The thing about not living in Singapore anymore is that I’m often a little bit late to the social media shit-storms. Having gone to London to stay with some friends over the weekend (without my laptop, the horror) I would probably have missed the whole Amy Cheong saga if my friend hadn’t checked her Twitter at the right time.
For those who have missed it (although that may be unlikely at this point), Amy Cheong, an Assistant Director in the Membership Department of NTUC, posted a short rant about Malays having void decks weddings, complaining about the noise and the fact that people were allowed to get married for $50.
Then everyone jumped down her throat for being a racist. NTUC swiftly fired her (and put a job vacancy ad up almost immediately). Someone else made a police report in yet another case of #SimiSaiAlsoReport. And that made everyone feel really good about how un-racist we all are, unlike Racist Amy. And once more the world is the way it should be.
Unfortunately for us, that’s just fantasy.
Racism is not restricted to literal violence or direct oppression. You don’t need racial riots or ethnic cleansing for it to be racism. Racism can manifest in much “softer” ways, and be much, much more insidious. Oppression and discrimination clothed in good intentions or pragmatism or just a skewed view of what’s natural and right.
Some people, like this guy, have totally drunk the Kool-Aid and bought into the official narrative that we are one multi-racial country living in harmony with complete respect and acceptance of one another’s differences. It’s not surprising; we’ve only been force-fed this line of thinking since we were tiny primary schoolers with oversized backpacks. I used to think it too. It was hard not to while attending a primary school that was for all intents and purposes Chinese-only (I don’t think we offered any other language for Mother Tongue, so if you weren’t Chinese you would be Chinese-fied by the time they were done with you). It was hard not to think that while being part of the majority race in the country, where policies – even if unintentional – are often geared to your benefit.
But all you need to do is open your eyes to see that the entire Singapore is race-tinted. We are obsessed with race, yet unable to talk about it for fear of the Sedition Act. And so we swallow the misconceptions, the assumptions, the stereotypes and the prejudices, and pretend that that’s “just how things are”.
It’s not racist to think that Malays are all lower-income and less educated, because that’s how it is!
It’s not racist to say that Indians are smelly and have too much oil in their hair, because it’s true what!
It’s not racist to talk about migrant workers as if they’re criminals, because I think you will find that many of them are.
Such thoughts are probably even more scary than blatant genocidal racists. At least we know that genocidal racists have a screw loose somewhere. But when we take racist assumptions as “the way of the world”, we’re legitimising all sorts of lines of logic that lead to discrimination and prejudice.
It’s not difficult to see racism in Singapore. You hear it on public transport and in hawker centres, and Amy Cheong is nowhere near the first (nor will she be the last) shooting her mouth off on social media platforms. Heck, racism can even be found in our policies and from our establishment.
Ethnic quotas in HDB flats, telling people where they can or cannot live according to race. That’s not “national security”, it’s racist. The Singapore Armed Forces policy that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Malays to serve in sensitive units is not common sense (no matter what Lee Kuan Yew says), it’s racist. In fact, even the way we all went into raptures over a Malay President’s Scholar (the underlying implication appearing to be that it’s so amazing that he’s so clever despite being Malay) is racist.
These are just a few examples. There are many more. And surely I don’t need to remind you of racist comments made by our leaders?
In the middle of all the outcry some people may have made the following comment: “Please don’t think that Amy Cheong is representative of everyone in Singapore! She’s just one racist, we’re not like that!” (I haven’t personally seen a comment that said something like this, but I’m sure they’re there.)
It would probably be much more honest for us to say: “Please don’t think our condemnation of Amy Cheong is representative of all Singaporeans. Just because we condemn this one racist comment doesn’t mean there is generally no racism in Singapore.” And if we could just all admit this, we would be a lot better off in our struggle against racism in our society and in ourselves.