What happened to racial tolerance in Singapore? | campus.sg

racist interracial

By now, you’ve probably seen or at least heard of the video that went viral on June 6 (Sunday) of an inter-racial couple being accosted by a Chinese Singaporean man went on a racist rant about inter-racial dating. In the video, the man, dressed in a red polo tee, accused Dave Parkash of “preying on a Chinese girl” and added that a Chinese woman shouldn’t be with an Indian man. 

Police investigations have revealed that the man, who’s now under investigation, is a senior lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic who’s been recently sacked for breaching the school’s code of conduct.

The video of the confrontation, which appears to be filmed by Dave’s girlfriend and lasted about 5 minutes, was shared on Dave’s Facebook page. In the video, Dave clarified that both he and his girlfriend are mixed race: he’s half-Indian and half-Filipino, while his girlfriend is half-Singaporean Chinese and half-Thai.

The video attracted the attention of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who said that it seems like more people are finding it acceptable to make “in-your-face” racist statements openly. He also added that he used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction in terms of racial tolerance and harmony, but this development was “quite unacceptable” and “very worrying.”

According to TODAY, the lecturer in question said in an email that it’s a “good time” to write about “the subject of interracial marriage in Singapore, Asia or worldwide” from a different viewpoint – he’s also recently been exposed to be an outward racist towards his students. Sadly, some still don’t get why this racism is wrong no matter what angle you take – just look at the recent Circles.Life ad, which is another level of cringe.

Are we really tolerant?

There is no doubt that the man in the video is a racist: he even said so himself and claims that Dave was also being racist for not “marrying” an Indian girl. Comments on social media seem to indicate that the general populace has no issue with interracial couples and that it’s very common in Singapore. 

However, some netizens have questioned if the video was staged, suggesting that such videos only serve to stoke ire. But comments from some minorities suggest that aggressions like these exist and are more common than many people think. In June last year, MP Ong Ye Kung posted on Facebook: “acts of racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person of another race exist in every society, including Singapore.” 

You don’t have to dig deep to find plenty of micro-aggressions against minorities, which can range from a casual racist remark like “malays no future” to discrimination against Indians from rental properties. Then there’s the treatment of domestic helpers and foreign labourers. Let’s not forget outspoken racists like Beow Tan and the man who used the pseudonym ‘Sharon Liew’ to spew racist remarks. Now we’ve even got evidence of an “in-your-face” act of racism. 

A 2016 study on attitudes to race in Singapore revealed that 50% of respondents are aware that there are substantial portions of Singaporeans who are at least mildly racist, and 12% of them disagreed that having people have many different races in Singapore is a good thing.

However, Singapore has always been a multi-racial society, and it shows in marriage statistics. According to a Population in Brief report in 2020, slightly more than 1 in 3 citizen marriages in 2019 were transnational couples, while 1 in 5 were inter-ethnic. Interestingly, there are more people marrying non-Singaporeans than someone of another race within Singapore.

Those who don’t believe racism exists are usually in the majority. In a IPS-CNA study, the ethnic group that tend to be uncomfortable with others have consistently been the Chinese. Only 24% will accept a Malay marrying into their family, and only 21% will accept an Indian.

Is there a racist demographic?

Looking at Dave’s video (and the posts by Beow Tan), some may point to the demographic of the person spewing racist remarks as being boomers. However, Tiktok shows us that racism is not an age thing – the hatred is among the young too. 

Our schools may also be (inadvertently) playing a part in seeding this behaviour. SAP schools, which with their mother tongue policy, inevitably exclude students from other ethnicities. In addition, it’s no secret that minorities have faced racism from their primary school days, with insensitive comments often passed off as “jokes.” This type of excuse for racism is common – even the lawyer for Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari (the man who tweeted as “Sharon Liew”) claimed that he was “not a racist” and that he had simply “overstepped the mark” while “trying to be funny.”

A Twitter post asked if minorities encountered racism from teachers, and some of the answers were telling.

Singapore is a highly educated nation, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s equal. A study of 5,914 subjects has revealed that who you hate depends on your IQ, and people at both ends of the spectrum actually have equal levels of prejudice. People of low cognitive ability are prejudiced against groups that people didn’t choose to be part of, such as ethnic or LGBT groups. Those with high cognitive ability tend to be prejudiced against high-choice groups, such as conservatives.

In Singapore, part of the racism is in what people ignore or don’t see because of their own privilege. It may sound incredulous, but there are segments of the population who haven’t really met anyone outside of their own race throughout their childhood and into their late teens. But the irony is that it doesn’t take much to simply reach out and communicate – Singapore isn’t a large country. Ignorance, in these cases, is a choice.

Don’t throw others under the bus

One pertinent argument about this inter-racial case is about Dave’s initial response to the man in red. At one point (around the 0:10 mark), Dave is heard saying “…but I am not even full Indian.” While this may be said in haste, the implication is that it would’ve been fine if he was 100% Indian. 

Whether someone was part or full Indian (or any other race) shouldn’t be the real issue. A racist won’t stop to ask your nationality or genetic make-up – the first judgement will be from the colour of your skin.

This incident reminds us of the recent rise in racism amid fears of the Covid-19 strain that battered India, with local Indians trying to distinguish themselves as being Singaporeans first. Remember the young man who kicked a 55-year old woman out of the blue? Trying to deflect a racist attack by proclaiming their nationality or specific ancestry isn’t the way to combat racism – we shouldn’t deflect the hate onto another community, because that makes us racist too.

Any act of racism should be called out – even if it’s not directed at us. Race isn’t the only issue that can be dangerously divisive – other issues that go beyond skin colour include interfaith couples, homosexuality, classism, and more. If you’re privileged enough not to be affected by racism (or any form of discrimination), speak up for those that don’t enjoy that same privilege. Each time we stay silent, we embolden racists and bigots.

Tolerance isn’t acceptance

“If your child brings back a boyfriend or a girlfriend of a different race, will you be delighted? I will answer you frankly. I do not think I will. I may eventually accept it. So it is deep in the psyche of a human being.” Guess who said these words? None other than Lee Kuan Yew.

It’s only natural that people don’t often gravitate towards people who’re different from them, but as a society we are at least tolerant of others who’re different from us. But tolerance is only a peace treaty, a contract of non-interference which extends to those who abide by its terms. However, a peace treaty, like tolerance, can be undone when the terms are broken. 

This is because tolerance is the act of allowing beliefs or practices different from or conflicting with our own. Acceptance is being received as adequate and valid. The definitions conflict with each other. Accepting means in agreement; tolerance means putting up with. 

Understandably, going from tolerance to acceptance is impossible to happen overnight. At the basic level, the process starts with awareness (don’t deny it happens), understanding, and finally acceptance. What gets in the way of acceptance is judgement. Only when we don’t judge, we can begin to accept. 

Living in a tolerant but not accepting world means walking on eggshells. Only after tolerance and acceptance are reached, we can finally reach the racial harmony we seek.