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How can Singapore move ahead on race together?

A recent spate of incidents has brought increased public attention to race and racism in Singapore.

The desire to propel change and achieve deeper harmony and acceptance is something we all share, says the author.

The desire to propel change and achieve deeper harmony and acceptance is something we all share, says the author.

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A recent spate of incidents has brought increased public attention to race and racism in Singapore. 

We want to strive for greater harmony — but people of different backgrounds have differing views on how to go about doing this.  


Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s timely keynote address at the recent forum on race and racism in Singapore, jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, aptly highlighted the myriad tensions involved in furthering multiracialism in Singapore. 

Besides promising that the Government would remain committed to updating and improving its policies on race, he offered two important suggestions on the next steps that the public could be involved in.

The first suggestion is to recognise that in Singapore, as in any multiracial country, it is harder to be of a minority race than to be of the majority.

In discourse on this issue, the term “Chinese privilege” has sometimes been used. 

The term is generally viewed as problematic because of the fraught history behind “white privilege”, from which it is derived, and because it fails to recognise that many in the Chinese community have lost much in Singapore’s journey to multiracialism.

Moreover, as a recent case illustrates, the Chinese too can be subjected to racist slurs and attacks by minorities. 

Nonetheless, among some minorities, the term has given them a way of talking about their experiences of systemic racism. 

Even if this term is debated, the population does seem to understand the idea it points to: That minorities have it tougher.

According to a study completed by IPS and in 2019, 31.9 per cent of respondents to a survey of 4,000 Singaporean residents felt that Singaporean Malays have to work harder or much harder than someone of another race to reach top positions.

The figure is 26.7 per cent for Singaporean Indians and 13.9 per cent for Singaporean Chinese.

In other words, respondents were about twice as likely to think that minorities need to work harder to attain top positions.

Many more minorities than majority-race persons also reported experiencing discrimination at work, both in everyday interactions and in getting promotions. 

Such statistics have sometimes been criticised for being based on subjective perceptions without clear evidence. But perceptions matter.

The fact is that minorities know that many in their circles face such concerns. Because of this, many of them head into job interviews knowing they may be viewed differently because of their racial background.

Work is, moreover, just one facet in which minorities have it harder.

They are also about twice as likely to report that they experience racial tensions in their daily lives.

Acknowledging this means not dismissing such experiences as minorities being overly sensitive.

It may also mean accepting that they may feel that measures are needed to level the playing field.

An IPS survey in 2019 found that while respondents were divided on the option of affirmative action, those from minority races were much more likely to support such policies, which would for instance ensure racial diversity in top civil service jobs. 

Ultimately, what Singapore cannot do is treat the problem of minority disadvantage as insurmountable and leave minorities to forge the way themselves. Instead, the country must strive to move forward together. 


The second of Mr Wong’s suggestions is equally important: To continue showing mutual accommodation and understanding as we embark on potentially uncomfortable conversations about race. 

These conversations are uncomfortable for some people because, having lived through racial riots and tensions in Singapore’s early years, they perceive public dialogue as reducing racial harmony and national unity.

Meanwhile, those who are more attuned to global movements acting to bring about social change, such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, see public dialogue as critical to address injustice experienced by minorities.

Among people who take this stance, some are lobbying for various power structures or policies to be removed or improved on to tackle systemic racism at its root.

The desire to propel change and achieve deeper harmony and acceptance is something many of us share. 

But we must also recognise what we have achieved so far. The path of building racial harmony is imperfect and the policies undergirding it have had some unintended consequences, but they have been relatively successful. 

Ensuring opportunities for interethnic interaction at the neighbourhood level through the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and other policies has perhaps resulted in Singapore’s low level of perceived racism compared to other multicultural societies. 

According to a recent IPS report based on the 2020 World Values Survey, the overwhelming majority of respondents said that racism occurs “not frequently” in Singapore (28.7 per cent) or “not at all frequently” (65.7 per cent).

Only 5.7 per cent of respondents here said that they encountered racist behaviour quite or very frequently, compared to the 23.5 per cent in the United States.

Rather than ridding ourselves of policies that have been largely effective, it is important to work at the interpersonal level.

We must recognise that there are people whose experiences make it hard for them to get on board with ideas like systemic racism and with having public conversations about it. 

A process of reverse socialisation may take place, in which younger generations can provide insights and help their parents to recognise and understand racism.

Perhaps this is part of what Mr Wong meant when he spoke of pulling people along rather than calling them out.

Young people can in turn learn from older generations’ experiences. 

Currently, as a side effect of many race-related incidents going viral on social media, there has been a danger of a call-out culture becoming the dominant approach.

If the online space becomes polarised and people interact only within echo chambers, it would not be conducive for discussions and compromise.  

Moving forward, we need other mechanisms to share anecdotes, concerns and reflections on race that do not have a tendency to make a spectacle of things.

We need public feedback channels that allow for discussion on the ground without a snowballing or sensationalising effect. This would help to maintain a civil tone in discussions and avoid the creation of an “us versus them” mindset.

In conversations on race, all sides — the older and younger generations, the majority and minorities — must be willing to come to the table in a spirit of mutual trust and willingness to cooperate. 

Labelling any party as “oppressor” or “oppressed” does little to encourage frank and constructive dialogue. We must find common ground and learn from one another’s unique perspectives. 

This is part of Singapore’s self-conception as an ethnic mosaic rather than a melting pot. 

Each piece of the mosaic neither blends in and becomes indistinguishable, nor stands out by itself, but adds to the vibrancy of the whole by contributing its own unique hue. 

This is true of discussions as well. Every perspective is needed in order to determine the future direction we should take.



Mathew Mathews is principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore and head of its Social Lab. Samantha Nah is a research assistant at the same institute.

Related topics

Covid-19 race racism equality

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