How racism undermines Singaporean identity

Written 28 Mar 2012, edited 26 Jun 2014; unpublished

Let me get this out of my system: racism is wrong on so many levels—but particularly so in Singapore.

I am a Singaporean and I am outraged, generally, at racism. Maybe part of this outrage comes from the fact that lots of Singaporeans—and Singaporean Chinese—don’t see it as such a big deal, or are seeking to make excuses for Ms Lai Shimun’s comment (“she was tired”/”everyone makes mistakes”/”everyone’s a little bit racist”). So maybe part of this is my Chinese (kinda-sorta-)middle-class English-educated liberal (CMEL*) guilt, overcompensating for the fact that other Singaporean Chinese don’t seem as outraged.

Maybe a part of it also has to do with the way I was brought up and the formative experiences I had, in particular the books I read that reaffirmed how we are fundamentally all the same. These included Number the Stars (Lois Lowry), Friedrich (Hans Peter Richter), and The Diary of Anne Frank.

But a huge part of it has to do with how I view Singapore and Singaporean identity, and my reflections go way past the issue of Ms Lai Shimun’s racist tweet targeting Indians.

Screengrab of tweet by 'shimunxz'

Screengrab of tweet by ‘shimunxz’; from Limpeh is Foreign Talent.

The entire reason why there is a Singapore at all is because LKY wanted a Singapore for all Singaporeans, in contrast to a Malaysia that seemed to be set up to benefit the Malays—that’s what he stood up for, that’s the reason why we sanctimoniously (and to some Malaysians, annoyingly) claimed the moral high ground, and that’s why we were kicked out of Federation. At least, this is the official account.

The sceptics will point out that LKY, as a Singaporean Chinese, obviously stood to benefit. Singaporean Chinese benefit in two ways from not being in Malaysia: we don’t face the institutional disadvantages that Malaysian Chinese (and other non-bumiputera) face compared to the majority bumiputera, and we enjoy the benefits (what we would perhaps nowadays call the “network effects”) of being the majority race.

But that is precisely the historical reason why the Singaporean Chinese, as the majority race, must constantly and consistently affirm our commitment to multiracialism—that is our historical burden, the counterpart to the psychological burden that any member of a minority race feels every single day. We have to do this constantly, because if not that proves the sceptics’ position, i.e., the existence of Singapore is due to a self-serving power grab by the majority Singapore Chinese, and that they’re the ones who benefitted the most.

I don’t think I could identify myself as a Singaporean if I accepted the sceptics’ position—that my country was founded on a self-serving power grab. Therefore I assert that the sceptics’ position must be a lie, and to prove that it is a lie I have to guard against it becoming true. Since I can never conclusively and definitively prove that it is a lie, I have to assert through my actions that it is not true—that Singapore is not independent just because it suits us Singaporean Chinese—and I have to do that constantly to prevent it from becoming true. As I see it, that is the historical burden of the Singaporean Chinese.

That is one reason why I am outraged at instances of racism like Ms Lai’s tweet, because it proves the sceptics right: it is the voice of someone who doesn’t recognise the national project, and the burdens that come with it.

Recognise also that I do not take this position because I think LKY’s a saint; I take this position because I am a Singaporean.

Separate from the benefits that come with being part of a majority, there is a psychological burden that arises from being in a minority ethnicity. From day one of school you look different, you might speak a different home language, you might have different words even for concepts as fundamental as ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. As you grow older you begin to understand, and to make adjustments to accept. You have to continue to deal with the ethnic slurs (however infrequent), and with the slight dissonance that comes with being one set apart from the others; however slight, that dissonance is there. Yet you accept, overcome or ignore that burden, and you make Singapore your home; despite that burden, you invest emotionally in a Singapore that is your home and a Singaporean people who are your people. This is what many non-Chinese Singaporeans have gone through. There was a fuller, more eloquent exposition here.

A racist comment like that hurts the additional investment that a Singaporean from a minority race has put in, that is implicit in his decision to identify himself as Singaporean. A racist comment doesn’t just tell non-Chinese Singaporeans “you are different”, or even “you are worse than us”; it also says “you are not Singaporean—this is not your home and we are not your people”. This fear is there, however deeply buried in the layers of defences that have been built up over the years of growing up in Singapore. Add that to the historical fate that minorities have suffered in so many countries around the world (look at our own history of interracial violence). That is another reason why I’m outraged, because it undermines the emotional burden that non-Chinese Singaporeans have had to overcome in order to feel that they are Singaporean.

So what if the victims of racist comments are not Singaporean? Victimising a member of any minority makes it so much easier to victimise a member of a different minority; once that pattern of thought is established it is so easily and readily transferrable.

Neither do I buy this argument that we should be progressing, or have progressed, to a state where race doesn’t matter, and that therefore we should ignore such tweets. Race matters in a profound way to Singapore. It matters historically; it matters when people are momentarily stupid, prejudiced and ignorant; and it matters because the moment the non-Chinese feel threatened or the Chinese forget the burden that their status places on them, Singaporean identity falls apart.

I’m not trying to be politically correct here; neither am I trying to crucify this momentarily stupid woman, because the scope of my reflections have gone way past her. The simple truth is that a racist Singaporean is not a true Singaporean. Because a racist Singaporean harms the position of fellow Singaporeans and makes light of the implicit burden they carry, a racist Singaporean is an enemy to Singaporeans. And while I was forced to waste 22 months training to fight against imaginary enemies, as long as I continue to call myself Singaporean I will happily and of my own free will fight the real enemies of real Singaporeans.

[*] CMEL, Alfian Sa’at’s memorable term, Singapore’s answer to WASP.

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