As a fair-skinned Chinese girl in Singapore, I am part of the racial majority and live a happy, comfortable life. I can confidently say that in Singapore, I have never been racially abused or discriminated against because of my skin colour.
Most people I encounter are friendly and open. They assume I am fluent in English and Mandarin, that I am capable, and that I won’t cause trouble on a night out. I have never been ‘tailed’ in a supermarket by shopkeepers worried I was going to steal something.
Contrast this to the racism my Filipino Singaporean friend has had to put up with.
“Is our language too hard for you? Do you need me to slow down?” said a Chinese-Singaporean colleague of hers once. Her boyfriend’s female Korean housemate called her a “sex worker from the Philippines, and they need to deport you”.
Ignorance is bliss, they say. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never fully realised how bad racism could be until I was confronted with it myself only five years ago.
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At 18, I moved to Sydney for three years. Living in predominantly white countries (I did also travel to Chicago during that time) opened my eyes to my privilege. It was only abroad, when a group of men aggressively honked, rudely gestured and laughingly shrieked unintelligible racist remarks at a friend and me as we walked down a street, that the idea of “Chinese privilege” acutely hit home. Because at that moment, I no longer had it.
You’re Chinese, so why is your English so good?
The most common assumption I faced overseas was that I would not be able to speak English as well as my Caucasian peers. In university, many white students seemed unwilling to be grouped with me for projects or assignments. Whenever I was assigned to a group, I could sense the disappointment of the others in it.
You can’t imagine how irritated and insulted that made me feel – I came from what I considered a world-class education system, only to be discriminated against. During class discussions, I would speak as often as I could, bringing up salient points and speaking confidently, in order to demonstrate that I was just as educated and capable as my white peers.
Yes, I had to work twice as hard as my white classmates, only to be called a “banana” by a teacher – white on the inside and yellow on the outside. No matter how much effort I put into what I did, I couldn’t escape my race.
Besides being annoying and insulting, these comments and stereotyping undermined my confidence in my own capabilities.
‘Do you eat dog?’ and other racist stereotypes
Aggressive, hateful comments include being ordered to “go back to my country”. It happened to me on three different occasions when I was walking down streets.
Instances of casual racism include being jokingly called “chink”, asked if I “could still see if I squinted my eyes”, and if I “ate dog”. The last was especially upsetting, because I usually don’t even eat meat, and I love my dogs more than anything else.
That time away from Singapore made me conscious of how seemingly innocent remarks can hurt.
My Filipino Singaporean friend was mocked in much the same way I was mocked by my Caucasian university mates. It made me realise that in Singapore, too many of us assume that some races are less able to converse in English.
Minorities are discriminated against and sometimes seen as less capable or less hirable – as in the instance of the Chinese Singaporean parents who did not want their child to not be taught by a qualified Indian tutor.
Or the woman who interviewed for a job at a local bakery only to be told she wasn’t suitable for the position – simply because she was Malay.
This racism also extends to the perception of the beauty ideal. Two years ago, many netizens were upset that Singaporean Nadia Rahmat was chosen to represent Singapore in a photographer’s project, The Atlas of Beauty. Many deemed her “ugly” and not an accurate representation of Singapore. Because she wasn’t Chinese.
Then there are the supposedly casual jokes like calling an Indian an “apunehneh”. Which is as funny as being called a “chink” if you’re a Chinese person in a Western country.
Many friends have also told me how their parents would scare them into obedience with, “If you’re naughty, the apunehneh man will take you away”. Yes, not funny at all, especially if the “apunehneh” refers to you.
A year ago, Indian actor Shrey Bhargava complained about being ”reduced to his race” during an audition when he was asked to play a stereotypical Indian man with a thick accent. He was told to play a caricature of his race and felt like a foreigner in his own country. He insisted that films should not be allowed to perpetuate stereotypes.
And rightly so, because such so-called jokes, besides being far from funny to the recipient, can be hurtful, too.
On my part, I’ve explained to friends why these types of comments are wrong. And no, I wouldn’t allow a single one of them to plead ignorance.
My three years being in the minority and being subjected to racism opened my ignorant eyes to the privilege I enjoyed in Singapore as part of the majority. Here, I navigated life unmarked by my race. I never had to explain where I came from, why I spoke English, or felt alienated by a group because of my food preference.
It’s a privilege that almost a quarter of Singaporeans don’t get to enjoy. And many among those one in four Singaporeans face constant name-calling – sometimes outright insulting, sometimes disguised as a joke – and discrimination. A discrimination that could even threaten their livelihood.
So, tomorrow is Racial Harmony Day, a day meant to commemorate one of Singapore’s deadliest riots to date, the 1964 racial riots. It is a time for Singaporeans to reflect on, and celebrate Singapore’s success as a racially harmonious nation and a society built on a rich diversity of culture and heritage.
It would also be an opportunity for us to consider our own attitudes to the people of races different from our own.
Just over half a century ago, Singapore was made up of a group of diverse immigrants, and they were what made Singapore a reality and a success it is today.
The only way forward is to continue to embrace the differences that make us one.