Race issues and Singapore’s ‘Fragile Majority’

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The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

The recent incident involving Shrey Bhargava’s audition sparked a passionate discussion about the state of racial harmony in Singapore, and whether we are truly as race-blind (or at lease race-irrelevant) as we would like to believe. Mr. Bhargava’s post on Facebook about his experience auditioning for a role on Ah Boys to Men 4 (4!? This is really juicing the franchise) and was asked to put on an Indian accent, drew approximately 1,500 comments as of the 31st of May.

These comments sit on a wide spectrum. Some comments, including some written by Chinese-Singaporeans, were encouraging. The majority of comments however, were disconcerting. Mr. Bhargava was labelled an attention seeker and a hypocrite by some. One blogger, Xiaxue, even went as far to dig up old videos of Mr. Bhargava sporting an Indian accent. Others gave him some ‘hard lessons’ in life, telling him that he does not have to take the role if he does not like it. Some argued that he was just being sour – after all, Chinese characters were stereotyped as well, such as the Ah Beng or the new Chinese immigrant.

Whether he was indeed an attention seeker, a publicist, or is doing right by pointing out the existence of institutionalised modes of racism in Singapore is not what is most important. If we dwell on these specifics, we will emerge none the wiser as a society. As this incident unfolds, the strong comments online discrediting the experience of Mr. Bhargava begs the following question: why are we so bad at talking about race and race-based issues?

Explaining the Subliminal

I believe that we are bad at approaching racial issues in Singapore because of three key reasons:

  1. First, the failure of racial harmony policies;
  2. Second, is our focus on meritocracy as a core value;
  3. Third, is the relative ‘racial comfort’ of the majority in Singapore.

a. Racial Harmony and its Problems

In terms of our racial harmony policies, created to commemorate the importance of communal peace after the 1964 Race Riots, there is a large tendency to focus on the symptoms of racism, rather than its root cause.

The focus had largely been on understanding what another group’s customs and practice are, and enhancing one’s appreciation of other cultures. Indeed, we take pride in the multi-ethnic nature of our nation’s culinary culture. However, the focus on the symptoms of racism only created the illusion that we were indeed a race-blind society by establishing the benchmark of racism as a person who does not know or is uninterested in appreciating another’s culture.

As a result, when faced with accusations of racism, a cognitive dissonance sets in – “surely I cannot be racist if I understand and appreciate your culture!” Our portrayal of racism is simple – in our minds, only the uneducated and the wicked engages in it. It is with this narrow conception of what racism is, and this relatively low standard for what racism entails, that makes it difficult for many Chinese Singaporeans to engage meaningfully in race-related discussions. When confronted with potential racist experiences, the common response was to de-racialise it as see from this:

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This is not an isolated example – they are aplenty among the 1,500 comments. We need to move beyond that.

b. Meritocracy and Individual Responsibility

Furthermore, the presupposition of a “perfect-meritocracy” also meant that success is often attributed to the hard work of the individual and it ignores the other compounding factors such as race and socio-economic status, which play significant roles. The discussion on how to make Singapore a place of equal opportunity has been going on for a long time when it comes to addressing differences in socio-economic class.

However, when it comes to racial privileges, such as ‘Chinese privilege’, many Chinese Singaporeans often face difficulties in engaging with it constructively because it goes directly against the rhetoric of meritocracy we treasure so dearly. Take the following excerpt from Xiaxue’s response, for example:

xiaxue2xiaxue

It is in this vein where the ‘sour grapes’ response to Mr. Bhargava spawn from – it is a meritocratic casting, and this man played the race card because the casting audition did not go well.

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In the same way we have came to accept how wealth tempers with our meritocracy, we need to start to consider the idea that race may be another tempering factor. Otherwise, the nature of race-related discourse here will continue to be destructive rather than constructive.

(Speaking of privilegewe of course need to be mindful about identifying those that are specific to Singapore, rather than borrow the experience of other societies that underwent a very different history from ours.)

c. Comfort in Numbers

Finally, living in a society with a little more than 70% of the population from a single racial group (Chinese in our case) means that this group with a supermajority would find it easy to be ‘comfortable’. Comfort in this case means that a typical Chinese Singaporean does not have to live a daily life through a ‘racialised’ experience because the vast majority of his or her interactions would likely be with another Chinese Singaporean. This meant that when race does emerge as an issue, the likelihood of a Singaporean Chinese comprehending it to the same extent as a member of a minority race is lower.

This could be seen from:

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Responses such as these refuse to factor in the racial-dimension as a potential problem at all.

Conclusion: do we have a ‘fragile’ majority?

We are bad at talking about race.

The forces I explored above, among other things, led to many members of the Singaporean Chinese community (of which I am a member) to develop a degree of ‘fragility’ when it comes to race-related discourse – this fragility stems from the lack of tools to comprehend and engage in race-related discussions due to our poor conceptualisation of ‘racial harmony’, our overarching and unflinching meritocratic narratives, and the lack of a need to imagine or think about ‘racism’, or live through a ‘racialised’ experience as a member of the Chinese majority.

This fragility, fear of rocking the status quo, meant that rather than be able to engage in it meaningfully when pressed to, this community has a tendency to respond defensively. Examples of this defensiveness could be seen all over Mr. Bhargava’s Facebook comment thread – perhaps it is an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, or a product of one’s inability to understand issues through the lens of race. This phenomena has been well-documented in the USA, and some of the theoretical work can be applied to Singapore.

It is important to note however, the encouraging responses of many Chinese-Singaporeans who seem to understand the issues at stake, and have spoken up in Mr. Bhargava’s defence. However, it is unfortunate that they are in the minority.

As a member of the Singaporean Chinese community, I believe that part of our duty to our fellow citizens is to ensure that the room for conversions can be meaningful. We have our work cut out for us – to make the majority robust, to normalise deep and constructive conversations about race in our country so as to prevent a rerun of the kind of defensive kick-back reactions we just witnessed on Mr. Bhargava’s page.

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Photo credit: Straits Times

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Author: Lee Ke Lin

I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in 19th century history! :D

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