Belonging vs fitting in: the difficult conversations on power, privileges in Singapore

racial harmony day
Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay

On July 21, Singapore celebrated Racial Harmony Day, when students in schools donned traditional costumes of our multicultural forebears, and have conversations surrounding Singapore’s racial makeup.

The discourse surrounding privilege and racism was one of the major topics for this year’s GE, and arguably, it’s been an issue that’s been stewing over the decades. Especially the topic surrounding the privilege of majority groups and the struggles of minority groups.

The issue of “majority” (dominant) and “minority” (subordinated) is always uncomfortable for people to accept. In her Facebook post, former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Shiao-yin Kuik describes how being in a “dominant” group can make one unaware of their privileged position. That you have a “psychological safety that you didn’t know you had”, or an “automatic belonging that you didn’t even know”.

It’s not a bad thing – but it certainly is a precious privilege that not everybody has.

Experiencing the “dominant” group from the other side

Singapore is now entering an era of conversations about power, inclusion, diversity, and marginalisation. On the one side are people who’re still unprepared to engage, even labelling this as “woke” talk, and spreading “Americanised/Westernised” ideals.

For those who don’t understand the dynamics between “dominant” and “subordinated” or the schism between the majority and minority, Kuik laid out several scenarios, including this:

You’re invited to a party by someone, and when you arrive at the venue, and you’re suddenly aware that you’re under-dressed. You start to notice that everyone else is better groomed and better spoken. Even though everyone treats you nice, they’re unaware of how uncomfortable you are.

You try to “fit in” even though you’re not comfortable there, and can’t wait to go back to where you feel relaxed again. When you tell your host you want to leave, they tell you that they don’t see you as less worthy. Even so, you still have that nagging feeling of discomfort, like you don’t “belong”.

Congratulations, now you know how it feels to be in the “subordinated” group. This is one of many examples, which can be applied to issues like the class and racial divide. You can swap the people at the party with groups of people you don’t normally hang out with – supermodels, geniuses, non-Singaporeans, non-Chinese, etc.

Here’s the thing: while that uncomfortable experience you felt in that party happened in one night, imagine how it feels for other people who are permanently in that “subordinated” group.

Dominance equals power

Power is not a bad thing to talk about.

Being in the “dominant” group isn’t a bad thing – but it isn’t earned, because it’s an identity you hold. It’s an identity that “carries more acceptance and legitimacy in a group, an organisation, an entire culture or a historical system”.

Naturally, people in “subordinated” identities are always the most aware of how much work they are putting in to “belong”, but at best, can only just “fit in”. How would you feel if you’re constantly trying to “fit in” only to feel you don’t “belong”?

For those in the “dominant” group, awareness of their position is key to understanding why there’s all this increased chatter about privilege and racism.

Awareness can give you empathy, so that you’re not dismissive of other people’s pain. It also gives you the power to create a safe zone for the “subordinated” groups so that they don’t feel the social cost of the pushback for speaking out, being the weaker group. For them, it could be costly – they could be blacklisted from jobs, or worse.

Creating conversations, not blame games

We understand the power that “dominant” group wields, and what it costs to not be in that group. A recent high-profile court case regarding a crime committed by a male NUS student has brought to light the power that the “dominant” group has.

Meanwhile, we’re still dealing with instances of Indian Singaporeans being denied rental apartments because landlords “prefer Chinese.” Or Malay Singaporeans not getting hired because she wears a tudung and the job required “formal wear”.

Let’s hope that by the next Racial Harmony Day, we can move beyond this restrictive framework of multiracialism and have open, critical, and, ultimately, productive discussions on race, racialisation, casual racism, institutional racism, and racial capitalism.