Curry conundrum: For Indian renters, Singapore’s racism starts in the kitchen

Photo: Vishnu_EU
Photo: Vishnu_EU

A’shua Imran was 33 when he made his first ever property inquiry about a one-bedroom apartment in Aljunied. The response he got was a question: Do you cook a lot?

“Oh, wait, wait a minute. Do you mean like I cook curry and stuff? No, I don’t. I don’t know how to cook curry at all,” he told the agent. “It took me like a few seconds to process and realize that oh actually, this is trying to find out whether I cook curry.”

Then there was the British Indian couple who wanted to start a new life in Singapore, a country neither had ever set foot in. 

Leaving London was tricky, and finding somewhere to live was the first order of business when they arrived late last year. After exploring close to 20 properties, the thirty-somethings fell in love with a dream-like home rental in Redhill and made an offer. It was accepted. Ecstatic, he went down to close the deal. After he left, the bad news came: The landlord backed out. 

“You’re not gonna like this, it’s a profile issue,” the agent said, according to the husband, who works at a tech startup. He had asked that their names not be used. 

“When I heard ‘profile,’ normally you’d think of like your size and your physical attributes. I didn’t know they were talking about race or ethnicity,” he said.

Indeed, “profile issue” was the agent’s thin euphemism for racism.

While the couple and A’shua eventually found places to live, their degrading experiences were tainted by the deeply entrenched discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities across Singapore, where renting has been a long-running issue, especially between Indian immigrants and Chinese landowners. An open secret for decades; little has been done to address it. 

Listing site PropertyGuru said it is aware of the discrimination and has tried to stem it by disallowing agents from indicating race or ethnic preferences such as “no Indians” in listings since 2017 and immediately suspends those that do.

“We do not condone discrimination of any form. Discrimination, however, does exist in our society and hence we actively invest to avoid it from affecting our users,” Vivek Kumar, PropertyGuru Group’s vice president of products, told Coconuts.  

Singapore has no housing anti-discrimination measures, and without the force of law, writing new rules hasn’t changed these deeply entrenched attitudes.

It remains common today for interested applicants who contact agents to receive racist remarks and irrelevant and discriminatory questions such as “Do you cook with spices?” or even “I hope [you] are not related to the ‘Indian’ race” in follow-up questions via text, according to messages shared online.

Amid a backdrop of rising ethno-nationalism worldwide during the pandemic, Singapore’s race relations have shown signs of fraying, with an evident rise in hate speech and encounters. In that context, President Lee Hsien Loong in August announced plans to enact a Racial Harmony Act. The proposed law included no punitive measures for offenders; and in the same speech, Lee denied the existence of the “Chinese privilege” cited by disenfranchised ethnic minorities.

While the government takes a laissez-faire approach to discrimination in private housing, it does mandate ethnic quotas in public housing blocks, which comprise roughly 80% of the market.

The “casual racism” the Brit couple experienced, which forced them to declare their race and ethnicity to property agents, was something they couldn’t understand. In contrast, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race when renting in London, where British Indians make up 7% of the population.

Many properties were not available for viewing by the couple, as their agent told them they were “off the market.” He believed it to be a made-up excuse so they would not be offended by landlords opposed to Indian tenants.

Any hope they’d have a smoother experience were dashed when they sought to relocate this year. They were rejected four times, three of which were because of their race. One property near the Botanic Gardens ended up going to another tenant for S$300 less per month than what they offered.

“That’s just like a really stupid decision because financially it doesn’t make any sense that they were that averse,” he said.

They nearly didn’t get the East Coast apartment they moved into in September. They only secured the place after putting in a good price and stipulating in the contract that they would not put up an altar.

“It’s just a really stupid argument. You can’t just assume that any brown person is extremely religious and would want to set up something,” he said.

Currying disfavor

Oddly, the biggest red flag for many landlords seems to be a flavorful, spicy dish associated with Indians.

According to text conversations described by the tech employee, the landlord told its agent that the “curry smell was the greatest deterrent.” He declined to allow a reporter to see screenshots of the exchange.

Thus, many interrogatives on their culinary habits. The couple’s agent had to assure landlords many times they didn’t cook “any more than the next person” upon questioning.

“What stops someone here having an Indian takeaway? You might have a Singaporean Chinese family that order Indian food right, that’s no different. But they’re very very strict and they say no Indians, lots of cooking, too many smells,” he said.

Playing the race card is a quick and easy way to avoid perceived problems, A’shua said. He thinks landlords fear losing money if neighbors move out after filing complaints about a renter cooking too much curry.

“The landlord doesn’t need to meet with the renters, they already made the decision. That is the racism. You could be a British Indian who has no idea what curry is, but it doesn’t matter to them. They just don’t want to rent it to a race specifically to avoid any trouble for them,” he said.

That trouble could be based on second-hand reports or apocrypha of Indian renters leaving places “pretty thrashed up” spreading word of mouth. In other words, typical nightmares of any landlord regardless of a tenant’s ethnic ancestry.

The Briton said that “everyone” seems to have had an experience similar – but not as bad – as theirs. Until their lease is up in another two years, they are focused on preparing for life with a newborn and will deal with the headache of moving later. 

“To be honest, we’ve just tried to sort of get past it, so it doesn’t tarnish our time here because otherwise, we’re very happy here,” he said.

Other stories you should check out:

Singaporean Malay woman probed for degrading Malays in racist tweets
‘Singapore will be destroyed’: K Shanmugam answers shocking question on Chinese right to dominate
Singapore man leaves racist stain on family featured for National Day

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