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New debate on race, racism in Singapore tackles call-out culture and ‘Chinese privilege’

Is a ‘loud’ conversation on race occurring now because Singapore’s racial harmony is worsening? When and how should people be called out on racism? Questions like these get asked, and answered, in a Regardless of Race forum.

SINGAPORE: His post about encountering racism went viral five years ago — Sani Sarip was in a cinema when a Chinese boy said he did not want to sit beside Malays.

Mr Sani struggled to react then and there, and it was also difficult to get him to come on CNA’s groundbreaking documentary, Regardless of Race, to talk about racial problems in Singapore.

But recently when he was invited to a new Regardless of Race forum, held following a spate of racist incidents, he needed little persuasion. Something had changed.

“I feel a bit more comfortable speaking up against instances of racism, be it microaggressions or overt or covert racism,” he said. “It’s better to just speak up and make it known that … I’m uncomfortable with you saying these things.”

WATCH: Race, racism, privilege — What has changed in Singapore? (6:13)

He is not alone. The conversation about race is now “loud”, and Singaporeans are “not shying away” from calling people out on racism, noted Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of, the national body promoting harmony.

Is the reason for this, however, a matter of Singapore’s racial harmony worsening? Besides biases, is Chinese privilege an issue? When and how should people be called out on racism?

Dr Puthucheary hosts a “special discussion” again about a “divisive issue”. (Watch it here.)

READ: Former Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer apologises for racist remarks he made to an interracial couple


For a couple of participants from the previous documentary, including Mr Sani, their experiences of racism indicate that change is not happening. In fact, data cited by Dr Puthucheary “suggest that things may be getting worse”.

Dr Janil Puthucheary showing recent survey data to forum participants.

A survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) saw fewer respondents reporting that the occurrence of racist incidents was “not at all” frequent: From 79.2 per cent in 2012 to 65.7 per cent last year.

Meanwhile, reports of racist or religion-related incidents made to the authorities have risen: From 18 in 2018 to 31 in 2019 and 60 last year.

READ: Police reports on incidents with racial or religious friction doubled in 2020: Shanmugam

READ: Singapore right to be concerned about racist incidents as there is 'always a risk' of regression on race issues: Lawrence Wong

IPS principal research fellow Mathew Mathews thinks, however, that “we’ve always had to contend with racism”. And what is clear recently is that some groups — younger Singaporeans, minorities and those who are better educated — “are more aware about racism”.

“Among those groups, there are a lot more attuned to the fact that racism is an issue. They probably have heard it, paid attention to the news (and) become a lot more familiar with all the different discussions,” he said.

“Previously something would’ve been dismissed as not being racist, but today, maybe people look at it and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t have to be something so in your face to be categorised as racism’ — something that’s casual but does hurt.”

WATCH: Interracial couples react to viral racist video (4:43)

National University of Singapore sociologist Daniel Goh is another who thinks racism here is “endemic” and that microaggressions — small acts or remarks that discriminate, deliberately or by mistake, against someone from a minority group — “have been with us since 1965”.

“But I think also … the pandemic has made some impact on our consciousness. And one thing is that we’re more reliant now on social media as our reality because we’re cut off from physical realities,” he said.

“That, I think, has also increased … a lot more connections. And you see that people are sharing more openly about their experiences … telling us about these incidents of racism.”

Leianne Tan, who often comments online on race, cited Instagram groups like Minority Voices and Wake Up, Singapore as platforms where people are sharing experiences and feelings they did not voice out before “(for) fear of offending other people”.

Ms Leianne Tan.

Now, however, “there’s a whole new layer of complexity in racism” due to the “pressures of the pandemic” and “this whole international mix” of foreign workers and expatriates in Singapore, she added.

For Santosh Kumar — who works for an artificial intelligence platform dealing with conversations on race, among other things — the stories of microaggressions now being told have given him a “sense of anxiety”.

As he fears confrontation, he “would probably just ignore” such an incident if it involves a stranger.

But not so for Mr Sani any longer. When he had a work-related spat recently, the person in question from another company “had to have the last word and said, ‘Bye Indian,’” he recounted.

He emailed the company, but it turned out that the man was the owner. “(So) I informed the people I was working with (that) I didn’t want to work with this kind of (person),” said Mr Sani.

Mr Sani Sarip.

Although the apology he had “demanded” never came, he felt that he had “said what (he) needed to say”.

“I’d have reacted the same way if he’d said, ‘Bye Malay’ or ‘Bye Chinese,’” Mr Sani added. “I hope he knows that what he did was wrong. And I hope he can reflect on it.”

Shimma Abdul Rahim, who also participated in the previous documentary, hopes the call-out culture can be normalised in a productive way.

“We have casual racism, right?” she said. “But we can also casually say, ‘Hey, I think this isn’t right.’ And it’s okay for you to call (them) out instead of being scared that you’re overly sensitive.”

The way Mr Sani reacted — by “trying to get the understanding of the other party that his actions were deeply hurtful” — was “very calibrated”, noted Associate Professor Goh.

“But he didn’t get the response. And I think that kind of frustration … puts him (at) a dead end. So what’s he going to do? Is he going to (have to) post on social media?” said Assoc Prof Goh.

Assoc Prof Goh is from the National University of Singapore's Department of Sociology.

One “key thing”, he added, is to “not respond with the same kind of racism”.


The idea that members of a racial minority have it harder was something discussed in the previous documentary.

What has since gained currency, however, is the use of the term “Chinese privilege”, which Assoc Prof Goh described as “very much borrowed from America, and a kind of mimicry of white privilege” without being adapted to the local context.

“It’s used as a shortcut. And as a shortcut, it might be useful in certain circumstances,” he said.

“But generally, if you apply it and weaponise it as a thing to throw back at the aggressors or to use as a blanket term, it’s going to cut off conversations. That’s the problem with it.”

READ: High time to talk about racism, but Singapore society ill-equipped after decades of treating it as taboo

Dr Mathews thinks it is a fact that “there’s some kind of privilege — that if you’re part of the majority, then certainly there are some things that make it a little easier for you”. This sometimes includes getting a job.

Dr Mathew Mathews joined the forum virtually.

“At the same time, I think we’ll have to be careful about how we label that. Throwing that term, Chinese privilege, very easily … does have a way of stopping conversations,” he agreed.

“It does put it as if one particular race, the dominant race — the Chinese — is the source of all the problems. And that shouldn’t be the case. I don’t think that framing helps.”

The other side of the argument is that the majority may need to make the effort, as suggested in several commentaries, noted Dr Puthucheary, who is also a senior minister of state.

READ: 'Take the extra step' to make minorities feel comfortable, says Lawrence Wong in speech discussing racism in Singapore

READ: In full — Lawrence Wong's speech at the IPS-RSIS forum on race and racism in Singapore

“But at which point does that extra effort become almost condescending … not having its effect or having an effect of making things worse?” he asked.

The forum hosted by Dr Puthucheary was held in The Theatre at Mediacorp.

What Chinese Singaporeans can do is to “offer allyship” and “validate” their friends’ voices, replied Timothy Seet, who runs Unsaid, an organisation that uses art to engage conversations.

“Each time you hear someone else saying that ‘this story isn’t true’, or ‘they’ve got mental health issues and whatnot’, be like, ‘No, this is his or their lived experience,’” said the 28-year-old.

“These stories come from a place of truth and a place of past traumas as well. And I think it’s, firstly, our responsibility to educate (ourselves) — there are resources out there. And also listen to the stories.”

Mr Timothy Seet.

Like him, Ms Tan suggests that Chinese Singaporeans could “stand up for a friend”. She also agrees that “Chinese privilege” exists but can understand why “some people might feel defensive”: They do not want to be seen as bad people.

But quite apart from microaggressions committed against minorities, she highlighted “bigger issues”, like discrimination against Indian renters and discrimination in employment, including by those who do not want Indians to tutor their children.

“So we do what we can in sharing stories and humanising people because, after all, we have Indian and Malay friends.”

READ: Minorities bear ‘direct and real’ financial burden from Ethnic Integration Policy for public housing: Pritam Singh

In his classes, Assoc Prof Goh teaches his students that “racism still exists”, as do racial inequalities. “They have to face it and understand where it comes from,” he said.

But other inequalities exist too, across different demographic segments like age, gender and class, he noted. “All these things interact to create a kind of privilege complex.”

READ: Class – not race nor religion – is potentially Singapore's most divisive fault line

READ: How Singapore sees its millennials (and it's not a pretty picture)

Raising awareness, however, is only the first step.

“We also encourage (students) to move towards interculturalism. Inter-Asian is the word we like to use … to get people to share and understand each other’s circumstances, histories and values and to start creating shared spaces,” he said.

“This is actually built into our (Singaporean) DNA … This was our founding fathers’ kind of dream — the Rajaratnam notion of common spaces.”

WATCH: Regardless of race: Will we ever get there? (49:46)

For a more cohesive society, then people must go “a little bit beyond” being vocal in calling others out on racism, to “pulling people along on that journey”, suggested Dr Puthucheary.

“Regardless of race — will we ever get there? Probably not in my lifetime,” he said. “But this is an aspiration that we’ve all pledged ourselves to as one people, and we can never stop trying.”

Watch the Regardless of Race forum here.

Source: CNA/dp