Addressing Racism in Singapore

Posted: October 9, 2012 in Commentary
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Once again the issue of race has made the headlines in Singapore. An assistant director working for the National Trade Union Congress was recently sacked for making disparaging remarks about Malay weddings. In the meantime another lady insisted on the Health Promotion Board site that Malays are very poor because they are too lazy to work. This follows up this other instance where someone mentioned on twitter that Indians were beasts who should have their own cabins in public transport. This was reiterated by another blogger who supported her by even referring to Indians as ‘stinkypoos’. While racism is a problem which affects all groups in Singapore, this article will focus on issues relating to the Malays.

The denouement of racial issues presently ranges from online furore to the occasional police report. The sacking in the latest incident proved to be the most stringent action taken in a long time. While this action might sate and appease the fury of some, this might be counterproductive in the long run. While there has been incidents of racial intolerance in the past, one might argue that quite a number of them belonged to a rather fringe element in society. Perhaps in part due to Singapore’s harsh laws, most of the mainstream did not dare to voice their opinions on race in public. This climate was worsened as opposition politicians themselves were often slammed for allegedly playing up racial sentiments. If citizens had such bigoted thoughts, they kept it to themselves. The advent of social media perhaps has changed this situation, blurring the boundaries of public and private. A note or status comment may go viral if it is deemed sensational enough. As such social media is a steep learning curve for many and with platforms such as Facebook, the rules on public visibility constantly change. Perhaps we can expect to see more of such comments from the ‘mainstream’.

However, as such examples continue to surface and provoke outrage, people will get savvier and refrain from commenting on such issues on social media. Such self censorship will not fix the issue. The most troubling thing about this is how caught by surprise some of these people are by their remarks- either they did not realize that these remarks were racist or they did not think there was anything wrong with making such remarks thinking they are ‘generic’. Since no one was born with such racist ideas, one can presume they were socialized by interactions with their immediate circle or the larger society.

Personally I am concerned less about punishing the offender than changing the social condition which forms his/her thoughts. The punitive approach to such issues i.e. this person must be punished for his/her remarks also tend to individualize the problem punishing individual failings while overlooking how the social milieu shapes the person’s thinking. The concern is that our many years of independence have failed to create a cohesive society- and while we create public spectacles of a multicultural symphony, the internal tempo which orchestrates the rhythm of our everyday life remains far more discordant.

The problem I believe exists on two levels: the conditions of how we talk about racial and ethnic differences and the actual social conditions of race and ethnicity. I have written before on this problem but I think it is worth reiterating. The problem is that the two main methods currently employed by the state: a highly punitive legislative approach on one hand and a facile charade of multiculturalism on the other prevents real issues from being discussed in public. The former prevents honest discussion through fear and self censorship while the latter prevents deeper inquiry. The follow up question to this is what then are the real issues?

As detailed at length by Malay nationalists and academics, the idea that Malay culture is somehow deficient has its roots in colonial history. As the colonizers wanted to exploit the rich resources of the Malay archipelago, they needed the attendant labour to be used as cheaply as possible. The terms of work in the mines and plantations were terrible- long hours of hard work coupled with extremely low pay and it was no surprise that the locals did not want to participate in such exploitative enterprise. This led them to be labelled as lazy and indolent compared to the other races who were far easier exploited. This situation is not so different from that faced by current Singaporeans who are said to be needing ‘spurs stuck in their hides’ in justifying the need for migrant labour. This historical imbalance has been exacerbated by several issues. For example, at the onset of independence, many educated Malays went over to Malaysia. The subsequent developmentalist approach which Singapore took also meant state appropriation of land at a cheap price, further reducing the resources of the community. A host of policies also worsened the condition such as the ethnic based self help groups which ensured that the groups needing the least help got the least resources and the practice of not calling Malays up for National Service once upon a time which disrupted the ability of youths to find work.

The historical condition, coupled with such policies created a reality in which Malays disproportionately constituted the poor in Singapore. There are issues which affects Malays more significantly than other segments- for example homelessness, poverty and educational difficulties, issues which should be looked at structurally rather than as a specific cultural problem. These problems were worsened due to the nature of politics in Singapore as it became taboo to speak of problems of inequality as political class struggle. As such concepts of ethnicity and race became a crutch to fill in the explanatory void. This is most obvious in the statistics which come to frame issues- they are mostly framed in terms of race rather than class. The statistics then ‘substantiate’ racial explanations- all too often ignoring the fact that correlation does not mean causality. In the absence of other explanations however, people then tend to veer towards the ever present cultural explanations. Racialized data is thus used to justify the bias already in their minds and this bias is substantiated by ‘official representatives’ of the community. As such the most visible cultural objects become the most obvious convenient target. Malay weddings are not only cited by some to be the cause of divorces as they cost only $50 in some instances, they are the cause of divorces because they are lavish and extravagant in others. They also have been cited in mainstream newspapers such as the Straits Times as the cause of obesity and reproduced in mainstream institutions such as the National University Hospital. The sin of the offenders is that they are less than savvy about expressing a very mainstream sentiment sentiments often tragically internalized and echoed by Malays themselves: that Malay culture is somehow the cause of deficiencies in the community.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive study of the situation merely a general outline of the key points. If this is the diagnosis of the situation then the question of what is to be done is just as urgent. But first perhaps it is important to highlight two well meaning solutions. The first is to develop and highlight positive role models. This might not be effective due to several reasons. Firstly is that different people have different idea of what the good life is. Emphasizing such visions of success not just obscure the real impediments people face but serve as a constant reminder of their lack of success. Furthermore, these role models merely reinforce the notion of success as exception- that someone is successful or intelligent ‘for a Malay’ .

The second suggestion is to abolish ethnic categories completely. This is perhaps as many people see ethnicity as a source of conflict or as a tool to be manipulated by politicians. Furthermore, official representations are also problematic in that they tend to make uniform something which is diverse further contributing to essentializing the ethnic categories of ‘Malay’ or ‘Chinese’. However one must consider that ethnic identity does not exist merely in official institutions. One can abolish the recognition of Malays in official institutions but one cannot abolish being a Malay in real life. The Malay language for example is one marker of identity with its own historical and cultural consciousness fundamental to how people understand both themselves and the world around them. These are ethnic categories which can still form the basis of discrimination can be made worse as they are now invisible in official institutions. Perhaps one way of overcoming this is to expand the number of languages taught in schools to all, but my point is that these categories have a reality outside official institutions. And while some find it constraining or divisive, ethnic identity is a source of pride and struggle to others. While particular ethnic identities may nurture an overweening pride leading to the belief of intrinsic superiority over others it can also nurture sentiments for a less materialistic life so that in the kaleidoscopic humanity of our own cultures we see the sublime humanity of others.

The point I hope to make thus far is that the question of ethnicity is fraught with complexities in which greater not lesser discussion is needed. The current punitive reactions can be counterproductive as people retreat or look to ‘even up’ the score. The double edged nature of social media is such that such outrage can be used both ways. People need to understand, talk and most of all reflect more about what they really think, especially in disagreement in order to come to a situation in which we understand the others position and see the contradictions within our own position. If not these laws we have would be the mere face vice gives to virtue creating hypocrisy, not understanding.

But opening up is not enough if the current interpretations and discursive framework on race is not substantively challenged. The current framework which selectively highlights racial aspects has to be questioned be it symbolically in data or institutionally. This means freeing up data and information which points to alternative explanations. In this sense it is important not to ghetto these as a ‘Malay issue’ like xenophobia is not a mainland Chinese issue. Address these issues as issues of inequality, immigration, freedom of information and speech rather than a racial issue. Even on the issue of racism itself, it is important for Singaporeans to acknowledge the ideological role that such a construction of Malays play in the current political landscape: namely the formation of an emotive sentiment that somehow increase in welfare and social spending would be exploited by lazy Malays. It is not as if Singaporeans cannot relate to this: for the myth of the lazy native of yore has been replaced by the myth of the choosy Singaporean of today.

In conclusion some of the issues concerning race suggest that these sentiments are mainstream ideas long supressed. The current punitive climate engendered makes it difficult for the complex longstanding issues to come to light and addressed.


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