Over 180 scholars and academics slam Lianhe Zaobao’s characterisation of racism in Singapore as “unproductive” in open letter

The editorial by Chinese Daily Lianhe Zaobao titled “Expand public space to promote racial harmony (扩展公共空间促进种族和谐)” published on Wednesday, 9th June 2021 “ignores the dynamics of structural racism and the longer history of racial stereotyping in Singapore”, says a group of scholars and academics in Singapore.

In an open letter to editors of the publication signed by over 180 academics and independent scholars so far, the way in which Zaobao has characterised the problem of racism in Singapore was described as “unproductive”.

The letter noted how the editorial blames the recent incidents of racism on the uncertainty of the pandemic, the sensationalism of social media and the import of “foreign” ideas such as Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Based on a quick translation of the article by journalist Kirsten Han on her Facebook page, the article “claims that issues of race have been very carefully handled since Singapore’s independence, and the responses of political leaders to recent incidents show how seriously we take racism as a problem.”

Ms Han noted the article’s point that pandemic frustration and social media as well as imported ideas like the Critical Race Theory (CRT) has caused problem. She added, “The editorial describes Critical Race Theory as an American concept that encourages racist hatred of white people, and says some people are simply parroting this foreign idea, swapping anti-white sentiments like “white privilege” for “Chinese privilege”.”

In her post, Ms Han wrote, “According to Lianhe Zaobao logic, the problem of racism is the fault of everything but racist systems, structures, and long-held prejudices.”

“While it notes in its opening paragraph that recent incidents were perpetrated by Chinese people, it doesn’t bother to examine what that indicates. It doesn’t talk about the harm caused to minorities who have been subjected to racism for years (not just recently), but borrows a US right-wing bogeyman to suggest that Chinese people are being unfairly demonised via imported ideas of Critical Race Theory.”

The open letter by the group of scholars and academic lamented that the editorial by Zaobao uses the arguments of highthened intergroup tension and social media to suggest that the “recent racist incidents are an anomaly in an otherwise racially harmonious society and that social media exaggerates what are otherwise exceptional acts by unusually racist individuals.”

“By contrast, we believe that the pandemic and social media have simply revealed long-standing fissures and the everyday discrimination experienced by racial minorities in Singapore,” the letter asserted.

The scholars said that the recent racist incidents should direct re-examination into racism within social structures in Singapore from language requirements in hiring or in the racial discrimination evident in the housing rental market.

“This structural understanding of how racial inequality is perpetuated is something that Critical Race Theory (CRT) – among other perspectives elaborated by authors in Singapore and elsewhere – can offer,” the letter emphasised.

However, Zaobao “misrepresents” the theory as “promoting hatred of white people” in the United States and by extension, Chinese people in Singapore. This argument is “indefensible”, noted the scholars, and one that is made by far-right commentators in the US “who do not engage with the actual writings and concepts of CRT”.

The academics chided that “it is not befitting of a major newspaper of record such as Lianhe Zaobao to parrot such claims.”

Explaining that the CRT emerged in the 1970s from the work of legal scholars and social scientists, the letter stressed that one of the core arguments of the theory is that racism is systemic and not just individual.

Acknowledging that there is room for debate on how the concepts from CRT may apply in Singapore, the academics nonetheless assert that the framework is “useful” for understanding racism in Singapore as structural and historical.

The letter went on, “More worryingly, by arguing that Critical Race Theory is to be blamed for stoking racial tensions, the article promotes a narrative of Chinese victimisation that implicitly rationalises these acts of verbal and physical violence against minorities.”

It noted that those who discuss issues of racism critically, especially minorities, are painted as “aggressors” while those responsible for racists acts are cast as “victims seeking redress”

“Characterising critical conversations about racism as simply a case of imported ideology erases the lived experiences of racial minorities in Singapore,” the scholars noted, adding that assuming Chinese Privilege as a direct import of White Privilege is “not helpful” and distracts from creating the space necessary for meaningful and constructive conversation about racism in Singapore.

The academics said: “We believe that it is important for us in Singapore to examine our role in structural racism and racialization.”

“Media organisations are often complicit in uncritically reproducing prejudicial claims about minorities and other racialised communities,” it added, citing the example of a wide-criticised op-ed published by Lianhe Zaobao in April 2020 titled “Do not make groundless criticisms during the pandemic (疫情时期不做无谓指责)” by Li Shiwan (黎仕婉).

The op-ed claimed that the COVID-19 outbreak in migrant worker dormitories were due to the “backwardness (落后)” and the alleged bad habits of South Asian migrant workers.

The scholars stressed in the letter: “Such arguments have been reproduced in some of the recent racist attacks on people of South Asian descent in Singapore, and it is incumbent on Zaobao to reflect on its decision to have published this piece in the first place.”

They added, “Media institutions such as Zaobao have an important role in shaping public discourse on issues that matter in Singapore.

“It is hence imperative that Zaobao’s editorials do not espouse claims and arguments that are counterproductive for tackling the issue of racism.

“We are writing to register our collective concern at the editorial, and we hope the paper will respond to the concerns that we have raised in this letter.”

As it stands, about 190 academics and independent scholars have signed the open letter. It is also open to more academics and independent based in, from, or working in/on/about Singapore to add their signatures.

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