What don't Singaporean Chinese get about racism?

Are we the baddies? Singaporean Chinese discovering systemic racism.

The callous murder of George Floyd, captured on video and shared across the world, has proven to be a breaking point for the already-fraught relationship between Black communities and an oppressive, predominantly white state. Expressions of solidarity have taken place across all 50 states in the United States, ranging from mass demonstrations in cities to singular acts of protests in rural towns. That some of these protests have spiralled into violence and chaos, does not detract from the momentum and scale of the Black Lives Matter movement. The rallying call has been taken up across the world, with massive turnouts on the streets of countries in Europe, Oceania and even in Asia. And with the Ameri-centric nature of mass media, coupled with the global permeability of social media, #BlackLivesMatter has reached Singaporean shores too.

What is the point of #BLM? As the movement has grown, so has the message. The protests initially called for justice to be served to Floyd’s murderers. On June 3rd, Derek Chauvin’s charges were upgraded to second-degree murder, and the other police officers who stood by idly as Floyd pled for his life were charged too. But the chants of “no justice, no peace” have not ceased. What about justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, Tony McDade, and countless others? BLM demands America’s introspection of its systemic anti-Blackness, and the way that policing perpetuates it.

This is a moment for reckoning. The BLM protests have become an opportunity for communities everywhere to ask themselves the uncomfortable question: Who, among us, are marginalized? Doing so does not divert attention away from the very real problem of anti-Blackness. Instead, understanding BLM in context is perhaps the most meaningful way of learning from and standing in solidarity with the movement. In Australia, where Aboriginal people are discriminated against, the BLM protests have become a demonstration against deaths of indigenous people in police custody. In the Netherlands, where the traditional use of blackface in the portrayl of a folk character has persisted, the transplanted BLM movement has created a called for reconsideration. Even in Japan, infamous for sweeping racism under the carpet, has #BLM forced a reckoning: a protest in solidarity with the movement was organized after a Kurdish man was mistreated by Tokyo police.

Anti-blackness does exist in Singapore. The casual use of the n-word, legitimized by the argument that “Singapore doesn’t have any Black people”, is an obvious example. Yes, BLM is about Black lives and the disproportionate discrimination that they face. But the conversation does not and should not end there. White supremacy and the colonial legacy have made their mark globally, reifying structures of racial oppression. Where Black people in Western societies are marginalized, so are Asians of darker skin “othered” in East Asia.

This essay is borne out of the frustration I have experienced from my conversations and social media interactions with my Singaporean friends, who are mostly Chinese. There have been an abundance of resources discussing #BLM from a Singaporean perspective, drawing a connection between current events and the dire need for us (specifically, privileged Singaporean Chinese) to introspect. But responses have ranged from apathy to outright offense that our racially harmonious, multicultural social fabric should be challenged by something so distant from our shores. This, I believe, stems from a lack of understanding that racism is a relational system of oppression. To see BLM as a conflict between an entrenched white supremacy and disenfranchised Black people is to miss the bigger picture. Racism takes different forms in different places, and to be anti-racist is to commit to dismantling those hierarchies in situ. Singaporeans, specifically Singaporean Chinese, who profess their support for Black lives in America without reflecting on how they contribute to racism at home, are squandering BLM to soothe their own consciences.

This realization stems from my experience embodying the dual identities of a “person of colour” in North America, and as a Chinese person in Singapore. Here, in Montreal, I live life as a minority. I have experienced the discomfort of what it’s like to be the only non-white person in a room, been laughed at by a government official for my clumsily-enunciated French, and been yelled racist slurs at. And then I take a plane ride home, to a place where those experiences become tinged with an other-worldly quality. In just changing the spot in the world where I stand, I go from oppressed to oppressor.

I recognize my privilege as an international student. My experience of racism in Canada should not be conflated with the lived realities of minorities there who cannot simply pack up and leave, or indigenous people, who experience violence and discrimination by the state. Nor am I saying that my experience entitles me to relating with the discrimination that Singaporean Indians and Malays have faced. I realize that I have become the cliché of “privileged Singaporean Chinese goes overseas and discovers racism”. But an important question this raises is, why aren’t there more opportunities to interrogate Chinese supremacy in Singapore? Some will disagree and say that there have been plenty, I could have found them if I looked for it. This may be true. I went to a SAP school, where my circle of friends were homogeneously well-off and Chinese. Racism in Singapore was something I was ambiently aware of, but I failed in gaining anything more than a textbook understanding of it. Perhaps I should have owned the responsibility to seek out opportunities to educate myself. But the question still remains. Why should these opportunities not be commonplace? Why do we cultivate exclusionary spaces, and do we even realise that we are doing so?

It is easy to agree that racism is harmful and wrong. Singaporeans have rightly been outraged at the use of brownface in a Nets advertisement, racially-motivated bullying of a Malay primary school student and when Mediacorp actor Desmond Tan decided painting his face black was an appropriate way to wish his Instagram followers Happy Deepavali. These are cases where racism is blatant. When these scandals occur, we are disgusted, call out the racists among us, they apologize, and we move on. Rinse and repeat, for every similar incident.

This cycle of outrage leads up to believe that we are addressing racism in our multicultural society. In calling out these incidents, we soothe ourselves: we’re not racist like them. The inconvenient truth is that these incidents are merely the tip of a massive iceberg. Racism is systemic; our country is one where non-Chineseness is penalized. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we will be able to have the real conversation about racism in Singapore.

There is strong aversion to wading into these deeper waters. Take the response to Nets’ brownface advertisement as an example. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu argued that the ad was not racist, noting that viewers had to understand it in the context of the actor playing different characters who were just “ordinary folks” with different roles, such as a housewife and worker. On the other hand, Subhas and Preeti Nair’s satirical response, flipping the script of racism towards Singapore’s minorities, was censured by the IMDA almost immediately.

There is undeniable evidence for systemic and everyday discrimination towards non-Chinese and non-Mandarin speaking people in Singapore. As Kirsten Han puts it, “any claim of ignorance from a Singaporean is pretty much wilful blindness at this point.” But to be able to address those systemic problems, that wilful blindness must be addressed. It is hard and deeply uncomfortable to come to the realisation that our way of life – education, housing, employment – is shaped by our race. This is a system that we have put immense effort to succeed in, and that many of us have profited from. A recognition of its implicit racism means that we, Chinese Singaporeans, have to accept that we are racist.

The good news is that change is possible. Singapore was founded on the tenets of multiculturalism and meritocracy, but the blind worship of these will be our undoing.

We can begin by listening to what our minorities have to say. Multiculturalism calls for us to embrace our different cultural practices, but we should also embrace the reality that our experience of life in Singapore, where Chinese-ness is default, is different too. As a Chinese person, I don’t presume to articulate what that experience is like. My intention in writing this is not to speak over the voices of Singaporean minorities, but to call on my Chinese friends to reflect on the privilege that we hold and what we are doing (and can do!) with it.

A survey found that half of Malays and Indians in Singapore felt that they were discriminated against during job searches. In response to the bullying incident at Mee Toh Primary School, Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung deftly brushed the dimension of race aside, noting that “bullying can happen to anyone, whatever race, religion or gender.” When we say “regardless of race” in our pledge, we cannot take this to mean to disregard race. Minister Ong is not wrong, but if we can understand how “All Lives Matter” is problematic for the Black Lives Matter movement, we can understand why such a statement does not solve the underlying problem of racism.

We also need to recognize that racism in Singapore is intertwined with economic power. Foreigners who take on jobs in construction, domestic work, or other under-valued forms of labour suffer from our discrimination too. Singaporean Chinese are racist towards mainland Chinese (“PRCs”) too, despite being of the same ethnicity. Our unexamined faith in meritocracy is to blame for this. While there is a conspicuous lack of government data on education by race, it is not a stretch to say that Malays and Indians are under-represented at elite secondary schools and junior colleges. For instance, SAP schools, with their emphasis on Chinese language and culture, are gatekeepers of Chinese privilege. As long as our top schools serve as funnels into the halls of Parliament, the observed scholastic ineptitude of our minorities will always be justification for Chinese elite rule.

The protests for George Floyd will eventually end, and our collective attention will move on to whatever new injustice is being committed in the world. But in this moment of reckoning, our failure to engage with racism on our own soil would be hypocritical and terribly remiss. We should not and do not need to wait for acts of racial violence for us to take racism seriously in Singapore.

Resources to learn about race in Singapore (curated by @preetipls): @wakeupuridea, @byobottlesg, @theweirdandwild, @othertongues, @utopia.sg, @minorityvoices, @rachelpangcomics, @cape.sg, @noor.mastura, @thecolouredprotest, @chapterzerosg, Race Tuition Centre, Race Relations SG