The tyranny of difference

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

Race in Singapore is complicated. I am in no position to provide either a full or an authoritative account, but allow me to share some interesting things I have learned and noticed.

Singapore is multi-racial and multi-religious. Given its location and history as a trading hub, this should not be at all surprising. Around half the population at any given time are foreigners – the local residents are a mix of ethnic Chinese (around 74%), Malay (13%), Indian (9%) and Eurasians and others (4%). Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all well represented, as are Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

On the one hand, there is a zero-tolerance attitude towards anything that offends Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious status. Recently, for example, a union chief made an insensitive comment about Malays on her Facebook page and was fired within 24 hours as a result of the public backlash. Comments that promote ‘ill will and hostility’ between races are prohibited under the Sedition Act, which has resulted in occasional fines and imprisonments.

This tough stance is partly due to the 1964 race riots which loom large in the national consciousness as an event no-one wishes to see repeated. Singapore at that time had recently become independent of British rule and had merged to become a state of Malaysia. Tensions were caused between Malaysia’s policies of pro-Malay affirmative action and Singapore’s advocacy of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ backed by its largely Chinese population. These Malay/Chinese tensions ultimately spilled onto the streets during celebrations of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In the ensuing riots, 23 were killed, several hundred injured and 3,000 people were arrested.

Explicit racial ‘segregation’ goes back further to the early days of British settlement, when Singapore was becoming unruly and unsafe as a result of rapid and uncontrolled growth. The city was divided into four ethnic enclaves as part of the 1822 Raffles Plan – a European Town, a Chinese kampong (village), an area for Malays, Arabs and Muslims called Kampong Glam, and Chulia Kampong for ethnic Indians. Present-day Kampong Glam, Chinatown and the city’s downtown core still echo these planning decisions, while most of the ethnic Indian population gradually relocated to what is now Little India.

So, different races and religions by and large co-exist distinctly but peaceably in Singapore, which is no small accomplishment. That most Singaporeans are bilingual and speak a common language (English) no doubt helps. However, that is only half the story.

There is a fairly strong anti-immigration sentiment running high at the moment – the country is currently in the throes of a national debate about foreign labour, upon which it relies heavily. In an all-too-familiar story, much of the population is fed up with ‘foreigners’ coming in and taking all the jobs, housing, education places and seats on public transport. Given the mix of racial and cultural identities, I sometimes wonder how people are able to tell who is who. ‘By their smell’, more than one local has told me.

I quickly came to understand that ‘foreigners’ does not refer to people like me, however. It refers to the abject class of people doing undesirable jobs – the construction and transportation workers, hospitality sector, cleaners and domestic helpers. These are often ‘foreign’ Indians and Chinese, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Indonesians and others. It’s more about class than race, which is perhaps why ‘ang mohs’ (Caucasians) like me don’t really register, along with the many Indians, Chinese, Filipinos etc who are in well-paid, well-qualified work. But the sentiments are nevertheless expressed along racial lines – in my day-to-day experience I observe a significant amount of what might best be described as casual racism.

For a striking example of what this looks like, one need go no further than the housing classifieds, the a large majority of which include racial and/or religious details and stipulations, many of which are cheerfully unreflective, as we might say in cultural studies class. Here are few typical examples:

Racist Ads

Racist Ads

Racial stereotyping runs rampant, in both praiseful and derogatory ways, though the split as you might expect is mostly towards the latter. Indians in particular seem to be at the bottom of the heap, as in Malaysia. ‘First they take the job, then they bring the family, then they bring the whole village’, the unemployed, middle-aged Chinese man where I’m boarding tells me on one of our many circular late-night conversations. ‘They’re a very how you say stingy people; very dirty, very dirty’.

Although I’m used to hearing this sort of thing everywhere, mutatis mutandis, it’s odd to have it presented baldly as fact. But then the former long-serving Prime Minister and elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew subscribes to a theory of racial and genetic determinism, which he has expressed frequently and with characteristic frankness. Lee is a toweringly influential figure still, even though he is now in his nineties. Some of his public remarks on the subject of race, genetics and immigration are illuminating:

The choice to take a hostile stance to immigrants is something that Singapore cannot afford to make…. Like it or not, unless we have more babies, we need to accept immigrants.

- (Source)

If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society…So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.

- 1983 National Day Rally

I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came … I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam … The other communities have easier integration – friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians – than Muslims … the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate … Be less strict on Islamic observances and say: ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you’.

- 2011 ‘Hard Truths’

People get educated, the bright ones rise, they marry equally well-educated spouses. The result is their children are smarter than those who are gardeners. Not that all the children of gardeners are duds. Occasionally two grey horses produce a white horse but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses. It’s seldom spoken publicly because those who are NOT white horses say, “You’re degrading me”. But it’s a fact of life. You get a good mare, you don’t want a dud stallion to breed with your good mare. You get a poor foal. Your mental capacity and your EQ and the rest of you, 70 to 80% is genetic.

- 2011 ‘Hard Truths’

Earlier I was reading a paper on Lee’s views and his influence on racial politics in Singapore by a University of Queensland history professor. Drawing comparisons with Australia and New Zealand – also migrant societies that had ‘come from nothing’ but managed to produce ‘a tremendous amount of enterprise’ through ‘frontier spirit’, apparently Lee once said:

We are not unlike the other migrant groups in the South Pacific. We share a lot of their characteristics. We share a lot of their problems. And one of these problems is to secure what we have created for prosperity. Which means, you and me, the genes going down. …You have come with certain equipment. Your cultural values, your habit patterns, your techniques, the drive, the push, the thrust, to conquer nature and make a life. But in the process you become a different people.

Although many of these comments are (I hope) jarring to modern ears, they would not have raised many eyebrows in the time of Lee’s formative years. It is interesting that he has stuck with them, and what implications it has for Singapore’s other key social idea – meritocracy – but that’s a discussion for another day.

In any case, it seems in Singapore race is an explicit factor and the subject of heightened awareness, even as respect and tolerance for it is insisted upon. It has its obvious and sometimes feral contradictions of course, in almost exactly the opposite way to Australia, where ‘diversity’ is celebrated even as we insist upon ‘blindness’ to race.

Meanwhile, at Sim Lim Square – a large electronics mall where haggling is the order of business – I am accompanying my friend from Melbourne as he buys a new lens for his camera. ‘Can I try it?’ he asks the shopkeep.

‘What nationality are you?’


‘Ok can’, he says, getting it out of the box.

Good luck if you’re American. ◾

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