Racism In Singapore
The topic of racism in Singapore has become more important than ever, especially since the viral video where a Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer was seen making racist remarks to an interracial couple, and had also allegedly criticised Islam in his classes.
Despite being known to be a multi-racial and multicultural country that lives together in harmony, Singapore still has a long way to go when it comes to handling racism. We spoke to 8 people to share with us their racism experiences in Singapore and why it’s so important to speak up today.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
1. “She responded, ‘a bit sad that she’s not Chinese’”
“I’m Malay, and last year after Circuit Breaker, my workplace, a school, was understaffed. Because of the tight situation, I was deployed every week back onsite to assist a high-needs class. The form teacher was a friendly Chinese colleague whom I’d known for 2 years then. On my last day with her class, I recalled the name of her incoming intern-to-be, a Malay name. She responded, “A bit sad [that] she’s not Chinese.”
The way she said it was so natural, as if she’d expected me to share the same sentiment. It was also as though she didn’t realise the fact that I, myself, am Malay. I felt hurt and outraged — I couldn’t process what had just been said to my face. For some unfortunate reason, my immediate response was to rationalise her comment. Now looking back, I realise how racism like this in Singapore is so deeply internalised.
I was also mad at myself for not confronting her and accepting it. Minorities may feel as if it is just a small matter and that we shouldn’t “blow it out of proportion”, but it’s these little things we let slide that leads to further normalising racism.
It is quite encouraging how our generation is realising the power of the noise we generate online. There will come a point when finally the noise is too much to dismiss and deny racism, and [we’ll] actually do something about it.”
— Samira, 23
2. “He said that my people were just wasting his time”
“I’m Filipino and I encountered racism while shopping alone. I was doing price comparisons between shops and this shop uncle quoted me a price. I told him that I’ll think about it and come back for it later, but he shouted at me, saying how Filipinos are so “poor” and “cheap”. He said that my people were just wasting his time and then chased me out of the store.
I was really angry so I took pictures and posted my experience on Instagram. From other peoples’ reviews of the store, it seemed that my experience wasn’t isolated. I personally think that racism in Singapore is subtle and sometimes systemic. Even in National Service, there are certain vocations that are seemingly reserved for certain races. Though not explicitly stated, it’s basically an open secret.
Even before I converted my citizenship, I was reluctant to speak out on certain things because at the end of the day, I’m considered a minority. I constantly feel like a foreigner with no right to say something because I could easily get deported back. You’ll [also] never know how your actions can affect your family back home. Oftentimes, foreign labourers work here to send money back to their families. If they were to lose their job while defending themselves from racism, it would be an even worse situation.
More people are vocal about their experiences [now] and are less hesitant to call people out. I personally think that this is great because then we can have conversations to try and better the situation.”
— Rovic, 24
3. “I often heard the phrase ‘your grandfather bomb our country!’”
“As a Japanese, I was subjected to teasing from my primary school classmates after learning about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the second World War. I often heard the phrase “your grandfather bomb our country!” being said to me in school.
Pointing out the factual inaccuracy that my grandfather was only 4 years old at the time never felt like a good comeback and didn’t do much to mask how I felt. I was angry. I remember going home one day and telling my mother all about it. The comment made me feel different, not in a way whereby my difference was appreciated, but merely called out for fun.
Cases of racism [in Singapore] tend to be considered as individual outliers rather than a larger problem. It doesn’t help that many of the first reactions to cases of racism would be to assume that there is some mental illness at play. I think we have a pretty decent level of racial tolerance, but that’s not the same as acceptance.
I don’t think it’s particularly easy to say why something is wrong, even if you’re aware it’s wrong. When you’re in a minority, reason might not feel that powerful either. We don’t seem to regard [racism] as a serious issue as we get told rather superficial things in school about how we should just accept everyone. That’s how we get tolerance, but we don’t get educated about why it is wrong.”
— Daichi, 23
4. “He shouted at me to go back to my country in front of all our classmates”
“I’m Bangladeshi and was born in Singapore, though I’ve only recently gotten my citizenship here. Growing up, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me things such as “they’re your brothers” when they see Bangladeshi workers in Singapore. In secondary school, a friend of mine got angry at me and shouted at me to go back to my country in front of all our classmates.
Everyone around me laughed, thinking it was a joke. I myself laughed along too, as that was the only way I knew how to cope, hoping that it is something that will stay between us. I remember feeling a bit sad, wondering if he really meant it or it was just out of anger. We then went back to normal and I didn’t take any action because I felt that it wasn’t anything serious.
There have been many cases [in Singapore] where Bangladeshi workers get made fun of but nothing is done about it. Some of them don’t even know that they’re being made fun of. Those who know it might feel that even though they’re working hard in another country and getting minimum wage, they still have to go through such hate.
A lot of people talk about [racism] more now due to the fact that social media presence is much stronger. Action does get taken when something goes viral. But I think the bigger issue is that people don’t have empathy for those who are being discriminated against. They don’t know how it feels like to be in their shoes and might not have enough interaction with other races. Before even tackling racism, people should understand how words can hurt others.”
— Devesh, 23
5. “A fellow student called me a ‘bangla’ out of the blue”
“I’m Indian and I was first exposed to racism during my secondary 1 orientation. A fellow secondary 1 student called me a ‘bangla’ out of the blue. I was too stunned to react and chose not to engage in any sort of confrontation with the boy.
It was the first moment when I realised how a person who I had just met could already dislike me for the colour of my skin and felt the need to make a hostile comment to me. I felt helpless at that point, realising quickly that I had to learn to deal with situations like these so that I won’t get affected easily.
I honestly feel that most Indians in Singapore have experienced some degree of racism. It is only now that people are trying to face up to the fact that racism exists very prevalently in Singapore. Usually, it has always been a case of “tolerating” other races, which I do not agree with. How can you “tolerate” something that is not even negative in the first place? Conversations on racism are uncomfortable and people would rather not talk about it than face the fact that they are privileged.
Minorities keep quiet due to a multitude of factors, such as knowing you don’t have much support, wanting to fit in and having to adapt to be accepted in society. If everyone stopped for a moment to reflect on when, and more importantly why, they make racist remarks, it would help more people improve their mindset and hold themselves accountable.
Change begins from oneself. Holding these conversations forces one to challenge the status quo and forces them to reflect.”
— Rishi, 26
6. “I heard her comment on how it is very rare to find people of my race doing work”
“My race is Boyanese and recently, I was working on my laptop on the bus when an older lady came to sit next to me. I had headphones on so I wasn’t able to clearly hear what she was muttering. But I heard her comment on how it is very rare to find people of my race doing work and studying to higher educational levels.
When I confronted her, she brushed it off by saying “[there’s] nothing wrong right?” I felt invalidated despite not fitting to the “stereotypes” [of my race] that she presented. When I reached home and told the story to my parents, they agreed with the older lady. That’s when I knew our stereotypes were internalised and to a certain extent, accepted by ourselves.
I have seen a lot of videos [online] about how “conventional” Malays are supposed to look and sound. Some Malay girls retaliate by saying it doesn’t apply to them in an attempt to dispel the relation of them with their race. It is as though they think something is wrong with being Malay.
I wish there can be avenues where racism can be openly discussed. More people are definitely speaking up [about racism] now, but this progress doesn’t apply to those who aren’t listening. We are a multi-racial, multi-religion and multi-ethnic country. With that, there comes differences. Right now, Singaporeans do not take the time to understand why our sisters and brothers are behaving a certain way. And that should change.”
— Alisa, 24
7. “He was under the impression that my Japanese family killed his relatives in China”
“I’m Japanese and when I was in primary school, a Chinese classmate hated me. Initially, I had no idea why. When I won first place for a Scrabble competition, he falsely accused me of cheating, refused to speak to me and constantly rolled his eyes at me. Afterwards, I got to know from a friend that he was under the impression that my Japanese family killed his relatives in China during the World War.
It wasn’t really a particular incident, but the pent up frustration of him treating me differently added up each day. I consulted my form teacher and things got better afterwards. We managed to talk things out and he shared with me that his family had such prejudice against Japanese people, which then influenced him to have the same mindset.
Daily racism in words and stereotypes often get ignored [in Singapore]. For example, speaking in another language in front of your friends who cannot understand it. Many times it can cause hurt and make the minority races feel neglected.
Singapore prides itself as a multiracial country, so racism has not been an issue prevalent enough for minorities to make a big deal out of it. Still, social media has increasingly been used as a tool against racism and granting victims a safe space to share their thoughts and experiences.”
— Emiko, 23
8. “They switched to Chinese and completely cut me out of the conversation”
“I’m Eurasian and one of my most common experiences is when people speak in Chinese around me even after knowing I don’t speak the language. I study food and beverage in polytechnic and my entire class is Chinese, including the chefs and lecturers.
During my last semester, I made a mistake in the kitchen. My chef and classmate asked me about it and we started to panic, since we needed to serve this dish soon. However, while discussing a solution, they switched to Chinese and completely cut me out of the conversation. Though I did make a mistake, I walked off and focused on doing something else instead.
I told my other classmates about it but they told me to just move on. No one realised they were in the wrong and it was simply forgotten. Sometimes, my teachers would also speak in Chinese during lectures, so I [have to] ask my friends to translate for me. I do feel quite left out in those instances. I’ve [also] questioned if how I feel is justifiable or not, making up excuses as to why they would act that way and blaming myself for being overly sensitive.
I think that working and learning environments should be more inclusive of the minority races. Acknowledging the problem when a minority shares it with you is crucial, instead of brushing it off and making us feel like we’re the ones in the wrong for being too sensitive.”
— Lizzie, 25
9. “My close friend made a passing remark that my traditional food looks like shit”
“I’m Burmese and a Myanmar citizen living in Singapore. When I was 14, my close friend made a passing remark that my traditional food “looks like shit” when she came over to my house. The dish was pickled tea leaves and it had a darkish green colour.
I just let it pass as I did not want our friendship to be awkward afterwards. But honestly, that incident stuck with me for a long time. I was too young and had no courage to go against my friend. I only realised that she wasn’t being a true friend when we graduated.
Back then, I considered my friendship more important. Now, I shut [racist comments] down and stand up for myself. More people are speaking up about racism now as they know that there will be a community online and offline that can support them. Even if they don’t make a police report, simply sharing videos online can identify the racist and get them punished.
It’s the little things that matter. One [small] remark can stay with the person for a long time, changing their outlook about the world and even their mindset and attitude towards diversity. It’s like a domino effect. That’s why it is important for every community to stand by what is right and wrong when it comes to racism.”
— Hayma, 23
10. “My secondary school friends used to call me ‘maid’ or ‘domestic helper’”
“I’m Filipino and my secondary school friends used to call me “maid” or “domestic helper”. Even though I knew it was just a joke, it still hurt knowing that I had that label. I remember arguing about basketball with a classmate and he called me a “Filipino dog”. He also said “I hope you get deported back to the Philippines.” There were around 5 people in the classroom and they didn’t do much except stare and not get involved.
It ended with a verbal argument but nothing more, and I stormed out of the classroom after hurling a chair at him. I clearly remember wondering why he had to bring my race into it. What did it have to do with whatever we were arguing about? After that, we just kept our distance from each other.
I have [Filipino] friends who’ve said that they’ve received comments like “[do] you go to Lucky Plaza every week?” It’s really the small, ignorant comments that annoy me the most. I think it’s very “Singaporean” to not speak up and mind your business about [such] issues.
A lot of the reasons why we have these issues is because our parents have a huge influence as to how we think and act. We need to teach our future generation that it is not okay to think that our future job scopes are [limited to] domestic helpers.”
— Jomar, 24
These Racism Experiences In Singapore Have Shown Us That It Is High Time To Take Action
Hearing these racism experiences from Singaporeans expose the truth about our society: we still have a long way to progress when it comes to living together in harmony. Casual racism through words and actions in our everyday lives tend to be overlooked with no real consequences. It’s time for our generation today to break the silence, step up and take action.
It’s important to acknowledge that racism is not just an “influential trend” from the U.S. Rather, it is a problem that has always existed in Singapore too, yet constantly swept under the rug. If you’re looking for ways to tackle racism in our society, we’ve compiled 5 baby steps to fight racism in Singapore beyond just an online hashtag.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.