Are we a racist country?

Someone recently posed this question to me. His assertion is that what we experience in Singapore is minor compared to what we see in other countries.

But is there a sliding scale in which there are certain kinds of racism that is “not as bad” than others?

In a sense, yes. Given a choice of being insulted for the slant of my eyes or beaten up for “bringing in coronavirus”, I’ll go with the insult please, thanks.

And given a choice between being passed over for a job and being killed over the colour of my skin, I’ll rather live to be oppressed another day.

But these are false choices – why are we even considering if there is a level of “acceptable” racism?

Any racism, systemic or casual, is unacceptable in this day and age.

Which is why I appreciate living here. Because in a sense, my friend is right. Singapore is pretty okay when it comes to dealing with racism and prejudice.

Hands together
Image source: Shutterstock/ Worawee Meepian

We have laws that protect how we speak about race and religion, it is even enshrined in our National Pledge! We have religious harmony groups and we have the freedom to worship, to speak and to act – all essential human rights.

Yes, everyone has that racist uncle or angry auntie who won’t shut up about certain things at the big family gathering. These we can ignore easily. Less easy to tune out are the casual stereotypes and the uncomfortable jokes that pervade our everyday conversations, sometimes from the most unexpected of people.

But generally speaking, I believe that Singapore is doing okay, with room for improvement, of course.

It is unlike the systemic oppression of African Americans or the treatment of certain people groups like the Romany gypsies or the migrant crisis in Europe or, closer to home, the Aborigines in Australia or the Myanmar Rohingya.

Our challenges with racism have always tended to be more a result of a lack of education and falling prey to lazy stereotypes.

Recent incidents

That’s why I was surprised by the recent couple of incidents where people have been verbally and physically abused for being from another country or for being part of a particular race.

Over the Labour Day weekend, an expatriate family of four was shouted at by a man who described himself as a “Singaporean who has served his NS”. Seated at a park bench, with multiple unmasked runners jogging by, he accused the family of “spreading coronavirus” after one of them lowered their mask to take a drink.

Even though Mothership, which ran the story after the expatriate family sent the video to the news site, treated it more neutrally, the comments on the YouTube page reflected support for the man who was shouting at the family.

Then last Friday, a 55-year-old Indian Singaporean was allegedly attacked near Choa Chu Kang MRT station at about 8.30am by a young man who shouted racial slurs at her for not wearing her mask above her nose and kicked her in the chest before running away with a woman who was with him.

It is serious enough that our government ministers have weighed in on the matter. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even wrote on his Facebook that he is “very disappointed and seriously concerned that this racist attack could happen in Singapore”.

I am very disappointed and seriously concerned that this racist attack could happen in Singapore.

I understand people…

Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Monday, 10 May 2021

Why is it happening now?

PM Lee cut to the heart of the matter.

He said: “I understand people being under stress because of Covid-19, and anxious about their jobs and families. But that does not justify racist attitudes and actions, much less physically abusing and assaulting someone because she belongs to a particular race, in this case Indian.”

These incidents are becoming more common because we are stressed over what’s happening around us.

It stems from fear. And it is stoked by fools.

There is a difference between properly questioning how the government is handling Covid and waving a placard outside a government building. One is speaking truth to power, the other is a desperate cry for attention.

That kind of populism depends on the kind of toxic prejudice that has always existed in the underbelly of Singapore society. It exists in all countries and all societies. And some world leaders like Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and ex-US president Donald Trump have capitalised on it for political gain.

What is different now is that we are seeing more of it bubbling up to the surface of our society.

Image source: Shutterstock/ Hina_photo

In London years ago, I wandered into a pub with some university mates and we were doing what students usually do, drinking varying amounts of cheap beer and yelling at the footie on the telly.

I was seated with three friends (two English blokes and a crazy Russian) when an old British man stepped in. He saw me and brought his fingers up to pull back the sides of his face to give me the “slanty eyes” insult.

In that moment, sitting with my friends, I realised that to that old man, I was nothing but an outsider in his pub, a “Chink” sullying his usual hangout with my presence.

I wish I could tell you that I sat with him and showed him kindness and we had a good chat and he went away with a better understanding of Chinese culture and the nature of globalisation.

But the pub was noisy and Liverpool was playing well so I just slowly stood up and stared at him.

Maybe it was my glare, or the fact that I was half a head taller than him and in good shape (thank you National Service!) or that he belatedly realised that a sextugenarian had no reason to pick a fight with a young man, regardless of race, but he beat a hasty retreat from the pub.

Why recount this anecdote? Because in the light of racist behaviour, we must not back down from a fight. We must not fear speaking out against traits that run counter to who we want to be as Singaporeans.

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What can we do?

Kamala Harris
US Vice President Kamala Harris. Image source: Shutterstock/ archna nautiyal

Recently, US Vice President Kamala Harris raised eyebrows when she said that the US isn’t a racist country, but that Americans have to acknowledge “the truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today.”

I understand her (very convoluted) argument (it’s a response to a political stunt) even though I disagree with it.

A country is a collective whole. Countries can’t be racist. People can.

Is Singapore a racist country? No, but we do have a problem with racism, and our xenophobia seems to be getting worse.

The solution? As when we fall ill, the solution is simple: Notice the symptoms. Identify the ailment. Find a cure. And failing that, cut out the source.

I didn’t say it would be easy. However, it is simple.

The symptoms are private comments exploding into public outbursts.

The ailment is anger, born out of fear of losing out; perhaps out of a fear of letting down those who depend on us.

The cure is education and dialogue, in a safe space. Let people speak in forums where their views are heard and where negativity is engaged and defused, not honed and sharpened.

Let’s share more stories about how foreigners are just like us, with hopes and dreams, and yes, fears too.

And if all else fails, then use the law like a scalpel – surgically. The young man who attacked the 55-year-old woman is being investigated. Let the authorities work and have it play out in the court of law.

We always have a choice

Image source: Shutterstock/ StunningArt

My friend tells me that my analysis is too simplistic. And he may be right.

But I believe that if you boil everything down to its bare bones, when you pare every decision we make to its finest slice, every choice we have is binary.

…Do I apply for that job? Will not getting that job make me resentful? Will I choose to blame others if I didn’t get it? Will I surround myself with toxicity or choose to stay positive…?

If we continue to make poor decisions, unintended or not, our binary choices leave us between a rock and a hard place. Worse of all, we stop seeing the possible outcomes of our actions.

…Do I shout at that man for not wearing his mask or hold in my anger? I’m so furious that I must say something. He looks different, he looks like he’s from that country suffering a Covid outbreak. He’s answering back, do I back down? Can I swallow this injustice…?

Suddenly phones are out and videos are rolling and you’re shouting in your 15 minutes of online infamy. You’re not racist, you tell your friends and family or anyone who would listen to you.

But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

We cannot ignore the problem anymore

Scared kid
Image source: Shutterstock/ Pongchart B

On Sunday, I was having dinner with my daughter in a mall when we overheard a man shouting outside our restaurant. It started with a raised voice and degenerated into full-on bellowing complete with Hokkien and English swear words.

The man, who was with his wife, was shouting at a cleaner, who seemed to have annoyed him somehow. Perhaps the cleaner was in the wrong, but nothing justifies this kind of tirade. It went on for a few minutes.

Everyone turned to look. So did I, then I turned back to look at my daughter. Her eyes were wide and her hands were over her ears.

I chose not to intervene. I did the bystander thing – it was none of my business and I’m not altruistic enough to butt into a petty argument.

But I also chose to talk to my daughter after that about dealing with anger and how sometimes people act out of stress and that while we can’t control them, we can control our reactions to them.

She told me: “Daddy, nothing happened, I didn’t hear anything.”

I let it go because she’s a little too young for me to harp on inconvenient truths, especially when I’m still around to protect her.

But something did happen. And we must always address things when they are happening and not clap our hands over our ears.

Singaporeans are getting fearful. Covid-19 and the economic repercussions are preying on our minds. We must address that – in private and in public.

We aren’t children anymore.

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