Navigating the complex landscape of racism in Singapore

Illustration created using Dall-E
Illustration created using Dall-E

In recent years, Singapore has proudly celebrated its cultural diversity. However, beneath the surface, the city-state grapples with the pervasive issue of racism. From controversial advertisements to workplace discrimination, instances of racial prejudice have surfaced, prompting a critical examination of societal attitudes and the need for change.

One of the most prominent examples of racism in Singapore is the existence of racist ads. In 2019, a government initiative to promote electronic payments featured an actor who darkened his skin to portray characters of different races, sparking a “brownface” controversy in multi-ethnic Singapore. 

The controversy deepened when YouTube artist Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas posted a parody rap video attacking the ad with profanities, calling out racist ethnic Chinese. Initially, they received a two-year “conditional warning” for a video they insisted aimed to expose racism rather than vilify an entire race. However, in 2021, Subhas faced charges after making additional race-related comments on social media deemed objectionable by authorities. These comments included assertions that Chinese Singaporeans receive more lenient treatment than Indian or Malay Singaporeans, a claim the government vehemently refutes. In September, Subhas was sentenced to six weeks in jail for four charges of attempting to promote “ill will between different racial groups.”

Another example of racism in Singapore is the casual racism targeted at ethnic minorities encountered daily. Though Singapore does not have a history of slavery or violent racial hatred, racial discrimination and prejudice still exist. In September, reports indicated that a cab driver of Singaporean Chinese descent was under investigation by his employer for alleged verbal abuse directed at a woman and her daughter, stemming from a misunderstanding about the destination and an unfounded assumption about the woman’s ethnic background. Janelle Hoeden, a 46-year-old woman with Eurasian heritage, shared her account, stating that the cab driver insulted her by saying, “You are Indian, you are stupid.” The incident occurred on Saturday, Sept. 23, while Hoeden was accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter during the ride.

In June, at a Russian restaurant in Singapore, a Caucasian man resorted to hurling death threats and unleashing racist remarks upon the staff due to the restaurant’s closure and refusal to accept additional orders. 

“I will close your establishment down and I will fuck every family member you got from her to China, you little bitch because I own China too! Fuck you!” he screamed.

Meanwhile, in August, Natas Travel Fair published an advertisement for its event featuring local actor Terence Cao, a Chinese man, who acted out racist actions in a way to promote the fair.

In addition to these examples, there have been several incidents of overt racism reported by Coconuts Singapore.

9 times in 2021 that absurd racism burst into view in Singapore
The supposed cultural melting pot reached its boiling point this year. Read more.
9 times in 2021 that absurd racism burst into view in Singapore
The supposed cultural melting pot reached its boiling point this year. Read more.

In 2021, for example, racism crawled out of the shadows and into plain view in Singapore too often, to the shame of its pride as a multicultural society. Most incidents involved members of minority groups being shamed by strangers, neighbours, and employers while on the commute, at work, or even at home.

In light of the pervasive instances of racism outlined in Singapore, a recent survey conducted by CNA and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) offers insights into the growing awareness of this critical issue. 

The survey reveals a notable shift in public perception, with more than half of the respondents (56.2 percent) recognizing racism as an important problem. This marks a significant increase from the previous CNA-IPS survey conducted in 2016, where 46.3 percent expressed similar concerns. 

The escalating awareness underscores the pressing need for continued dialogue, education, and concerted efforts to address and eradicate racism in Singapore. As the city-state grapples with these challenges, acknowledging the problem is a crucial step towards fostering a more inclusive and harmonious society.

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