If you have been active on social media, you know that recently there has been viral videos one after the other of racist behaviour in Singapore against Indians and people with brown skin.
Let’s remember one thing before we start: just because videos and proof have been going viral recently, does not mean that racism against brown people in Singapore is a new phenomenon. Racism has and continues to exist in Singapore and one way we can tackle it is by exposing those that conduct such behaviour.
Singapore prides itself in being a harmonious nation because of its diverse and multi-ethnic population and history. It has four national languages, which is always a shock to my non-Singaporean friends. And yes, I will admit that Singapore is better in comparison to other countries with diverse populations in terms of racism. People aren’t killed here regularly for the colour of their skin or their religious affiliation, like in the US.
But hiding behind such a comparison isn’t constructive. Not having people dying because of their race is the bare minimum, and accomplishing just the bare minimum is not something to hail as prideful. What you should hail as prideful is active commitment and action towards combating racism on a systemic and institutional level.
76.2% of the citizenship population is ethnically Chinese, 15% Malay, and 7.4% Indians as of 2020. Ethnically Indian expats comprise 9.23% of the resident population in Singapore. So the enormously majority population of Singapore is Chinese and the government promotes this proportion.
“Singapore is very racist even towards its own minorities, but this is mostly accepted by the minorities as the cost of living in a society that is safe and prosperous, and which they can genuinely call home,” says Dr. Barr, senior lecturer in international relations.
“Since 1989, the racial quota in each Housing and Development Board (HDB) block and estate has been controlled to broadly reflect Singapore’s racial proportion under the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP).” While the initial intention was to ensure the avoidance of racial enclaves forming, and ensuring people integrate and mingle together, it has transformed into an exclusionary practice.
Many people have provided evidence on social media showing messages and email exchanges with property managers and owners where they demanded to know the client’s ‘nationality’ and ‘race’. Upon being identified as Malay or Indian, many owners and real estate agents have been quoted to say that Indians and Malay people are not ‘preferred.’ It also creates complications of mixed race people and interracial couples. A Chinese-Malay or Chinese-Indian couple or individual have been denied residences because they have half of the minority ethnicity, even though they also have half of the majority ethnicity.
Singapore’s racism is much different than other places, it is casual, hidden, and passive. It presents itself in the remarks made under someone’s breath, by someone changing their seat on a bus, by someone’s demand to know a client’s nationality before renting out property or hiring.
The problem isn’t so much the laws itself, rather its the execution of it, and the societal expectations that stem from it. It creates a societal entitlement amongst ethnically Chinese Singaporeans and a sense of denial and negligence amongst ethnically Malay and Indian Singaporeans. It inherently maintains racial differences and exclusion, even though it is meant for integration and inclusion.
Racism and discrimination exists on a spectrum. It’s not black and white where something is only racist if they explicitly act on their race or skin colour.
Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code refer to activity or expression which might potentially offend a group of people on account of their race and/or religion.
As explained by Singapore Legal Advice, a charge under section 298 of the Penal Code is a charge for uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person. To be found guilty of this offence:
- You must have expressed a thought in some way, whether verbally, by making some noise, by making some gesture or by using some prop;
- In expressing that thought, your intention must have been to hurt the “religious or racial feelings” of a person; and
- That person must have actually seen or heard your expression of that thought.
Singapore Legal advice highlights that the person doesn’t even have to be actually hurt. As an offender “it is sufficient that you merely intended to hurt those feelings. In proving that intention, the content of the expression of your thought is often sufficient evidence in itself”
Moreover, Section 298A of the Penal Code, on the other hand, is a charge for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race or doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony. To be found guilty of an offence under section 298A:
- You must have expressed a thought in some way, whether verbally, in writing, by making some gesture or by using signs;
- That expression must promote, or try to promote, on grounds of religion or race, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups; and
- You must know that your expression or attempted expression of that thought is likely to promote those things.
- You must have committed an act which you know might disturb harmony between different religious or racial groups; and
- That act must disturb, or be likely to disturb, the public tranquility.
Note that “the societal interests being protected here (harmony, public tranquility, etc.) are not defined in the legislation.Vague concepts such as harmony do not lend themselves easily to legal definitions and do not appear often in legislation.” This makes the prosecution have a wide discretion on how to use these terms to determine relevant consequences, which can be both good and bad.
Now on the surface, the existence of these laws seems like a great step for Singapore to maintain harmony and present consequences for racist behaviour. However, how may people actually face the consequences?
In 2019, there was a protest in Hong Lim Park to ‘Make Singapore Great Again’ by saying ‘NO to CECA, Ramesh and a 6.9 million population’. Remember, protests in Singapore need to be licensed and approved by the government.
The CECA is the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. This act has been used as a vector for racism and xenophobia as many started to believe that it favours foreign talent at the expense of locals and increases immigration. They believe that Singapore is being ‘flooded’ with Indians and have made tropes and caricatures like saying Changi Business Park will become Chennai Business Park.
In February this year, the police reported that a 16 year old Indian boy went missing and appealed for information from the public. That appeal post was shared on the ‘Abolish CECA’ facebook group where many people made racist comments about the boy’s appearance, the expectation that they must find CECA people, and that they all look the same. Although the facebook page has since been shut down, other similar facebook groups have been made where even Lim Tean of the People’s Voice Party is associated and an administrator of the group according to Kopi.co.
Jamus Lim pointed out that simply claiming that you aren’t xenophobic or racist is not enough, you need to actively disavow and distance yourself and reject these sentiments.
The infamous video of Catherine Beow Tan, Singapore’s ‘Hwa Chong’ lady asking for fellow commuters’ races on the MRT while filming them, is racist. It is racist because she actively harassed, with racially biased motivation, non-Chinese people on the MRT, invading their personal space and privacy, and demanding to know their races as if she is entitled to that information.
Why was it so important that this video went viral? Because afterwards, people started to look for her on social media and found that since 2016, she has uploaded many similar videos on her youtube channel that went unnoticed. Youtube then took down those videos as violating their policy, and she was fired from her real estate job. She then continued to go to the MRT and give powerpoint presentations to commuters about her elite Hwa Chong background and that she isn’t racist, she is just elitist because she doesn’t speak to working class Chinese people either.
This is why it is so important to record and report. Accountability slips through the cracks when a system is designed to favour one side over another, even if it is seemingly impartial. The excuse that Tan uses, her elitism, is one she could have used if anyone had simply reported her without recording, and she may have continued her behaviour with a small slap on the wrist. However, it was because she was caught red-handed, and her years of videos were exposed, did she actually face some responsibility. Whether or not she will face legal consequence, is unknown, even though technically and arguably, this fits into the chargeable categories.
There has also been a video of a Chinese woman on a bus uttering under her breath to a Malay woman “you brownies are ruining my country.” There is a constant ‘othering’ of minority ethnicities in Singapore, through casual, passive aggressive forms of racism. It’s a type of belittling that has long term psychological and societal implications. It instills a sense of inferiority/superiority and anger on both sides that keeps bubbling up.
Singapore isn’t immune to physical assaults either that are racially motivated. A 55 year old Indian woman was kicked by a 30 year old Chinese man in Choa Chu Kang. The man has since been arrested for “for public nuisance, uttering words with intent to wound the racial feelings of others and voluntarily causing hurt”, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) said on Tuesday (May 11), and investigations are still in progress. This act led to our Prime Minister making a statement as well condemning such violent acts based on race.
It is great that swift action was taken, but, we as a society need to tackle this problem at the root, before it grows to the point of violence.
Some might say – well this is a one off case, the whole of Singapore doesn’t have a problem just because a few are racist verbally and even fewer physically.
Firstly, in a practical and smart nation like Singapore, shouldn’t the first response be to analyse why those ‘few’ are racist in the first place and ensure that those ‘few’ don’t get replaced by other people or inspire other people? Singapore, better than any other nation, knows the power a few can hold in inspiring action, which is why there are strict laws for racist action. Instead of being defensive, one should be able to recognise when there is a problem and come up with solutions to solve it.
There have been countless testimonials from Indian school children in local schools who face casual racism on a daily basis. They are told that they’re so dark they cant be seen in the dark, they are told to always smell like curry, they are told that they don’t fit the beauty aesthetic, they are told that they are too noisy, and much more. A Singaporean Sikh shared his job interview experience, in which he was asked if his turban was “removable” because of concerns that it might make clients uncomfortable.
Recording and reporting makes silence and indifference difficult. When not publicly exposed, many people choose to stay silent or ignore injustices for the sake of not ruffling any feathers or causing problems. But when you are faced with a video of it and the outrage of people, you have to choose a side. Because indifference is complicity. Indifference and silence is a method of oppression. Ian Kershaw, an expert on Nazi Germany said in one of his books that “the road to Aushwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.”
“In a 2016 CNA-Institute of Policy Studies survey, only about a quarter of the 2,000 Singaporeans surveyed regarded themselves as even mildly racist. However, when asked about their assessment of most Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans, nearly half saw them as racist” stated by research fellows at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Singaporeans have a moral responsibility to confront bigotry and hold people accountable, no matter how small or casual the act might seem. If people are made aware, are corrected and called out for their discriminatory behaviour, both themselves and society as a whole will know that racial bias and discrimination will not be tolerated or brushed off. It is important to not just assume the incident is a one-off, that it happens constantly.
Researchers at the LKY School of Public Policy noted “as the 2013 IPS survey on race, religion and language showed, around 65 per cent of a nationally representative sample of 4,000 Singaporeans believed that this was what a responsible citizen should do. In a similar 2019 survey, however, many more, especially among the young, called for less government intervention on race. The problem with resorting to police reports is this: While the state’s position on what is offensive is centred clearly on intent, individual interpretation varies widely, and this could lead to further dissatisfaction and rancour among some people.”
It is because of this that Preetipls video criticising the brownface ad was deemed vulgar and disruptive while the brownface ad itself wasn’t.
Acknowledging, reporting, and correcting is the way forward to truly be harmonious and inclusive as we claim to be. Ignoring and being silent does more harm than good. Studies by Stanford University and Berkeley found that complementing calling out with community led discourses and building empathy and understanding is a much more effective way of building long term solutions to curb racism. Having discussions about racial issues may seem provocative or problematic now to some, but it is necessary for a better and equal society. It is necessary for a society where everyone feels safe and no one has to give up the value of their individual identity for the sake of the greater good.
Wanting the best version of Singapore is what we all strive for, so let’s get on with it already.