By: Cheryl Chiew
The George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement have sparked a huge conversation about race in Singapore on social media platforms. Untangling racism is a huge and complex topic. However, the first step to solving any problem is to talk about it. So, I asked 4 Singaporean millennials about their views and experience with racism and how we can do better together.
Make the effort to understand and respect cultural differences
I’m mixed, but when I say I’m half-Chinese I get a lot of “That’s cool”s, as opposed to polite “Oh…”s when I say I’m half Sri Lankan. I get some access to majority privilege in the country and have ‘Chinese’ as my official race. But at the same time, I’ve had people say to me, “You smell Indian”, “You’re only half-Chinese/Indian so you don’t understand”, “You’re Chinese but cannot speak Chinese”, “YOU are Chinese?”
However, it has become more difficult to openly discuss racially-sensitive issues now as compared to the past. People seem to have stronger opinions about what is racist or not; there seems to be less room for discussion. For example, food is a contentious topic. If I use too much oil and strong spices in my cooking and my Chinese neighbour does not appreciate it, I should discuss ways to mitigate the issue instead of immediately labelling my Chinese neighbour “racist” for being uncomfortable with the smell.
Singapore is a multicultural space. Combating racism goes both ways and requires empathy and communication. Regardless of your race, you have to make the effort to understand and respect cultural differences.
Brendan Julian, Malaysian Chinese-Singaporean Ceylonese
“Regardless of your race, you have to make the effort to understand and respect cultural differences.”
Allies need to speak up
In Singapore, we have Chinese privilege. English is the lingua franca of Singapore and we have four national languages. But because Chinese people make 76.2% of the population, Mandarin is a favoured language.
When I was the only non-Chinese in my class, whole conversations often happened in Mandarin. Some teachers would explain concepts using Chinese phrases. Once, a non-Mandarin speaking student asked if the teacher could translate what she said, and her reply was, “It’s your problem if you don’t know [Chinese] popular idioms.” For me, these early experiences set the tone that language can be a barrier used to exclude.
When you are a minority in most settings, it is hard to speak up for yourself when things are unfair. It didn’t help that I am also shy. So, I mostly sucked it up and felt awful.
For this, it’s important to have Chinese allies who use their privilege to speak up when they recognize something is not right. Elevate minority voices when they tell you what they’ve been through. Don’t let casual racist comments slide.
It is not enough to be non-racist, one has to be anti-racist. Because when people with privilege say they’re personally not racist but still let others get away with racism, then they are still benefiting from others who are disadvantaged by this system.
Nadia, Singaporean Malay-Indian
Don’t engage in performative activism
From a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being ‘very racist’, I’d rate the state of racism in Singapore as a “2” if we’re measuring overt racism, but “4” if you really look at what’s going on. Even though I am of Filipino-Chinese descent, I have a Chinese name and culturally identify as Chinese. So aside from people mistaking me as Malay, I haven’t had much experience with racism in Singapore.
The George Floyd protests and #BlackLivesMatter movement sparked such a big conversation in Singapore. And while it was an opportunity for us to talk about local racism, a lot of it felt forced and reactionary. There were those who used social media as a platform for their performative activism to show that they’re ‘in the know’.
Instead, I think people need to listen, internalize and then speak to contribute to more meaningful discourse rather than have knee-jerk reactions. The most valuable insights I heard from my circle were actionable steps on how they were going to change things for themselves.
D. Acosta Ong, Filipino-Singaporean Chinese
Do sit down and educate people about race
Though I am Korean-Chinese, I pass as the dominant race. The very fact that I can easily and confidently find friends in new environments while my peers sometimes struggle with is very telling of the Chinese privilege I enjoy.
Because of my privilege, I haven’t experienced racism in Singapore. However, my best friend is an Indian immigrant and I’ve seen people be racist towards her. For instance, when we were in school, a coursemate casually remarked that he was “shocked by how eloquent and fluent her English was “because she was an Indian national”. My bestie brushed it off, but I was highkey disturbed.
The fact that we are ‘immune’ to casual racism says a lot. While such remarks may have been said in jest, they still operate by ridiculing a certain race. Still, I find consolation that the majority of us are conscious that such behavior should not be tolerated.
On my part, I try to rationalize why the perpetrator made those remarks and later discuss that behavior with them. Sometimes, people just need someone to patiently sit down with them to explain what went wrong. After all, we are all on a journey in life. No one’s perfect.
Zach Lim, Korean-Singaporean Chinese