Dealing With Racism In Singapore

Just two days ago, local writer Alfian Sa’at shared a Facebook post about the racial microaggressions he had to deal with on a cab ride, due to his predominantly Malay heritage.

In the post, he described how the driver addressed him by the wrong name, how he had his Singaporean and Malay identities doubted, and how he was subjected to a series of tactless, Malay-related questions.

A colleague of mine sent me the link to the post, and asked if I would cover it. At first, I was confused. Why would I cover it? I’m a Chinese girl in Chinese-majority Singapore—speaking about racism was not my place.

He replied, “A lot of sporty girls who are quite tanned get asked if they’re Malay quite often” and it clicked.

He wanted me to write about the encounters of Chinese girls who had been mistaken for another race (read: Malay) because they were darker-skinned.

I told him if I were to write a perspective piece regarding Alfian’s racist encounter, it would be to tell every Chinese person who has ever been racially misidentified to suck it up.

He agreed, we lol-ed about it, and I got to work.

Get woke, Chinese privilege is real

The comments section of Alfian’s post was dominated by individuals from minority races and those who are of mixed heritage. Here, they shared how they’ve had similar experiences to Alfian.

Dotted here and there, were comments telling Alfian to essentially “suck it up”. These commentators would recount their personal racial misidentification stories, and end with the general message of “it’s normal, it’s life, it’s not so bad so cheer up”.

I really wasn’t trying to cherry-pick such comments, but these commentators were Chinese who demonstrated they weren’t aware of their Chinese privilege.

For those of y’all who are late to getting woke, Chinese privilege is a term used to describe the societal privileges Chinese Singaporeans enjoy as compared to non-Chinese Singaporeans by virtue of their race.

This would mean not having to constantly deal with people asking whether or not you’re from China, why you don’t look Chinese enough, or if you endorse Channel 8 in any way.

Arguably, Singaporean Chinese are at the tippy top of Singapore’s race hierarchy, meaning Singaporean Chinese are least likely to have faced racial discrimination.

It’s tricky to explain the way racism can diminish a person’s self-worth, to someone who has probably never been made to feel anything less than equal.

It’s difficult to describe the pain of “a thousand cuts” to someone who has likely never been hurt before.

More importantly, it’s tough to prove how racism can be an every day reality, to someone who thinks Singapore’s racial harmony has made racism a myth.

Ignorance is not bliss

Still, the commentators who blamed Alfian for reacting negatively to the situation, or defended the cab driver by saying he was just ignorant and unintentionally racist, did have valid points.

Granted, Alfian could have chosen to ignore his feelings, and the cabby driver probably grew up during the pre-internet era and was not exposed to the online conversation on racial equality.

However, ignorance doesn’t make racism right or any more palatable.

Just like how the cab uncle was ‘unintentionally’ racist because of his ignorance, the commentators were insensitive to Alfian’s experience because they couldn’t understand it.

Put it this way, if you’ve never experienced racism, you probably can’t identify it or relate to someone who has to deal with racial microaggressions day in, day out.

But does never having experienced racism make racist encounters, and the mental pressure of dealing with racial microaggressions less real?

Absolutely not.

On Singaporean Chinese who get mistaken for other races

Admittedly, the initial idea of an article explaining how some Chinese girls could possibly feel offended when their race was misidentified, is patronising at best, and insulting at worst.

But I do acknowledge some darker-skinned Chinese girls do get asked if they’re non-Chinese, probably because Singaporeans have typical Southeast Asian features which are becoming increasingly ambiguous with each passing generation.

When I was younger, I was chao-tah AF, and some makciks from the nasi padang stores would try to take my order in Malay. Now that I’m less ‘burnt’, I still get occasionally asked if I’ve got Peranakan blood, or if I’m Chinese-Malay.

But I don’t think it’s an issue.

Sure, I might have gotten briefly annoyed. But for the most part, being mistaken for another race/mix became another passing anecdote I recounted to my friends.

Because at the end of the day, I still belong to the majority race in Singapore, and I still am afforded Chinese privilege.

In the event a shadow of doubt is cast on my Singaporean Chinese identity, I can simply sweep it away with a simple “No lah, I’m Chinese”.

Racism Is Alive And Well

But for our Malay and minority friends, it’s not that easy.

While not every Chinese person exhibits racist behaviour, there’s a good chance most of our minority friends have had to deal with racism.

For our minority friends, there’s a good chance they’ll never be able to get off the cab ride Alfian Sa’at was on—racism is their every day.

But you know what’s the kicker?

After writing this long-ass article on racism and Chinese privilege, I can still choose to shake my head at racism, and proceed to completely forget about Alfian’s post tomorrow.

Yet, while my Chinese privilege allows me to remain largely unaffected by the racism in Singapore, it doesn’t give me the right not to care.


Cover image: Source