I grew up in a different world, a far better world of multiculturalism. Yes, I did face some racism in school, but I remember that world as a more tolerant and accepting world than the one I hear about from young people these days.
These stories from young people offend my Utopian [a utopian society is an ideal society that does not exist in reality], idealistic sensibilities, and my long-held image of truly multi-cultural Singapore. So, even to write about racism and privilege challenge my notion of an idealistic multicultural world.
If I have to admit to anything, it could be the world of dreams and nostalgia that I have kept alive into my old age which is being challenged.
The real world has come knocking at my door, however in the form of young brown people and their experiences. The privilege of the dominant race and racism, racism being the end result of privilege cannot be denied. If you accept the reality of racism in the everyday lives of the minorities in Singapore, it follows that privilege is the source of that racism.
But there is something strange happening in our continuing discussion and understanding of our Singapore identity. A number of important people, all Chinese, have denied the reality of Chinese privilege in Singapore.
And what is more astounding is the argument presented by Terence Chong and Daniel Goh in their essay “‘Chinese privilege’ as shortcut in Singapore: a rejoinder“ where they argue that ‘Chinese privilege’ is not a useful concept for understanding politics in Singapore.
But in arguing in favour of their thesis, I am disappointed that they had succumbed to nit picking over the definition of ‘Chinese privilege’. That is their privilege. But you, as Chinese, are not the authority on this subject. Obviously you are not able to recognise it, so let me make it personal and tangible.
Once, I wrote that in spite of being born in Singapore and had lived in Singapore for 84 years, I still struggle to be recognized as Singaporean.
A Chinese friend was surprised. She never had to she said. She knew she was Singaporean, and thought of herself as Singaporean. She had taken that as a given, for granted. My Chinese friend had the privilege to feel normal.
Another friend, a young Indian woman (and many others have made the same observation), complained that in her workplace everybody speaks Chinese which means that she, the only non-Chinese, is excluded and alienated in her workplace on a daily basis.
That Chinese practice of speaking in their language is a claim of a privilege and a message to the Indian Singaporean that she is not important; that she does not exist. Her colleagues are allowed to be rude. They are exercising their privilege.
My sister, Eileen, smaller and fairer than me, often gets mistaken for a Chinese. Recently, somebody addressed her in Mandarin, and my sister set her right. But the Chinese woman’s response was that being mistaken for a Chinese is a complement, and she said so to my sister.
I turn on the local TV channel, supposedly the mainstream channel, but I don’t see people of my colour widely represented. Chinese people are more likely to see positive portrayals of people who look like them on the news, on TV shows, and in magazines.
People of my colour are racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped. The ideal colour and the ideal notion of beauty are defined by the Chinese sense of beauty. A brown girl cannot be beautiful.
The term ‘Chinese privilege’ creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And which does not mean that they have not struggled nor be burdened by poverty.
Chinese people in Singapore, be they Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, or Cantonese, have the privilege of attending SAP schools which institutionalizes ‘Chinese privilege’ and which gives them an advantage that no other Singaporean have access to.
A Chinese can deny the existence of racism, and claim to be colour blind. Another Chinese friend protested that her Indian friends had not experienced racism, and never complained about it. Go ask them, I said, and she did. She learnt that her Indian friends had indeed suffered from racism. That admission came as a surprise to her.
A Chinese can live in ignorance of racism that their fellow citizens experience in their daily lives. They can argue against the reality of Chinese privilege. This ignorance or denial is a mark of privilege.
The final card I offer in my argument about ‘Chinese privilege’ is the stubborn political policy decision to maintain the Chinese dominance and majority in our population instead of allowing our population, the racial mix of our population, to grow organically.
But academics should know that alone smacks of political privilege, shouldn’t they? So why did Terence Chong and Daniel Goh, very respected academics, write that essay?
This was originally published on Constance Singam’s blog.