Inequality and discrimination in Singapore – It’s time to check our privileges


By Kirsten Han

“I don’t feel Singapore is racist, or xenophobic,” said Dr Yvonne McNulty at SMU and ONE (Singapore)’s panel discussion on race and xenophobia last night. “I don’t feel discriminated against.”

What she did feel, McNulty explained, was misunderstood. As someone who now has Permanent Residency in Singapore, she talked about how she still constantly feels judged by her looks, stereotyped as an expat wife living the high life in Singapore on extravagant packages. Such stereotyping has even led to occasionally inflated costs.

The truth, she revealed, was that most expats are no longer on huge expat packages, but hired under the local branches of their multi-national companies.

“There is a lack of understanding of who I am and why I am here,” she said, referring to the recent dip in public support for immigration and foreign talent.

The separation between Singaporeans and immigrants could also be exacerbated by segregation, such as in schools. While Singaporeans go to local schools, many expatriate families will put their children in expensive international schools, since – according to McNulty – local schools aren’t that open to expat children. This doesn’t necessarily foster mutual understanding and engagement.

“We think we are far apart in our goals and desires. It’s closer than we realise,” she said in conclusion.

It was a bold speech, a brave sharing of her personal experience. Yet it also highlighted a failure in checking her privilege. McNulty might not have felt any racism or xenophobia herself, as a well-off white woman (not having an expat package doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not relatively well-off). Yet to say that there is no racism or xenophobia in Singapore would be to completely discount the experiences of many others. Take, for instance, Indian migrants who find trouble renting property because landlords refuse to rent to Indians. Unless, of course, these Indians then turn out to be Indian Americans (with accompanying ‘ang moh accents’), in which case they suddenly become a lot more acceptable.

How can we explain such discriminatory behaviour as anything but as some sickening combination of racism, elitism and classism? And this is even before we begin to look at the amount of prejudice and hatred that some low-wage migrant workers have to put up with.

Of course, McNulty is not representative of all expatriates in Singapore (even the ones who are now PRs). Everyone has his or her own experience of navigating this city/country. Two of my good friends here are expatriates who share their own experiences in their blogs (here and here), and their stories are very different from McNulty’s. Case in point: Crystal is planning to enrol her older daughter in a local primary school this year, thus proving that “not really open” is not always true. It depends on the parents’ choices for their children; there is no right or wrong, but to characterise the situation as having no choice but to segregate your kids from local kids isn’t exactly accurate.

But another big thing that we need to remember is that we Singaporeans have privilege too. And everyone needs to check his or her privilege now and then.

When Chinese Singaporeans proclaim the success of Singapore’s multiculturalism it is perhaps a good time to stop and think about whether our privileged position as part of the majority has blinded us to issues of prejudice and discrimination among minority groups. When heterosexual people tell LGBT people to “agree to disagree” on 377A it’s time to think about how heterosexual privilege means that we never have to carry about the stigma and anxiety that a law like 377A can bring to an LGBT person’s life. When middle class Singaporeans expound the virtues of meritocracy we need to consider how our family’s financial status has perhaps provided us with more opportunities (to both succeed and fail) than people from lower-income backgrounds.

So McNulty was right, to a certain extent. There is a lot of misunderstanding in Singapore. A lot of stereotyping that has blinded us to people’s experiences of the city.

But it’s not just as simple as misunderstanding and stereotyping. It goes much deeper than that; ingrained prejudices, assumptions and even a willing blindness to things that don’t directly affect us. One could accuse McNulty of living in a bubble, but many of us do too.

If we really want to unpack the issues of inequality and discrimination, we’re going to need to start stepping out of these bubbles and checking our own privileges.

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