Lianhe Zaobao responds to open letter: Foreign theories on race relations not always applicable in Singaporean context

Responding to an open letter signed by academics and independent scholars who characterised Lianhe Zaobao’s characterisation of race relations in Singapore as “unproductive”, the Chinese daily asserted that it has consistently upheld equality among all races and advocated for mutual understanding across ethnic groups in the country.

Zaobao added that as the anchor Chinese newspaper, it has publicly and unequivocally condemned the recent incidents of racial discrimination and has defended racial harmony via editorials and feature articles.

In a statement on Monday (14 June), the publication said: “Singapore is a multiracial nation. We truly believe in the ideals expressed in the national pledge and cherish the hard-won racial harmony, but that does not mean that we believe that there are no tensions in racial relationships.”

Lianhe Zaobao has always taken a consistent stance on upholding equality among all races and advocating that there should be mutual understanding among ethnic groups. This is evident from our editorials, news reports and feature articles. In the midst of the pandemic, we have seen more racial tensions simmering, which is why we have published a total of seven editorials related to this issue in the past year and a half.”

Open letter to Lianhe Zaobao

The open letter which took issue with Zaobao’s article, 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, has been signed by over 200 academics and scholars so far.

The group said that the editorial “ignores the dynamics of structural racism and the longer history of racial stereotyping in Singapore” and was concerned about how it placed blame on the recent spate of racist incidents on the uncertainty of the pandemic, the sensationalism of social media and the import of “foreign” ideas such as Critical Race Theory (CRT).

The group expressed the belief that the pandemic and social media has “simply revealed long-standing fissures and the everyday discrimination experienced by racial minorities in Singapore”.

“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.

The letter went on to criticise Zaobao’s misrepresentation of the theory as “promoting hatred of white people” in the United States and by extension, Chinese people in Singapore. The group added that this argument is indefensible” and one that is made by far-right commentators in the US “who do not engage with the actual writings and concepts of CRT”.

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.

Zaobao responds

In its response, Zaobao expressed hope that its readers would consider its editorial in its entirely, noting that it tries to shed light on how all three of the aspects mentions have exacerbated racial tensions in Singapore.

It added that the CRT, which originated in the United States in the 19070s, was cited as an example of the influence of foreign ideas and has been used by scholars to analyse race relations in Singapore, thus criticising the Chinese daily downplaying the “systemic and structural racism” in Singapore.

It also noted the varying interpretations of CRT within academic circles, saying that the critique of the theory as a “far-right American perspective” should not be easily dismissed.

“We strongly believe that when discussing the issue of race in Singapore, we should not be applying foreign ideas and concepts without adapting them to local conditions,” added Zaobao.

It went on to argue that theories and concepts based on foreign situations may not always be applicable to Singapore and that it may complicate the understanding of the issue instead of deepening it.

“But we are also aware and accept that there are those who do not agree with such views and positions,” it conceded.

Zaobao added in its response, “Racial harmony is a common goal for all Singaporeans. We believe the scholars who signed the letter share the same philosophy and welcome rational and open discussion on the issue.”

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