Unpacking the “one” Singapore

Throughout the month of August the children beamed down on us from their perch on lamp-posts. “Happy 49th Birthday, Singapore!” the banner said against a backdrop of red and white. A sweet message from the children. The happy, friendly, politically-correct-and-racially-representative children. 

Hey, this is Singapore, and we all live in racial harmony, right?

If only it were that simple. Racial harmony – a true harmony that goes deeper than just the lack of fights and riots – is more than billboards and posters of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) children. It is more than swapping national costumes one day of every year. It is more than a Chinese Singaporean eating roti prata and knowing how to sing Chan Mali Chan. And it is way, way beyond holding the same red passport.

Yet we’re taught that it is that simple. “Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religious country,” I remember reading in my primary school Social Studies textbooks. “We live in racial harmony.” Cue photos of a Christian church (Eurasian), Buddhist temple (Chinese), Hindu temple (Indian) and mosque (Malay).

Through such a simplistic narrative we have spent years weaving a lie for ourselves. A lie that fills us with a mixed sense of relief, pride and accomplishment every time we see a news story about sectarian violence or racial riots happening somewhere in the world. “Thank goodness Singapore doesn’t have that problem!” we say. 

We may not have that problem – the problem that keeps parents awake at night worrying about the safety of their children simply because of the colour of their skin – but we’ve definitely got problems. Problems that desperately need to be discussed, if only we’d stop and open our eyes to them.

I’ve recently started to examine myself and my life much more closely, to be aware of how my circumstances have influenced the way I perceive and react to things. In conversation with friends I’ve begun to question how my upbringing as a Chinese, English-speaking person (henceforth to be referred to as Chinese English-Speaking Folk, or CESF) has provided me with a very particular experience of Singapore and the world.

As a CESF I will look through the postings on housing rental sites and tut at the blatant “No Indians/No PRCs” posts, but never have to actually deal with the situation of being told that I can’t live somewhere in Singapore because of the colour of my skin or my country of origin. 

As a CESF I can do well academically and not be put on a pedestal as a “credit to my race” because it is already widely taken for granted that people of my race do well by default (whether they actually do or not is mere detail). 

As a CESF I know 100% that my race will be represented each and every year when it comes to prestigious scholarships to far-flung elite universities that then go on to guarantee promising careers in the civil service.

As a CESF I can look at a job ad that says “bilingual worker” and assume that it’s referring to two languages that I speak. And I will usually be right in that assumption.

As a CESF I don’t ever have to wonder if my Prime Minister will be someone from my race/ethnicity; I already know he will be because this is something that has already been openly discussed

As a CESF I am a “default Singaporean” and it is unlikely that I will be required to prove my allegiance or loyalty or ability to contribute. These things will already be assumed; they will be so assumed that, should I ever venture away from these shores again, the government will spend millions to throw Singapore Day events to lure me home.

These are broad examples plucked out to paint a picture. I don’t want this post to become a list of examples of racism in Singapore. I don’t need to make a list to prove that racism and racialism exists. Going beyond that, I don’t want to make a list of examples because they aren’t my experiences to share. 

And that’s precisely the point: they will never be my experiences in this country. My Chinese-ness in a majority Chinese country means that there are things I will always be insulated from.

I’ve spent a lot of my life simply assuming that my experience of Singapore was similar to everyone else’s, regardless of race, language or religion. I am confident that I was not alone in this assumption. Yet it robs us of our ability to recognise a very fundamental truth about Singapore: that there has never truly been “one people, one nation, one Singapore”. That the “true blue Singaporean” ideal that we’ve built upon to differentiate between “real” citizens and everyone else isn’t even real. That the national narratives and success stories we tell ourselves can have big, gaping holes in them.

In the writing of this blog post I expect that there will be many who will disagree with me. There will probably also be others who go, “So, what now?” 

That’s where things get a little fuzzy. I don’t know “what now”. Having recognised the advantages that I have enjoyed throughout my life, what are my responsibilities and duties to those who haven’t enjoyed these advantages? Apart from general calls for mindset changes and anti-racism pledges, are there any everyday concrete things that I can and should be doing? How can I be an ally to a struggle that I will never be able to empathise with? 

They’re all big gnarly questions that I am likely to be grappling with for some time to come.

10 thoughts on “Unpacking the “one” Singapore

  • On the subject of Indians and housing…I’m white, my husband is Indian American. Our realtor has always carefully billed us as “American,” letting the LL/LL agent assume we’re white. Since I’ve always done the first pass on apartments, my whiteness has been very soothing/appealing to them. So if an apartment makes my short list, by the time Ravi shows up, they’re predisposed to be fine with him. Whether it’s his American accent, or the assumed civilizing influence of my whiteness, I don’t know. I do know that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the semanatics games and that I’ve been cast in the white savior role in that little play.

    I do know that there was one apartment I looked at and loved and when they saw my husband the rent went up several thousand dollars. I’m not sure if that was a penalty for his brownness or a decision to try to bleed the expats, but either was pretty repugnant and we passed.

    I do know we get a lot of “not YOUR kind of Indians, those OTHER Indians.” I also get “No, not you–you’re a good expat, I’m complaining about those OTHER expats.” Which is code for “oh shit, I said something racist, so I’ll cover my ass.”

    I get white privilege in the US and I get it in Singapore, but my marriage and the experience of raising biracial kids has been a huge eye opener.

    I don’t have solutions either. But I think we do need to talk about it, because until we acknowledge the racism, we can’t really begin to address the inequities of privilege.

    • “…because until we acknowledge the racism, we can’t really begin to address the inequities of privilege.” <– Definitely. In Singapore, I find that this failure to have addressed the inherent racism in so much of Singaporean society is papered over when the framing of the discussion becomes Singaporeans vs foreigners. All the cracks and racial lines that have been in Singaporean society for a long, long time are then forgotten because it is Us vs Them, and that’s so unhealthy in so many ways.

  • It’s not just your Chineseness that gives you most privileges in Singapore. It’s also your Englishness. It sets you apart from Chinese-speaking Chinese folks in Singapore, and for that matter, most Chinese in the world. But the joke is as CESF, your kind is lampooned as lacking Chineseness by “Chinese proper”. CESF is a different race in itself, and it’s on the top of the heap in Singapore. There are just so many fault lines here.

  • Seriously? I think you worry too much. Singapore is not Ankh-Morpork, and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (or for that matter, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong) is not Lord Vetinari, even if all three do value pragmatism in their separate own ways . . .

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