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More diversity in voices needs to be heard on racism in Singapore

By Kokila Annamalai

This article, "Racism in Singapore: Stop telling us minorities how to react to it". has been shared widely, and I definitely think it is an important voice. I see a growing number of articles/conversations about racism, and a wider range of people speaking up, which I think are encouraging signs that there is more awareness and willingness to talk about race in Singapore.

I hope the conversation doesn't fixate on or stagnate at individualised, interpersonal instances of microaggressions, exclusion or privilege. Of course, these experiences aren't separate from systemic racism, and are in fact deeply linked to them, but the connection often isn't made as strongly as it could be.

People switching to Chinese in conversations, friends telling racist jokes, etc are definitely significant and we should keep talking about these things and how they affect us, as well as how we can respond to them. We've all had these experiences and can feel solidarity around them.

But I'm also interested in conversations that I don't hear as much - about how Malay and Tamil people are overrepresented in prisons, whether they're more likely to be profiled/picked up for certain crimes than Chinese people are, how Malay students are grossly underrepresented in universities, and what the barriers racial minorities face in accessing education, housing and jobs are.

I'm interested in critiquing more closely, how our cultures and people are portrayed as backward, lazy, violent, uncivilised and parasitic in national narratives, and whether we can organise to push for anti-discrimination laws, for greater political representation and more in-depth analysis on how the media perpetuates harmful stereotypes about race.

How many of the 1 in 10 families that live in poverty in Singapore are Malay or Tamil, and how much harder is it for racial minorities to experience intergenerational social mobility? The narrative continues to be that minorities need to work harder to catch up, and some minority groups are held up as "model minorities" and pitted against others. The recent study on Singaporeans' receptivity to a president of a different race showed that both Indian and Malay respondents would prefer a Chinese candidate over each other. Is this what the success of a divide and rule approach looks like? Solidarity amongst racial minorities is low, and there's plenty of racism to be explored there too.

Social problems like unplanned teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and gang culture are ghettoised, stigmatised and pinned to the cultural deficit of minority communities rather than to structural discrimination, alienation and poverty. They're also not given the same centrality in social policy as problems like gambling, that are more common in Chinese communities, are (as Alfian Sa'at's play 'GRC' points out so well).

Race needs to be a lens we apply to every social phenomenon we study, and we need more race disaggregated data about everything. The government, certain think tanks and the media are quick to look at race when it is to pin an issue as an "Indian problem" or "Malay problem", but not to pinpoint racial discrimination.

To take one example, there's been a lot of discussion about bullying in Singapore schools - if studies on this also looked at whether racial minorities face more abuse/different types of abuse in school (I'm sure it's true), anecdotes of interpersonal racism that appear in articles like this would have more context and meaning, and we would be able to offer deeper analysis and make stronger arguments for change. It doesn't just stop at "my friends needs to be more sensitive" but allows us to demand that MOE, schools and educators take a proactive stance in addressing racial discrimination on a nationwide, school-wide or at least classroom-wide level.

But maybe there is a different point to be made here too. While there is more interest in discussing race, while there are more voices addressing this now than before, are they diverse enough? Many of these voices, including mine, are middle-class voices. And I believe there are more important voices to listen to, when it comes to racism. The same way that middle-class feminism can silence working class women's struggles, race consciousness that is not informed by class struggle can be a hazard. I am excited to explore possibilities for organising, for collective action, and to not allow individualised identity politics (or the "cult of individualism") to become self-limiting or deteriorate into navel gazing.

This article was first published as a Facebook post and reproduced with permission