debate surrounding race in the city state has focused on government policy and the actions of the majority Chinese community, but there is also a problem with members of ethnic minority groups internalising damaging stereotypes, according to Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, founder of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding in Singapore.

Among the examples he gave were Malay community leaders who said ethnic Malays had to “mix with other races to succeed”, a Malay-Chinese man who distanced himself from the Malay community by highlighting that his mother was Chinese, and a student from an ethnic minority group who dared not dream of being more than a cashier.

“Racism in the form of negative stereotypes and prejudices doesn’t only go one way, it can also be expressed and internalised by your own community,” Imran said. “It becomes a hindrance to your own progress when you imbibe these very ideas”.

‘FOREIGN IDEAS’

A common retort among critics of Singapore’s ongoing debate on race – as aired by the Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao in a June 9 editorial – is that it represents the importation of “foreign ideas” by left-leaning activists who have helped sow dissent among different racial groups with the introduction of “copied” concepts such as Chinese privilege.

The editorial claimed critical race theory, the academic movement which underpins much of present-day anti-racism activism in the US, was malignant and “encourages racist hatred of white people”.

In response, more than 200 scholars signed an open letter voicing their dismay over these views, saying the newspaper’s mischaracterisation of critical race theory “promotes a narrative of Chinese victimisation that implicitly rationalises these acts of verbal and physical violence against minorities”.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore and signatory to the open letter, said the editorial “seized upon the language of the American right to deflect discussion, claiming that there may be some conspiracy to stir up hatred toward ethnic majorities”. He said it used language designed to promote fear and division, which was “unhelpful and can even exacerbate misunderstanding at a time when ethnic relations are already tense”.

Lianhe Zaobao said it acknowledged there was disagreement with the views expressed in the editorial, but urged readers to consider it in its entirety.

The emergence of new vocabulary in Singapore’s conversation on race was likely the result of activists “finding resonances from like-minded people and finding a common language to talk about certain things”, said Nazry of the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Rather than something to be feared, such terms could actually help increase social harmony, according to Imran of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, who highlighted the need for those with majority privileges in the city state to “hold that space and listen, and try to at least understand the lived reality” of ethnic minority groups.

Refusing to “believe that racism is a reality despite overwhelming evidence that it exists” can result in “racial gaslighting”, said a widely shared Instagram post by Beyond The Hijab, a website focused on Singapore’s Muslim women, using the term for a form of psychological manipulation in which a person is made to question their own memory, perception, or judgment.

The post, which offered pointers on how to deal with people who sow such seeds of doubt, said “racial gaslighting does more than silence the voices of racial minorities. It shifts the blame onto them and makes them even bigger targets for harassment and discrimination.”

“Legitimising people’s experience as real and as a problem” is important, said Kathiravelu, the sociologist, as this “will go a long way towards making people feel secure and seen and recognised as important parts of society”.

On the government’s part, law minister Shanmugam said authorities’ answer to racism and “racial preferences” was to ensure that the rule of law applied equally to all and that the country’s system of meritocracy worked to give “people of all races fair opportunity”.

Activist Devika, meanwhile, said all parties, including the government, needed to realise that “just because we acknowledge there is racism in Singapore doesn’t mean that we have failed as a country”.

“I think acknowledging that we have racism is the first step to doing something about it. The more we are in denial, the more we are building up pressure, and that could get out of control one day.” - SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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