The issue of “Chinese privilege” and whether or not it exists has generated some serious debate in recent months. As minorities among us share their lived experience of racism in day-to-day Singapore, some have become defensive and even angry.
Some (such as our Prime Minister), even blamed social media for making things worse. But why are we blaming a platform when we should be addressing the underlying issues?
As the saying goes – Don’t shoot the messenger. But yet, this is precisely what some Singaporeans and politicians have done.
In her seminal book entitled “White Fragility”, renowned academic and educator Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe white people who have a visceral discomfort (close to histrionics) when it comes to discussing racism.
Without really pausing to listen, their reactions are immediate and dismissive. They will insist that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” that they are “colour-blind,” and they will point to friends and family members of colour. In other words, the ultra excessive defensiveness that white people will exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy.
Sound familiar anyone?
While DiAngelo’s observations were done on white people, if you simply replace white people with Chinese people for the Singaporean context, the results are pretty much the same.
In recent years, a number of minorities have publicly spoken up about their own experiences with racism. These have ranged from former BBC journalist Sharanjit Leyl, a Singaporean Sikh of Indian descent who recounted on BBC series From Our Own Correspondent how she struggled to get hired at a local news broadcaster in Singapore two decades ago, to Sarah Bagharib, whose wedding photographs were ignorantly used to depict Hari Raya to sibling duo, Preetipls, who made a comeback video to the wholly inappropriate use of brownface in an epaysg advertisement.
In Ms Sharanjit’s case, her recollections were met with blanket denials. However, given Singapore’s obsession with skin colour, is her story really that unbelievable? Just look at the number of advertisements on skin lightening products in Singapore!
Yet instead of acknowledging Ms Sharanjit’s experience, Mediacorp tries to stonewall her with its absolute refusal to acknowledge that it could have happened. But why would Ms Sharanjit lie about this? She has gone on to have a successful media career in spite of the experience. There is simply no reason to fabricate this experience.
As for Ms Bagharib, the Peoples’ Association (PA) cancelled a minute unilaterally because Ms Bagharib had posted on social media asking for people with any grievances they wanted to be shared at the meeting to be sent to her. This cancellation was basically the removal of a forum where minority grievances could have been shared.
Just because we remove a forum does not mean that racism doesn’t exist. It just means we have silenced them with our refusal to acknowledge our own failures. Even the PA’s apology was reserved to an “oversight” as opposed to the careless ignorance that the majority have the privilege to display. In other words, we don’t have to care about the difference between Hari Raya or Malay weddings because we are the majority.
As for Preetipls, they were given a conditional warning for their comeback video while the original brownface video was simply removed without the makers facing any censure. Is this not another example of dismissal? Trying to pretend there is no problem instead of just putting your hand up and saying you will do better.
These are but a few examples — there are loads more!
Ultimately, the crux of the issue is that this isn’t a blame game. If a minority is sharing his or her experience, it is not blaming any one individual within the majority. So, why so defensive?
Not every act of racism is an intentional one and no one is saying it is. What we are saying however is that racism does exist and we need to collectively acknowledge it. After that acknowledgement, can we then come together to listen and have a genuine conversation.
This is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day rally speech is so disappointing when he categorically denied the existence of Chinese privilege and insisted that all races were treated equally. If this were so, why would so many put their necks out to share experiences to the contrary?
Perhaps PM Lee is trying to assure Singaporeans but in so doing, he is displaying Chinese privilege at its finest — dismissing the lived experience of minorities because as part of the majority, he has the power to do that.
In the same vein, he is also displaying “Chinese fragility” — bristling and uncomfortable at the idea that Singapore could be racist.