Do Singaporeans have a racist fear towards Singaporean-Indians?

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Recently, it was reported that a young Singaporean boy had told his parents that a stranger attempted to lure him into a van in an attempt to kidnap him. However, following a police investigation, it turned out that the boy lied to his parents in order to avoid punishment for returning home late from school.

What the mainstream media left out though, and what startled me, was the details of the boy’s (fabricated) account. The parents had reported to the police that:

“The van came to a halt and the passenger who was a Indian man with mustache winded down [sic] the vehicle window and told my son to get in the van lying to him that they are there to fetch my son as instructed by me.”

I found this alarming. I imagine that out of all the possible narratives that this 10 year old child could come up with, he would have chosen the one that he found the most believable, and/or the first image that came to his mind – and so it turns out that in his mind, the image of an Indian man with mustache was something both believable and natural in the context of a kidnapping.

Children are not inherently racist – any bias they have would have been a product of their upbringing and their environment. If a 10 year old child could come up with such a racist thought, what does this say about our society?

I argue that in Singapore, there still exists a racist fear among many Singaporeans towards Singaporean Indians. It is something that exists, but something we do not talk about.

Why so? Perhaps because in the case of Singaporean-Chinese people, it is a source of embarrassment given how much we pride ourselves as a wonderful country where different races live together in harmony. As for Singaporean-Indians, they perhaps feel marginalized or silenced, especially given how the oft-repeated narrative of racial harmony and Singapore’s ‘success story’ quickly drowns out any complaint of racism in our society. Perhaps they feel that bringing up the matter would ‘rock the boat’ by bringing to light a very sensitive topic – and since we are a society that fetishizes stability above everything else (even the suffering of minorities) they have learnt that keeping quiet is the ‘best’ way forward.

In fact, the situation is so bad, that even both the Home Team – (Singapore’s civil defence force) and Mediacorp’s Channel 5 adopted and perpetuated this stereotype (probably unknowingly) in a recent video depicting a terror attack against innocent civilians that portrayed the terrorist as a menacing looking Indian man (interestingly enough, with a mustache) driving a vehicle into a crowd of innocent people, killing, among others, a young Chinese girl.

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In response, some critics might say something along these lines – “They put Malay, you say racist. Put Indian, you say racist. Put Chinese, you say racist. What do you want? Put ang moh ah?” This would be a cheap way to sweep aside the key issue here regarding a general societal disposition – but if we really wish to discuss casting choice, I argue that if you watch the video again, it is clear that there was absolutely no need to have depicted the physical appearance of the person in the terror vehicle. Why then did Mediacorp and the Home Team decide to include it? Why should the person be Indian, with a mustache, and pierced ears? Does it somehow make the terror threat more real? More believable?

With portrayals like these, no wonder the ‘perfect’ villain that that 10 year old child pictured in his mind was an Indian man with a mustache.

This is not a unique problem to Singapore – across the world, there is a tendency to portray villains as having darker skin. Think about The Lion King’s Scar and the Huns in Disney’s Mulan (yes, even cartoons do this), for example; and in 1994, Time magazine ran a controversial cover photo of black American footballer O.J. Simpson’s mugshot that was intentionally altered to make his skin look darker than normal in order to make him seem menacing.

However, it is a problem nonetheless. As a Chinese-Singaporean, how would you feel about negative connotations attached to the colour of your skin?

Therefore, we need to start realizing that it is not okay to link evilness to skin colour, and that many people in Singapore still do this. We need to admit we have a problem, and we need to commit ourselves to resolving it. Parents should not say things that would make their children think in stereotypes, and the media should do its part in ensuring that it does not perpetuate them. Otherwise, how can we really call ourselves a nation with racial harmony?

Related articles: Can we please talk about race?

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Written by Rio Hoe

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