Is Singapore A Racist Country?


AUGUST 31 — Often in the lift that deposits me on my flat’s floor, I am quizzed by curious neighbours and their ilk on my Singaporean-ness.

“Where are you from girl?”


“Then your mother? India lah?”

“No. Singapore. You?”

“I’m Singaporean lah.”

The perpetrators of these questions are usually Chinese.

Amy cheong

They are polite, often friendly exchanges but unfortunately they belie a persistent and pervasive Chinese chauvinism that, too often, underlies this nation.

The Chinese identity — the C in the oft-used CMIO (Chinese Malay Indian Other) construct the state is so enamored with, is the default identity. If you aren’t Chinese you need to justify your Singaporeaness, and even so you’ll never be quite as Singaporean as a Singaporean Chinese.

In a very astute commentary published last year, social activist Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib summed it as such: Despite our professed desire for a unified nation “regardless of race, language or religion”, what had transpired for the last four decades was the opposite. Race has become a single most important marker for our social existence. In other words, we have become a totally racialised society. There is hardly a moment in our social interactions that we are not reminded of our racial identity — from the imprint in our identity cards, to our schooling years to job applications.

We are constantly reduced to our race.

The other day, my brother exclaimed that he was stretched and needed to hire more people to join his creative agency. But, he shared, he had to make sure they weren’t all from his ethnic group lest his 23-man-strong set-up be pigeon-holed as an Indian organisation and be written off by the majority of Singaporeans.

Now, with a very healthy mix of races running about his two-storey shop-house office, I think he is far from having to field such an accusation. But his commitment to multi-ethnicity isn’t the issue.

Here’s the issue: I am certain none of his Chinese Singaporean counterparts have had to entertain this question and fear the repercussions of being labelled as mono-ethnic. After all, most small businesses on the island are overwhelmingly Chinese.

And that is, we’re raised to believe, okay.

Only state-sponsored banners seem to feel obliged to dutifully represent the Singaporean in every shade.

This idea that minorities have to justify themselves is not a new one, but it is not always accepted; there are people who argue than Singapore is truly a meritocracy that disregards race.

My husband, who is from a very dominant majority in his country of birth, often accuses me of over-reacting. Singaporean Indians are too “jumped up” he says — most people don’t really care about the colour of your skin.

And if ever I felt like maybe he was right, I need only to look at the recent string of comments that trail the headlines surrounding our newest Miss Singapore Universe.

Remarkable for their lack of any awareness — in the past days I’ve seen comments denouncing the 23-year-old for being “unattractive” — her skin is too dark, she isn’t as pretty as a Korean girl and one particularly vile character claimed that looking at her made him want to throw up.

Now, I am no expert in beauty pagents. But Rathi Menon seems for all intents and purposes beauty-queen like. She’s tall, poised and has the big hair I have long associated with sash-wearing beauties. But somehow she falls short?

Years ago, in 1998, Aneetha Ayyavoo cinched the title of Supermodel of the World — a genuine global title, and the best perfomance ever by a SIngaporean at an international pageant. And the reward she enjoyed locally hovered on zero.

These days, Ayyavoo is a regular on Tamil programming channel — Vasantham. Really? Supermodel of the World and our city’s mainstream media doesn’t hold her up as a cause for celebration. Though she was a Singaporean contestant she ended up being an Indian success and not a national success.

This constant and nagging discrimination manifests in many ways: A friend tries to rent a flat and is advised by his housing agent to say he is a foreigner from America since his name is rather ambiguous. Because, as he will learn, many landlords are very open about their decision to not rent to Indian tenants.

That we’re encouraged to tolerate the month-long offerings for the Hungry Ghost month that often leave entire void decks in a mess of burnt floor, ash and strewn paper in the interest of racial harmony but the annual Thaipusam needs to be celebrated in relative silence as it affects people.

Are these festival less Singaporean? Something to be tolerated but not taken to heart? Malays very evidently and Indians historically have been on this island for as long.

My mother is 4th generation Singaporean. My staple diet is bak chor mee. Our culture is a fusion from across the races and religions. We believe some things are pantang and others are heng.

To me, the Singaporean identity is a mix of all the races. We belong to this island as much as the next person. So, I would like to be treated to the same courtesies and the same sense of belonging please.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Authored by Surekha A. Yadav


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