The issue of race and xenophobia in Singapore |

Racism in Singapore
Image by Ratna Fitry from Pixabay

It’s an issue everybody knows exists, and depending on their race, class, gender, and religion, their experience of racism varies greatly. In June, MP Ong Ye Kung publicly stated that “acts of racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person of another race, exist in every society, including Singapore.” 

Systemic Racism

Remember the infamous NETS blackface ad that drew a backlash online for its stereotypical portrayals of the different races in Singapore? In it, the actor darkened his fair skin to mimic an Indian character and a Malay woman. While they did later apologise, how can an organisation as big as NETS not realise what they did wrong?

Recently, playwright and former Raffles Institution student Alfian Sa’at posted his own experience with racism while at RI, together with a 2016 photo of ex-students posing in blackface to celebrate their Indian friend’s birthday.

Ask any minority in Singapore and you’ll hear plenty of incidents of racism – there’s the name calling and the (c)rude jokes. These micro-aggressions often start at school, and when these are pointed out as racist or insensitive comments, the most common response is: “Why can’t you take a joke?” 

Sadly, it’s so common that people probably don’t realise they’re doing it. Even Straits Times was guilty of perpetuating racial stereotypes in their Lifestyle article titled “Home-based learning – a look at three households” in which we saw a Chinese family seizing the opportunity to “impart life skills and values”, while minority families were relying on loaned devices and government assistance schemes.

You can always find unabashed racism whenever it comes to talks about FDWs and construction workers. Trawl through Facebook posts on these migrant workers, and you’ll find comments ranging from the insensitive (“I trust them but I don’t want to have a dormitory in my neighbourhood”) to outright insults (“they’re so dirty”). 

Such casual racism, if allowed to fester, can develop into more severe acts of violence we are more accustomed to seeing outside of Singapore. Take the recent case of a 19-year-old Temasek Polytechnic student who was arrested for making several alarmingly violent threats against Muslims on his Instagram account. 

Elitism and more

Under the racism umbrella, we also have elitism and the so-called “Chinese Privilege”, which arguably starts with SAP schools – colloquially referred to as “Chinese schools” because they’re catered towards developing “effectively bilingual (Chinese and English) students” who are “inculcated with traditional Chinese values” from primary school age. Boasting heavy funding, SAP schools are naturally elite institutions desired by both parents and students, but its admission is exclusive to Mandarin speakers, and therefore serve to further the racial divide and Chinese privilege in Singapore.

The privilege doesn’t stop there; simply look at job opening ads and you’ll find many specifying Chinese candidates, even if the job doesn’t require speaking or writing in Chinese. Another arena where Chinese candidates are preferred is in home tuition, where many ads on LearnSeeker sought Chinese-speaking tutors for subjects like Physics and English.

How it begins 

Arguably, habits like these often start at home – how many parents mingle regularly with friends of different ethnicities and backgrounds? How many Chinese parents only want Chinese tutors for their children? This hardwired preference often spills over into school, where homogenous cliques are formed. Of course, it’s only natural to mingle with people they’re familiar with – but when enough people exercise a “preference” that disadvantages others unfairly, it becomes discrimination.

Singapore is often portrayed as a multicultural paradise of racial harmony, with many policies to safeguard against racism. However, no policy can control inner thoughts and prejudice that comes from prolonged exposure to certain racial preferences, which on their own could be innocuous, but done at scale become something more.

People need to understand that casual racism can actually harm and affect others – just because they don’t tell you off doesn’t mean they’re OK with it. Imagine being targeted for being different when you travel or study overseas. Casual racism is still racism, and sure, racism can go both ways, but the effects of racism don’t – because those with more social capital puts them in positions of power that gives racism a more “legitimate” veneer. We can do better, and should do better.