What’s Race got to do with Anything?


What's Race got to do with Anything
Image Credit: @gohrhyyan, Unsplash


Disclaimer: This only represents my views and my opinions, not that of anyone else I may be associated with, in any form or fashion. Factual inaccuracies, if any exist, are mine and only mine.

Race and the minority experience are not often topics of conversations in Singapore. Yet the recent debacle with WP candidate Raeesah Khan has prompted a flurry of discussions about race, racism, discrimination against minority groups and these “sensitive” topics.

I’m not usually one to engage in political discourse but I am learning that this is the only way that things can change. If race is not an issue in Singapore, then we shouldn’t fear to speak openly about it. So I would like to share some of my observations and thoughts. Again, everything presented should be taken as my opinion, and not a statement of fact

From the minute we are born, we are categorically put into one of the CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others, but what is Others even?) race boxes. Why do we have this segregation? Why not just label everyone Singaporean and be done with it?

The government rhetoric is:
To maintain racial harmony in Singapore. To avoid a repeat of the race riots of the 1960s. To ensure ethnic integration and to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves in Singapore. etc. etc. etc.

And so the CMIO model is used to divide us, and dictate our lives as a member of this society. It tells us what languages we can and cannot learn in school, where we can and cannot live, what jobs we can and cannot take up, and many other life choices one should reasonably be allowed to make independently, but find themselves constrained by this overly reductive system.

It would then seem that race is indeed a very important consideration in Singapore. And within this context, in my opinion, there exists discrimination on the basis of race, sometime systemic, sometimes casual – generally to the detriment of minority groups (I don’t think it works the other way around). So how does this play out in our lives?

Let’s start with education. The very existence of Special Assistance Plan (SAP) Schools is an example of discrimination in education. 

Most SAP schools are very good educational institutions, and seats in these schools are highly sought after. However, the requirement of offering Mandarin at the PSLE in order to gain entrance to these schools puts minority groups at a disadvantage – because ethnically Malay and Tamil-speaking Indian students must offer their own mother tongue languages, and cannot choose to instead offer Mandarin.

As such, ethnic minorities are immediately denied access to these schools, schools which are consistently ranked highly. Malays and Indians being denied educational opportunities on the basis of their race – is this discrimination?

What about in terms of housing opportunities?

Our Ethnic Integration Policy was introduced to ensure that we have a chance to mingle with different ethnic groups on a daily basis, but in reality it perhaps makes life a little more complicated for minority groups.

“Under the EIP, there are limits on the total percentage of a block or neighbourhood that may be occupied by a certain ethnicity. When these limits are reached, no further sale of flats to the affected group is allowed, unless the seller and buyer belong to the same ethnic group.”

These are limits placed on even each block of flats. So, if you will follow my thought process:

Imagine that a block of flats has 100 apartments and if we follow a roughly 75-15-7-3 % breakdown by the CMIO race categories, as an Indian, I am only allowed to buy one of 7 apartments available out of 100. My Chinese counterparts on the other hand, can purchase any one of 75 flats allocated to their ethnic group.

Next, consider buying and selling of resale flats as a 1:1 exchange. If I am trying to sell my apartment, or buy an apartment in a new flat, the new buyer or seller must also be Indian – otherwise the balance will be disrupted. For my Chinese friends, they can sell to any one of 75 other Chinese buyers, and buy from 75 other Chinese buyers. Is this discrimination?

Interestingly, the government has recognized that there may be an added layer of difficulty posed to certain groups because of the EIP, and supposedly has measures in place to help these people, but I couldn’t find much information about what these measures are or how they work (please educate me if you know more).

If you are renting and you are a minority in Singapore, you may also have a harder time finding someone to rent to you. Almost one in four Singaporeans have reported facing discrimination while trying to rent living quarters in Singapore, and Singaporean Indians (49%) and Malays (34%) are affected more than Chinese (18%).

People may say this is a “personal preference” of not wanting to have a person of a certain ethnicity in their home. However, when someone assumes that everyone of a certain race has certain mannerisms / behaviors / practices that you do not “prefer”, purely because they are a member of said race without actually knowing them as individuals –  then this is not merely a case of personal preference. 

Discrimination? Racism? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but life seems to be more difficult on this front if you belong to a minority group in Singapore.

What about in the workplace? Does everyone in Singapore have the same access to all jobs, given the same qualifications? Is there workplace discrimination?

Minority groups have reported feeling discriminated against when applying for jobs, a statistic that has increased from 2013 to 2018. Complaints have also been made about language discrimination (which is closely related to racial discrimination because of the Mother Tongue Language requirements mentioned earlier, in my opinion), but thankfully this number has gone down from 2014 to 2018 (although it could be that people are now used to that as their “new normal” and have stopped reporting it, idk).

Next topic: Do minority groups have representation in politics / Parliament? Officially, the GRC system was implemented in 1988 to “ensure that Singapore’s parliament would always be multiracial in composition and representation.” Sounds great, I love it!

I also found this research paper that says that minority race MPs were much more likely (21.79 times more likely) to raise questions related to racial minorities. That’s FANTASTIC, thank you MPs.

Except wait, “Besides MPs’ race, this study finds that partisan affiliation crucially influenced the likelihood of MPs to represent racial minority interests. Political parties played an important role in shaping MPs’ representational behavior.”

So perhaps it is not just the number of questions they asked that is important, but the quality or content of the questions that were posed that is important.

In my opinion, on this front, is where our minority MPs fail to represent minority interests.

For example, let’s take the recent (2019!) e-payment brownface saga. It was released as part of a governmental campaign and broadcast on national media. I assume these ads that are released as part of a nationwide governmental campaign have to go through a strict series of checks before they are approved. Yet, it didn’t occur to anyone that this ad might be construed as racist and offensive. Somehow, it made it to the mainstream media and caused a public outcry.

In response to the deep hurt they must have undoubtedly felt (I felt it too), popular YouTuber Preetipls and her brother rapper Subhas Nair released a video online that went viral. It was this video, rather than the original brownface ad, that drew vocal and aggressive reactions from our minority Ministers and MPs. To me, it seems that Preetipls, an independent YouTuber, is being held to higher standards than our own government.

All of this is the “big” stuff. What’s also painful is the reality of life as a minority in Singapore.

From being called racial slurs like “ah pu neh neh” and “keling kia”,

to being told “we can’t play with you because you’re black and dirty” as a child,

to Chinese parents telling their children to behave well “or else the Indian man catch you” (this was related to me by a Chinese friend, and confirmed by other Chinese friends)

to having to laugh off casually racist “jokes” like Hey I can’t see you in the dark or be chided for being “too sensitive”,

to grappling with conversations and discussions in school or in the workplace that take place in Mandarin rather than English –

All of these are a part of my own personal lived experience as a minority in Singapore. And it really wears you down, having to deal with it on a daily basis. 

To be honest, I don’t really know what the point of writing this is. It’s long, it’s draggy, it’s full of a lot of things people might term “uncomfortable statements” – but really, they are also my truth, and this is my experience.

I am Singaporean, through and through, and for the most part – I am proud to be Singaporean. However, I also want us to do better. Because I believe that we are better. We don’t need to pretend that race doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t affect each of us in different ways – in affording some of us certain privileges, and in denying others of us opportunities.

Really, we can’t “pledge ourselves as one united people regardless of race, language or religion” if we refuse to acknowledge that all of these have a bearing on the lived experiences of everyone in the country, including and especially the minorities.

These are my thoughts and my experiences, and I do not claim to speak for all minorities in Singapore. They may have a very different experience from me, which I do not claim to know.

But I would love to know what your thoughts are. Whether you are a minority like me, or you are a part of our Chinese majority and have a very different perspective, I welcome any comments, feedback and/or suggestions. If you see anything that is erroneous, please also reach out to let me know.

I only ask that you be kind, for I am human too, with my own feelings and sensibilities.

4 thoughts on “What’s Race got to do with Anything?

Add yours

  1. Thank you for writing this Crunch. I learned so much by reading it. Thanks for being brave to have this conversation. I am sure that others will do the same when they read this.

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