Racism has been brought to the forefront of local discussions lately, spurred on by a combination of many things. Ever since the global Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been rampant racist attacks against Asians in the US – from the Atlanta shootings to unprovoked attacks against mainly elderly Asian women.
While racism against Asians in the US isn’t new, Covid-19 – and the Trump presidency which labelled the pandemic as a Wuhan Virus – gave people an excuse to act out with increasing violence against anyone appearing Asian.
But what about on our own shore? One could argue that don’t have outright violent racism here, but we’ve been seeing the seeds of it lately. Much like in the US, these acts of racism seem to stem from the same excuse: Covid-19. This time, however, it’s more to do with the outbreak of the B1617 Covid variant that was first detected in India.
Up in arms over a mask
You may have heard of the case of assault on May 7 in Choa Chu Kang – a 30-year-old Chinese man allegedly hurled racial slurs at a woman of Indian descent who was walking along the street, and then assaulted her in what was described as a “flying kick” before he ran away with his companion. The kick floored and injured the woman, leaving her traumatised and bleeding.
According to the 55-year-old victim, her ordeal began when the man was upset at the fact that she wasn’t wearing her mask while brisk walking.
The man was arrested for public nuisance, according to the police on Tuesday (11 May), which comes with a conviction of fines up to S$2,000, jail time of up to 3 months, or both.
Her assault was cited by Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam in Parliament recently, who said that Singapore will fail if the country allows racism and xenophobia to become prevalent. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it “goes against everything that our multiracial society stands for”.
However, Shanmugam notes that the attack appeared to be racist based on the victim’s claims, and investigations need to be done before conclusions can be drawn.
On social media sites, some netizens have a hard time believing these provocations have been motivated by racism – and some have tried to justify the attacks by stating things like “Hence she provoked the man to kick her.”
However, several days before that attack on May 2, a Singaporean man was accused of shouting racial slurs at an expat family of 4 at Pasir Ris Beach Park, accusing them of spreading the coronavirus here.
Based on a video footage forwarded to Mothership.sg by the expat family in question, the local Indian man appeared agitated that the family weren’t wearing their masks (according to the wife they only took their masks off when drinking water). They alleged that he continuously shouted in their direction with “Bloody Indians go back, spreading virus here.”
However, the footage didn’t capture the man’s racial taunts, but instead it recorded him saying lines like “This is my country. Back off. Maintain your distance.” Netizens have also noted that the wife in the video can be heard repeating “Did you say ‘Bloody Indian’?”
A matter of nationalism?
Shanmugam’s address noted: “Around the world economic pressures have led to populism and the populists have been seeking political profit by exploiting people’s fears over jobs and economic insecurity, blaming foreigners, blaming immigrants, for all of their country’s problems.”
“Because first, it will be the expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians,” he said, noting that not everyone can distinguish between Singaporean Indians, and those born overseas. Like the anti-Asian attacks in the US, perpetrators weren’t able to distinguish between the different Asian ethnicities.
But for those acting out against a virus, it’s important to note that Covid-19 doesn’t respect ethnicity or nationality. “This is not a Chinese virus or Indian variant,” as Minister for Education, Lawrence Wong has pointed out.
These comments have been made as an indirect reference to the general distrust over the CECA issue (with many Singaporeans questioning its benefits), which was brought to a boiling point when the B1617 strain of Covid-19 was spreading fast.
Plain old racism is alive
While we debate the issue of racism under the excuse of ‘Covid-19’ let’s not forget about a lady named Beow Tan. By now, she’s probably the most famous poster child for racism – she’s been making videos complaining about Malays and Indians for a few years before someone found her and called her out.
Minor acts of racism have always been around – many minorities have reported difficulties in securing rental units, for instance.
Sometimes, it seems as if racism is so embedded in our lives and culture that it isn’t realised, as seems to be the case with Beow Tan:
In Singapore, uttering words with intent to wound the racial feelings of others – Section 298 of the Penal Code – means jail time of up to 3 years, or a fine, or both.
A racist hate crime is a crime motivated by bias against race, religion or national origin, and when hate crimes occur, an entire community can feel threatened. This is why countries across the world have punishments specifically to prevent that.
As Shanmugam puts it: “We will fail if we allow racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, and it’s contrary to everything that has made us successful and proud to be Singaporean.”