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Why Singapore needs new ways to tackle racism more effectively

The fact that racism is perhaps not overtly visible in Singapore in general has meant that there is considerable discussion of these issues on social media when they surface.

If Singaporeans desire less state intervention in race issues, more community-led solutions to dealing with such matters are much needed, say the authors.

If Singaporeans desire less state intervention in race issues, more community-led solutions to dealing with such matters are much needed, say the authors.

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The fact that racism is perhaps not overtly visible in Singapore in general has meant that there is considerable discussion of these issues on social media when they surface.

In most cases, the racist comments are repudiated quickly by the majority of Singaporeans and netizens.

Social media platforms such as Facebook also remove posts deemed to have violated its community guidelines on hate speech.

This was what happened last week when netizens put up Facebook posts with LinkedIn profiles of several of Indian employees of Temasek, DBS Bank and Standard Chartered Bank, questioning why the foreigners had been hired in these organisations instead of locals.

Temasek denounced the posts as being part of a “divisive, racist campaign” and its chief executive Ho Ching also criticised these acts of doxing as “a cowardly act of hate”.

Calling out racial prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping is important. It is often intended to achieve some form of rehabilitative justice.

The offending individual and others like them are meant to reflect upon their implicit biases and find ways to be inclusive.

The zeal to address racism, however, is not without consequences.

While the aim of criticising racism publicly may be rehabilitative, it can also take the form of retributive justice, as seen sometimes in netizens’ punitive responses to incidents.

This was the case in June, when a mother and her 19-year old son came under fire for uttering a racial slur on an Instagram Live video.

They had streamed it to justify his use of the same offensive word in an earlier video. The mother called the term “just a figure of speech,” despite increasing objection from viewers.

Shortly after they were called out, the duo came under police investigation.

Social justice warriors would have claimed their ability to get the attention of the authorities to act on this case as a victory.

But confronting individuals head-on and accusing them of racial prejudice is not always effective.

Most people do not see themselves as racist and will respond with denial.

In a 2016 CNA-Institute of Policy Studies survey, only about a quarter of the 2,000 Singaporeans surveyed regarded themselves as even mildly racist. However when asked about their assessment of most Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans, nearly half saw them as racist.

As social psychological research has long suggested, we judge ourselves more favourably by pointing out our good intentions while we indict others based on their behaviour.

People who are accused of racism are likely to interpret such accusatory statements as “coded slurs” that undervalue their own struggles and difficulties.

Those who are told they exhibit majority privilege often repudiate this by claiming that they themselves are victims of socioeconomic under-privilege.

In Singapore, the longstanding model of race relations has emphasised communal harmony.

Different racial groups coexist. They accept a certain level of discomfort and manage it quietly for the greater need to preserve harmonious relations.

In that context, minorities who call out racism are sometimes viewed as oversensitive and ultimately creating rifts between ethnic communities.

In a recent post, a Singaporean Sikh shared his job interview experience, in which he was asked if his turban was “removable” because of concerns that it might make clients uncomfortable.

Most commentators were sympathetic to his experience, but many others chided him for seemingly making too much out of his experience.

This latter group said that the interviewer had only asked about the turban for practical reasons. Others deemed him as lacking magnanimity as the interviewer had apologised profusely for offending him after realising the turban was very important to Sikh identity.

To his credit, while he demanded an apology, he was careful to conceal the identity of both the company and the staff member who had been insensitive. This was to protect them from unnecessary harassment.

These incidents, alongside Singapore’s strict laws and OB markers regarding public discussion of racially sensitive issues, suggest there is a need for new ways to engage with communal issues.

One current and common recourse in Singapore is for individuals to make police reports whenever they encounter racism.

As the 2013 IPS survey on race, religion and language showed, around 65 per cent of a nationally representative sample of 4,000 Singaporeans believed that this was what a responsible citizen should do.

In a similar 2019 survey, however, many more, especially among the young, called for less government intervention on race.

The problem with resorting to police reports is this: While the state’s position on what is offensive is centred clearly on intent, individual interpretation varies widely, and this could lead to further dissatisfaction and rancour among some people.

For the state, the Preetipls video last year, in which vulgar language and gestures were used to insult another racial group, clearly crossed the line.

However, the "brownface" advertisement, to which Preetipls was responding initially, was deemed as not breaking the law.

Moreover, the weaponisation of police reports with tit-for-tat reporting is ineffective in addressing racial injustice. This approach offers neither the opportunity nor incentive to educate the offender on the harmful nature of their remarks. Large numbers of reports over the same incident also drain police resources.

In order to tackle racism more effectively, one has to learn to deal with discrimination more appropriately beyond calling out and making police reports.

Combating racial prejudice takes time and empathy. It requires cool heads and warm hearts that are ready to graciously engage those who may be ignorant of their racist tendencies.  

One study, published in 2016 by researchers at Stanford University and Berkeley, found that canvassing neighbourhoods, having 10-minute conversations with people, and asking them to try to understand sexual minorities’ problems was surprisingly effective in reducing prejudice.

These conversations, led by community activists, resulted in a decline in anti-prejudicial sentiments and an increase of voter support for laws that protect minorities from discrimination.

While the study focussed on discrimination against sexual minorities, researchers have noted the applicability of the method to deal with other forms of bigotry.

If Singaporeans desire less state intervention in race issues, more community-led solutions to dealing with such matters are much needed.

These must be localised and congruent with the unique context we have in multiracial Singapore.

For instance,, a ground up advocacy body championing inter-racial and inter-religious understanding runs innovative programmes such as Explorations in Ethnicity.

These sessions expose a diverse group of participants to their own prejudices and challenge stereotypes through a variety of experiential activities. Through a safe environment, participants are able to share their personal stories.

Hearing accounts from fellow participants, who are very similar on many fronts but have experienced discrimination or have troubles navigating through cultural minefields, builds empathy.

It reinforces the need to give space to diverse views and seek understanding. The interest among participants of this programme to be subsequently trained to facilitate these conversations is a testament to the effectiveness of this programme.

It is these kinds of heartfelt and sustained conversations, centred on empathy, understanding and forgiveness that may help foster longer-lasting and deeper bonds between Singaporeans.

While society must reject racism wherever it is encountered, there must be multiple avenues of engaging with these issues in order to combat bigotry and prejudice effectively.

Simply calling people racists and bigots may result in the exacerbation of racial fault lines.



Mathew Mathews is head of Social Lab and senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Shane Pereira is a research associate at the same institute.

Related topics

racism racial harmony

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