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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Navigating race relations in Singapore

By Lang Si Jie, Editor

Photo: Racial Harmony/TODAY Online

In May this year, George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was pinned down at the neck by a white police officer and suffocated to death. His death led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States (U.S.), which simultaneously sparked racial conversations here in Singapore.

Given how both American and Singaporean societies are composed of diverse ethnic groups, what happened in the U.S. has hit especially close to our shores. Singaporeans have localised the BLM movement by relating it to Singapore-specific experiences of racism, enabling minority voices to come to the fore and share their experiences of racism.

The Singapore government has always stressed how we should never undermine or take our multi-racialism for granted. The racial peace and harmony that we see today in the country has been attained through carefully crafted policies and laws that govern how people of different races should coexist. For example, authorities have clamped down especially hard on those who violate the maintenance of the religious harmony act, Section 298A of the Penal Code:

(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, knowingly promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion or race, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups; or

(b) commits any act which he knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both. [1]

As a result of these structural laws, outrightly racist comments have always been repudiated with almost immediate effect. In June, a 19 year-old youth was convicted for posting racially-insensitive comments on Instagram that had the potential to wound religious sentiments and incite violence against a targeted group of people. [2]

The Penal Code serves to protect the state against such racially antagonistic behaviour and promote racial harmony, but it ironically fosters ignorance about racial issues and discourages discourse on these issues in Singapore.

In a survey conducted by the Channel News Asia-Institute of Policy Studies (CNA-IPS), more than 50% of Singaporeans believe that racism is no longer a prominent problem, and 64-66% of Singaporeans are reluctant to discuss racial issues as they think that these discussions may cause unnecessary tensions.[3]

Singaporeans thus remain largely conservative when talking about race, and tend to deny the fact that racism persists due to Singapore’s image as a meritocratic and egalitarian society. This reluctance to discuss racial issues is problematic as it effectively turns a blind eye to various forms of discrimination suffered by minority races in Singapore.

Covert racism in Singapore

Covert racism refers to the subtle discriminatory acts or behaviours performed by a person against another, based on race. [4] Some examples of covert racism include making casual, racist jokes or generalising specific characteristics to people of a certain race.

Views on what count as covert racism remain polarised. In the same CNA-IPS survey mentioned, more than 70% of the respondents agreed that workplace discrimination (such as not hiring someone because of their race) is outrightly racist. However, only 60% agreed that making jokes on another’s race classifies as racism, and only 37% felt that speaking a different language around a person from another race and thereby excluding them from the conversation, was considered racist. [5]

A survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2016 also found that 6 in 10 respondents have heard racist comments being dished out by someone they knew, with almost half saying the comment was made by a colleague or a friend. [6]

These actions constitute racial microaggression, which comes in the form of everyday insults and demeaning messages that may seem harmless initially but can be pervasive and potentially damaging. They are targeted at minority groups and performed by those who are unaware of the hidden meaning behind those remarks.[7]

Microaggressions hold power because they are ‘invisible’, and therefore hinder us from realising the discriminatory nature of these actions and attitudes. If they continue unaddressed, microaggressions have the potential to escalate into outright racism and discrimination.

The impacts of overt racism will then be significantly more severe and far-reaching, as it can establish highly negative perceptions of certain racial groups and thus entrench racial discrimination and prejudice in society.

Creating safe spaces to discuss race

In an attempt to raise awareness about covert racism, community groups have stepped up their efforts in creating safe spaces for racial discourse.

An example would be, a ground-up, non-government organisation that advocates for inter-racial and inter-religious understanding. It organises race-related dialogues to facilitate sustained discourse on racial issues in Singapore.

One of its dialogues titled ‘You’re Prejudiced. And You Are Biased. Admit it.’ saw participants being asked to share their personal experiences of race and racism in the country and reflect on the importance of having authentic conversations about race.[8]

However, though such platforms are beneficial for curating safe spaces for constructive discourse on racial issues, they may not be the best avenues to mobilise individuals in society to actively challenge racism in their everyday lives. How can we ensure that these conversations do not merely take place in ‘safe spaces’, but also in our daily lives?

The importance of social media

Due to laws like the Sedition Act as well as the sensitive nature of race, mainstream media tend to shy away from covering racial issues in Singapore, thus limiting society’s ability to engage in quality conversations about race relations. How can we then encourage all citizens to listen to the voices of minority racial groups?

One way is by tapping on social media platforms, which has managed to redefine the way in which Singaporeans can talk about race relations in Singapore. Online platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have lent a voice to minority groups in Singapore, encouraging a greater dialogic exchange on such discussions.

Singaporean youths who are keen on having raw and honest discussions on race relations have taken to these platforms to express their honest opinions and find a like-minded community online. Platforms such as @minorityvoices, which has amassed close to 10k followers on Instagram, have been popular and they share local accounts of discrimination felt by people of a minority race in Singapore.

Of the anecdotes published on @minorityvoices, one story that particularly resonated with me was Sarsa Kailas’. After experiencing differential treatment due to her skin tone, she had attempted to talk to people who were not persons of colour about these encounters. Instead of receiving support from them against racial discrimination, they responded by claiming that she was ‘too sensitive’ and dismissed the racism she had experienced.

As someone of the majority race in Singapore, this story made me realise how insensitive we can be towards the feelings of minority groups in our society. It made me reflect on the importance of acknowledging the inherent Chinese privilege in our society and probed me to think about how we may use this privilege to promote greater racial equality for Singaporeans.

Through this, we can also see that social media has the potential to be a useful tool to shine light on the experiences of minority groups in society and the prejudice or discrimination they face on a daily basis. The only way we can start to be truly aware of covert racism is to view it through the lens of the people who have been marginalised because of their race or ethnicity.

By showcasing the various perspectives of individuals in minority groups, social media helps to prevent the erasure of their lived experiences of discrimination. In a way, social media platforms can provide rehabilitative justice, where their users can bring to light acts of racial discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping.

A truly multiracial Singapore?

In order to live up to the moniker of a multiracial society, a new threshold on what is acceptable regarding race must be defined. It is also important that we as Singaporeans remain open and receptive to having meaningful conversations about race.

As members of society, we must take it upon ourselves to continue to shed light on the harm that racist encounters bring to minority groups in Singapore, and continue to engage in racial discourse centered around empathy, understanding and forgiveness. [9]

Only then, will we reach a common ground of understanding and empathy for different racial groups in our society.



Si Jie is a Year 3 Communications and New Media major who is currently an Editor for The Convergence. She believes in the importance of staying relevant through engaging with current affairs and is passionate about understanding and writing others' narratives. At other times, you can either find her perusing the New York Times’ Modern Love column or out on the water dragon boating at ungodly hours.


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