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My mixed-race children and I have been subjected to racist remarks. How can we do better, Singapore?

Let’s stop pretending that racism in Singapore is a new or nascent problem.

TODAY’s social media editor Bryna Sim, 34, with her husband and two children.

TODAY’s social media editor Bryna Sim, 34, with her husband and two children.

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Let’s stop pretending that racism in Singapore is a new or nascent problem.

Racist encounters in Singapore have taken place for decades, even those where strangers confront inter-ethnic couples about their dating or marriage preferences, such as what Mr Dave Parkash and his girlfriend experienced over the weekend as seen in a viral video. 

I experienced this first-hand in my 20s, as a Singaporean Chinese who began dating a Singaporean Punjabi in 2007.

After boarding a bus, a Chinese man in his 40s glared at us from across the aisle, wagged his finger and said: “You are a disgrace to society.”

“Chinese bitch. Indian f***er. Disgusting. Disgraceful,” he continued.

I was shocked. My boyfriend was shocked. 

Both of us are not timid personalities, but when words so ugly are hurled at you out of the blue from a complete stranger, you’re not quite sure how to react.

We did not engage this man. But we also did not get up and leave at the next stop because while shaken, we did not want to let him gloat at having intimidated us.

He did not let up, though. Throughout the journey, he kept at it, repeating those words and vulgarities.

When we finally alighted, my boyfriend and I were speechless for a while, reeling from that encounter. 

We felt humiliated and hurt — the very feelings Mr Parkash says he had after his inter-ethnic relationship was subject to racist remarks by a stranger.  

A similar incident took place some years later. Again, we held our tongues and endured the racist vitriol.

There are many other inter-ethnic couple pairings in Singapore who have journeyed before me.

They, too, have experienced similar unpleasant racist encounters.

A Chinese friend told me that when she was dating her Indian boyfriend in the 1980s (some 20 years before my own experiences, mind you), strangers approached her and asked: “Are Chinese men not good enough for you?”

Once, a Chinese male colleague sat her down to tell her: “We Chinese people have a strong lineage and we should try to maintain the purity of our race.”

When a supervisor at a previous workplace found out that I was dating a Punjabi, he deemed it necessary to tell me “it is wrong for you to take him away from his roots”.

Yes, you read that right.

I’m not sure if I feel more bothered by overt acts of racism or casual racism.

Once, an Indian female friend told me: “Babe, can you not steal from our pool?”

She then laughed. "Hahaha," I managed to utter. But it was not funny. Yet, at the same time, was it a barb or a joke? To this day, the question lingers.

As a parent of two mixed-race children, TODAY’s social media editor Bryna Sim finds herself being exposed to encounters with casual racism. Photo: Bryna Sim/TODAY


These days, as a parent of two mixed-race children, I find myself being exposed to even more encounters with casual racism.

When out and about, aunties and uncles make unsolicited comments about my children’s skin colour.

“Wah, why is your daughter so black, ah? Your husband is what, ah?” a middle-aged drinks stall seller remarked in Mandarin, before she proceeded to evaluate my son. “He’s very white. Good, good. Looks more like you.”

Another friend in an inter-ethnic marriage has had people ask her, in front of her children: “Did you drink too much coffee or Coke when you were pregnant?”

Why do these things even matter? And why do you think you have the right to throw shade at my or others’ children in this way?

Perhaps such individuals do not even see themselves as being racist. Perhaps they see themselves as just making, literally, coffee-shop talk.

Perhaps there exists not just “overt racism” or “casual racism”, but another form — “clueless racism”?

Semantics aside, words like these wound the recipients. Clueless racism, however unintentional, still hurts.

A friend in an inter-ethnic marriage confessed that she sometimes feels like “a black sheep who has betrayed the community by marrying outside the race”.

I don’t feel that way.

I’ve never seen race as a barrier to anything. 

Interestingly, some have remarked that my marriage showcases what our racial harmony posters seek to promote: The embracing of unity in diversity.


But yet, for the decades-worth of carefully, thoughtfully planned national programmes and policies that seek to encourage racial integration, several racist incidents have arisen recently.

What’s going on? 

Are such sentiments due to the stress arising from Covid-19? Or is there a deeper, more concerning root cause? 

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore (NUS) believes that racism has its roots “in a feeling of insecurity arising from competition” with others.

Using the metaphor of seeds, Dr Tan said that because we live in a multi-racial society, the “condition” is mostly not ideal for the “germination” of racism. 

Yet “a seed, seemingly dead, would germinate when the conditions are right, bringing out whatever racism which may have been lying dormant”.

What are some of these conditions? 

Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong from the Centre for Applied Research at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) said that class entitlement, elitism and income inequality have risen sharply in Singapore in the last two decades.

“Some people are feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Such people feel that their heritage, identity, cultural security and dominance are being eroded.”

He added that the current climate has exacerbated the situation.

“There’s the ongoing pandemic, economic uncertainty and geopolitical tensions all around us. You don’t even know what may happen next month, much less next year. All of this makes people agitated.” 

The experts said that the rise in the use of social and digital media could be another condition. 

As Assoc Prof Leong put it: “Social media creates the perfect storm, because it allows for anonymity and speed of transmission.” 

Everyone can easily read up about anything online, but what they read may not be factual and this could reinforce misconceptions, the experts noted. 

Dr Tan from NUS said: “Some feel a warped sense of heroism about displaying their racism in front of a smartphone or even a live audience.”

These comments made me think about my own experiences with racist encounters, as well as the more recent ones.

I do not know what is going on in these individuals’ minds. I am in no position to venture guesses.

But the experts’ insights allow me to evaluate my perspectives and help me to have empathy.

Whatever wrongs are done to us could very well stem from hidden struggles.

Bad behaviour cannot be excused, but at the same time, maybe such individuals have needed help for a long time but do not know where to find it, or have not had enough conversations with others to know that their mindsets are in the wrong place.


Dr Razwana Begum, head of SUSS’ Public Safety and Security Programme, cautions against branding every unpleasant encounter as racially motivated.

“If a person is curious, and we label it as racism, then are we perpetuating the divide?” she told me. 

“Sometimes, people could simply be using a poor choice of words, or are unaware.”

This made me think about the aunties and uncles who comment about my children’s skin colour.

Is it too harsh to say they are guilty of “clueless racism”? 

Perhaps they are really just curious. And if they don’t have the intention to hurt or injure my feelings, I should not call curiosity racism.  

As someone who also holds a PhD in restorative justice, Dr Razwana suggested that there is a need to create “a safe space” for genuine conversations about race and inter-ethnic relations.

“I don’t know if we have such a space,” she said. 

“Is there an avenue for people to have our assumptions clarified? A place where people who want to know and understand can have the freedom to ask honest questions, without being recorded or feeling threatened, and then have things blown up?”

That prospect sounds encouraging: A safe and respectful space, where there is no judgement so long as the questions are genuine. 

A place that looks into de-escalating and amicably resolving problematic thought or behaviour.

We currently have the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle, a platform that promotes racial and religious harmony in Singapore. Those in the network are leaders of various groups. 

I wonder: How about something more ground-up, that’s targeted at addressing inter-ethnic questions and struggles?

These days, it’s easy to go on social media and use hashtags and words to “call it out” or to show our support for a particular cause. 

But it takes far more effort to effect real change. 

If we say, nationally, that we pledge ourselves as one united people — regardless of race — then we’re all in this together.  

Let’s do better, Singapore. Anger speeds up. Love slows down. 

I’m willing to be that “safe space” for someone else — even strangers. How about you?


Bryna Sim, 34, is TODAY’s social media editor. 

Related topics

racism race ethnicity society inter-ethnic marriages

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