Playwright and writer Alfian Sa’at has drawn attention to a photograph taken in 2016 of a group of students from Raffles Institution doing “blackface” and holding up props like skin whitening kits and wads of cash in their version of a Slumdog Millionaire poster to celebrate the birthday of their Indian classmate. Since this photograph has resurfaced, the students in the photograph have issued an unreserved apology.
Some have speculated that the apology was only issued because they have now been “caught out” amid the unlawful killing of George Floyd which has generated a worldwide firestorm of outrage as countries the world over start to re examine their own racial relations.
However, the issues that this photograph has exposed is much more than a ignorant bunch of students. To focus on the sincerity of the apology instead of the bigger issues is a missed opportunity to bravely confront the prejudices that exist in Singapore at every level of society.
These acts of casual racism have long been brushed off as “jokes” by an insensitive majority race in Singapore but belie a much deeper mindset that we as a nation have steadfastly refused to fully face up to.
Let’s start with the top. Just recently, Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo has unwittingly created prejudice by strongly implying in her speech in Parliament that it is the lack of discipline and lifestyle habits of the migrant workers (who are mostly of South Asian origin) that contributed to the spread of the Coronavirus.
She said: “due to Singapore’s land constraints, dormitories are also a practical way to house migrant workers, that is unlikely to change what will need to change is the specifications as well as the management of the dormitories including the daily living habits of dormitory residents………”
It is not the daily living habits of the dormitory residents that caused the pandemic to spread. It is because of the close quarters in which they live! By shifting the focus to their “living habits”, she is indirectly inviting racially prejudiced views. As a minister, she really ought to know better.
She further said: “The risk will always be present in a dormitory, just like the risk is present in any household, a dormitory is like a big household….there must also be discipline in the practice of hygiene and segregation. On luxury cruise ships and even air craft carriers, the virus can spread easily and in those settings, room arrangements, you don’t have many people sharing and in air craft carriers, the discipline levels will be quite high”
Teo’s sub text in her speech is laden with prejudice and racism. It is not OKAY.
Yet it is said in Parliament with no one calling that out as inappropriate. This, is a problem. How can we blame our young for being ignorant when a minister says these things barefaced and without a trace of irony in Parliament?
What about the amendment of the criteria to become President to reserve the position for minority races? When the change was enacted, the Peoples’ Action Party led government said it was to protect minority rights. We all know that the President is but a figure head with limited power. Why would you reserve the most powerless position in government for the minority races to protect them? Is this not institutionalised racism?
At least the students in question had the contrition to apologise and an apology is an acknowledgement that something wrong had occurred. But it would be a missed opportunity to focus on the students instead of wider society. What they did was after all done because they thought it was acceptable because our society gave them the impression that it was.
This sorts of ignorance is at every level of our society. Until we acknowledge that and talk about it, it will never change. But this also starts at the very top. Who has for instance called Teo out for a speech that is replete and awash with ignorance?