Can we please talk about race?

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“If we truly are a society committed to justice and equality, then we need to muster the courage to start having this conversation now – and make sure we should do so in a sensitive, constructive and responsible manner”

One of my biggest life-changing experiences was transitioning from a being part of the privileged majority race in Singapore to being a racial minority when I started my university education in the UK. It allowed me to see my community and my relationship with others in a very different way. Joining student politics further increased my awareness of existing power structures, and the challenges of being a racial minority.

I could not help but imagine what it feels like to be a minority in Singapore. I believe that it is worth reflecting on the racial issues in our society. Yet it seems that this is a conversation that many people are too afraid or too unwilling to have.

Every year, on Racial Harmony Day, we are reminded of the importance of racial harmony. Indeed, we are lucky to be in a country without racial strife. But while we appear to be doing very well for ourselves, there are still problems.

Racism? What Racism?

Every now and then, you may hear racial slurs uttered by relatives at family gatherings, or by your colleagues at work. Racism hasn’t disappeared; people have just “gone private” with racism. An Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey in 2016 indicated that 60% of respondents have heard racist comments, and out of that 60%, 65% ignored the comment, and 17% agreed with the person making the comment. It seems like we have a long way to go.

On the other hand, employment discrimination is still a serious problem. According to the same IPS survey, 20% of Malays and 18% of Indians said they often, very often or always feel discriminated against when applying for work, compared with only 4% of Chinese people who felt the same way.

employment discrimination

If 20% does not seem like a large number, let me put things in perspective: if you are Malay, you are 5 times more likely to feel discriminated against when applying for work than if you were Chinese.

I think what saddens me even more, is that some employers don’t think that they are being racist when they clearly are. This is an actual conversation I have had with an employer who refused to hire people of a particular race:

Me: “Don’t you think that what you are doing is racist?”
Employer: “No it’s not. [insert race] people tend to be [insert untrue negative stereotype]. So what I am actually trying to avoid [insert untrue negative stereotype], which is bad for my business. The focus is my business. I’m not being racist.
Me: “Don’t you think that thinking that [insert race] people are [insert untrue negative stereotype] is itself racist to begin with?
Employer: “But it’s not racist if its true!”

Furthermore, owners of private residential properties routinely exclude individuals from tenancy based on ethnicity, even explicitly stating in advertisements that their requirements are “no Indians” or “no Malays”.

This is a serious problem, but interestingly, you have to turn to foreign media to read about it – such as this BBC article; or this Indian expat magazine; or this CNBC article; or alternative Singaporean news websites such as this. Such issues don’t appear sufficiently newsworthy as far as the mainstream media is concerned..

One might ask: how could this be? Didn’t a recent poll indicate that more than 7 in 10 Singaporeans believe that a person’s ethnicity does not influence his or her success? This is how statistics can be misleading. 7 out of 10 is unimpressive when Chinese people make up 74% of the population. Given that they are usually not the victims of racial discrimination, of course they are unlikely to think race is a barrier to success! The remaining 26% however, might tell a different story.

Why do we not talk about these problems?

The PAP government’s stance has been that race issues should not be brought out into the open, because they may be divisive and sow discord. This is consistent with a 2016 poll, which indicated that 66% of Singaporeans polled believed that “talking about racial issues causes unnecessary tension”. (again, remember that 74% are Chinese)

Of course racism is a sensitive issue. But I have argued in a separate article that in some cases, the refusal to talk about divisive issues can foster discontent, and only leads to further polarization. On the other hand, I believe that respectful and constructive discussion about divisive matters can in fact lead to engagement, understanding, and hopefully, resolution. (Speaking of which, I am not sure that the government’s decision to force a Malay President upon Singaporeans will address these problems)

“if you are racist, and being accused of racism upsets you, then maybe you should think about not being racist, rather than accusing me of sowing discord”

In any case, I do not think it is unsurprising that people who are racist get upset when they are being called out on their racism. Is this divisive? Perhaps. But if you are racist, and my calling out of your racism upsets you, then maybe you should think about not being racistrather than accusing me of sowing discord.

Furthermore, if the issue concerns the discrimination of a particular race, then to say that the issue should not be discussed is equivalent to telling an oppressed minority to tolerate oppression, since speaking out will upset ‘harmony’. I don’t think this is correct. How can we be silent when people are suffering? An equilibrium, or a stable state of affairs, is only worth preserving if it is fair and just to begin with. If we see racism, we must talk about it, even if it is upsetting or divisive.

One might argue that these are matters best left for closed-door discussions with “community leaders”, instead of being discussed publicly. This was what the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, suggested during his recent clash with Faisal Manap in Parliament.

“Is there a “community leader” of racist Chinese landlords? Or an “association of racist Chinese employers” that we can speak to?”

However, if the issue here, for example, concerns the general racist sentiments of a majority race towards a minority, it is difficult to see how this could work. Is there a “community leader” of racist Chinese landlords? Or an “association of racist Chinese employers” that we can speak to?

Furthermore, community leaders don’t always hold the key to a solution. Surely it is too simple to assume that community leaders necessarily represent the interests and sentiments of all members of their community, given that they are unelected, and sometimes disengaged from the less active members of their community.

I of course agree with Mr Masagos that the open discussion of racial issues can be hijacked by self-serving individuals with problematic agendas, or attract bigotry and insensitivity such that our social fabric becomes threatened. But we cannot always assume the worst of something in order to justify rejecting it as a whole. I believe with enough effort, we can weed out the worst of society, and build a conversation about race that is progressive, and grounded in sensitivity, empathy and decency.

I have never felt so strongly in my life to speak up for something, and I think personal experiences with racism have played a huge part in this. I know these conversations are difficult to have, but if we truly are a society committed to justice and equality, then we need to muster the courage to start having this conversation now – and of course, if we do so, we should do so in a sensitive, constructive and responsible manner.

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Sedition Act Note: It is submitted by this writer, and the editors of this site that, in accordance with our policy, the examples and arguments employed in this article do not have a seditious tendency, and in any case, they fall under the exceptions listed under Section 3(2) on the basis that (a) they show that the Government has been misled or mistaken in any of its measures; and (b) they point out, with a view to their removal, matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races. 
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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, legal theory and political philosophy.

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