Growing up, racism was a regular part of my life. But while it coloured my childhood, thanks to family and friends, it did not define me. And even though I have become more resilient and compassionate because of it, I have also always battled a sense of ‘survivor’s guilt’.
It’s no surprise that Singapore, with its multi-ethnic, multi-national societal fabric, immediately felt like a place where I could finally belong.
I have no doubt created my own echo chamber – and safety bubble – of family, friends and colleagues who appreciate and respect diversity and inclusion as much as I do, and my thoughts here by no means negate the issues of systemic racism and racial stereotyping Singapore has long grappled with.
But amidst a tornado of negative news, rather than focusing on problems alone, I wanted to remind everyone of the positive initiatives that you can support or get involved in – the good deeds between locals and foreigners, or people of different ethnicities – and the organisations that empower the vulnerable or the less fortunate.
Experiencing racism first-hand
Whilst I have experienced my fair share of racist slurs as the only Asian kid growing up in an ethnically homogenous small town in Hungary, I have always considered myself a person of privilege, and have for the longest time carried an unconscious guilt over what I perceived as undeserved advantage.
I have been hesitant to share my thoughts because amid the current climate defined by an overwhelming sense of division, disillusion and information overload, I wanted to be able to contribute in a constructive manner.
Truth be told, I was also afraid of remembering my past.
As you can tell from my name, I am not Chinese or Japanese, but have learnt Mandarin or Japanese greetings as a child because those were the phrases my bullies shouted at me, no doubt from the many Asian martial arts movies they had watched.
I used to dread the short walk home from primary school, because it meant walking past a worksite with construction workers or a playground with a group of local teens. Always, words and racist names would be thrown at me, and once, even a dead pigeon – which explains my horrendous bird phobia that my friends and family still tease me for!
I had to ignore whispers from fellow students shocked to hear that “a child of immigrant parents who used to work in the Asian market” can win academic competitions or get into university abroad. They didn’t bother to find out that my parents – as many Vietnamese immigrants in the 1980s and 90s in Eastern and Central Europe – were former academic scholarship students who grew their now thriving business from humble beginnings as market stallholders.
I lived through many awkward moments at school when teachers had gone to great lengths to publicly express their surprise – in front of entire classes of students – over the fact that I performed well “although I was not Hungarian or ethnically white”.
These stories are of my childhood in Hungary, but they could very well have described incidents of casual racism that many in Singapore may have had to deal with too.
Even after years of studies and training, I have had work calls where male colleagues would make off-handed comments that I was chosen for a project because as a woman of Asian ethnic heritage, I would tip the scales in terms of diversity and inclusion, or because I was “easy on the eyes”. They made zero mention of my relevant professional skills or industry knowledge. The blatant – albeit likely unintended – sexism and tokenism emanating from these words blindsided me.
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Questioning my identity – the Imposter Syndrome
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to focus on the negativity or contribute to the cancel culture that seems so prevalent these days. Often, these comments were made not out of spite, but were nonetheless delivered in a careless manner that made me feel uncomfortable, and have solidified a deep sense of Imposter Syndrome that I have struggled with ever since.
What were intended as light-hearted jokes shook me to the core, and made me question my identity.
Victims of racism and discrimination in Singapore no doubt go through similar emotions of self-doubt, so the reason I am sharing this personal story is to implore anyone who is reading this – if you have even a sliver of doubt over the racist (or sexist) undertones of your joke, just don’t say it.
That said, I have grown up in a loving and accepting environment, with friends of all races, nationalities or orientation, and family thriving in all corners of the planet. I have never been discriminated against when it came to the defining moments of my life – throughout my education, at the workplace, or in my personal relationships – nor have I ever felt like I suffered an unfair disadvantage because of the colour of my skin or my gender.
During the countless times we were called out in Hungary for “stealing people’s jobs”, or were told to “get out of their country”, my family always encouraged me to take the high ground, and to let these snide remarks slide. In their view, arguing would not have changed people’s perceptions.
From being a victim of racism to championing diversity and inclusion
I am aware that Singapore is far from immune to racial injustice or ethnic nationalism, but the country’s staunch commitment to creating a peaceful, multi-ethnic society, along with its vibrant culinary scene (of course!), are some of the reasons why, following stints in Melbourne and London, I have decided to make the city-state my home.
Since living in Singapore and with my journalist hat on, I have continued my hunt for initiatives that empower and support those that most need it, and the search has been immensely gratifying.
For anyone who expressed fear over new migrant worker dorms being placed near housing estates, have you read about the foreign worker who risked injury to save a toddler dangling from a second-storey flat, or the Bangladeshi cleaners who helped residents escape a burning HDB flat?
For those in despair over the foreign-local dichotomy in Singapore, have you checked out the welcome notes penned by Singaporeans to show their gratitude and appreciation to foreign workers ? Welcome in my backyard (WIMBY) aims to counter NIMBYism (‘Not in my backyard’), and bridge the gap between locals and foreigners, through initiatives such as virtual dialogue sessions targeted at debunking myths and misconceptions of foreign workers.
If you recognise the precarious circumstances they live and work under, would you be keen to volunteer with migrant workers? From teaching financial skills to domestic helpers at Aidha, to providing free medical consultation and counselling to migrant workers through HealthServe, or even simple tasks like packing food with Transient Workers Count Too, the opportunities are endless.
Moving beyond race to empowering vulnerable communities
Diversity and inclusion should also go above and beyond issues of race or nationality, and what you choose to spend your bucks on can make a whole lot of difference.
I know that many of us are itching to enjoy our favorite food fixes as businesses reopen during Phase 2, but would you consider going to restaurants, cafes or bakeries that employ or train people with special needs or of challenging backgrounds?
Have you visited Dignity Kitchen, a food court in Serangoon that trains and employs those with disabilities or from disadvantaged circumstances on the ins-and-outs of running a hawker stall?
Would you consider engaging Hush TeaBar for a team-building activity? The social enterprise trains and employs people with hearing impairments or mental health issues to perform tea rituals using sign language.
Have you ordered flowers from BloomBack, which provides skills training and employment to marginalized groups, and upcycles blooms from events as donations to homes and hospices?
Have you gotten your mani pedi done at Nail Social, a socially conscious salon which works with marginalized women with a higher barrier to employment?
There are many other social enterprises and conscious businesses that are worth supporting. All it takes for you is to look out for them.
Racism and inequality are real struggles that ought to be discussed more transparently and tackled more actively, but the organisations that aim to make Singapore a more diverse and inclusive society should equally be applauded.
We all have a role to play
If there is one thing to take away from this post, I hope it’s for people to think carefully about how they too can (and should) tackle racial injustice, and inequality in general.
Whether it’s to call out inappropriate jokes in your circles; push for a (more robust) diversity and inclusion policy at your workplace that’s properly enforced and audited; advocate for more inclusive government policies; or volunteer with organisations that support vulnerable communities, we each have a role to play.