‘Chinese privilege’ is just imported American nonsense: these academics

Panelists participate Thursday in an online discussion hosted by Singaporean think tank IPS. Photo: IPS/Facebook
Panelists participate Thursday in an online discussion hosted by Singaporean think tank IPS. Photo: IPS/Facebook

What happens when five Karens gather to discuss “Chinese privilege” in Singapore? It would probably look just like yesterday’s virtual gathering hosted by a Singaporean think tank. 

Five so-called experts on society yesterday opined on topics related to social cohesion in multiethnic Singapore during which some of them rubbished the concept of a majority race enjoying privilege, leading to a social media uproar.

According to them, at least, the notion of Chinese privilege is simply the result of American influence. One even said that the concept should be “stomped.” *Ouch.*

“No prejudice intended, but any country in the world you go to where there is multi-ethnicity, the majority will always have reasons to cover up their privileges. Happens everywhere,” one critic, Sakthi Alderweireld, said in reaction.

The Identities and Cohesion discussion was part of a virtual event hosted by the Institute of Policy Studies, or IPS. 

The five panelists were National University of Singapore professor Daniel Goh, IPS staffer Mathew Mathews, Chapman University professor Joel Kotkin, Mohammad Alami Musa of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Mei Lin Fung of a nonprofit called People-Centered Internet. 

Concerns and questions about “Chinese privilege” only came from people “importing” the concept of white privilege from the United States was one of the assertions made during the exchange.

“With regard to the term ‘Chinese privilege,’ the realities of racism and prejudice in Singapore are not simply equivalent to white privilege in America,” Goh said, later adding: “When we bring in something like ‘Chinese privilege,’ we’re bringing in the history of another society without being critical.”

The second day of Singapore Perspectives 2021: Reset, the annual flagship conference by the Institute of Policy Studies,…

Posted by Institute of Policy Studies – IPS on Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Sorry, Houston, it seems we don’t have a problem after all.

Fung, a Singaporean living in the United States, said she was “agitated” by the term and figured the late founding father (who helped forge the Singaporean state from the ashes of racial violence) would not approve.

“I really think if Lee Kuan Yew was here, he would really stomp on it, and I think it’s legitimate to do that,” she said, adding: “[T]hese things should be argued out in the intellectual scarcity of an idea like Chinese privilege, just using that as an argumentation idea that you brought from another country that doesn’t apply, is ridiculous.”

Then Kotkin chimed in again to call the idea of white privilege “absurd.”

“I think the idea of white privilege is, absurd, you know, if you spend time in this country, you’ll see lots of poor white people. I know even in Singapore, there are poor Chinese, there are Chinese who are struggling, particularly immigrants,” he said. 

According to a Statista report as of last June, there are about 3 million Chinese, 500,000 Malay and 300,000 Indian residents living in Singapore.

Racial tensions have been a defining trait of Singapore since its inception, and society continues to grapple with issues of equity and equality. The rise of social media has given a wider platform for complaints of a two-tiered system that seems to favor citizens of Chinese descent.

Three academics denying their respective groups enjoy privilege was less than persuasive.

“Two Chinese people and a White man saying there is no Chinese / white privilege. Sure, let’s take their word for it,” Shawn Lim wrote in reply.

“Of Course there Are privileged classes in Every society – and to say there isn’t one here in S’pore – is in Itself Absurd talk too!” Grace Hew wrote.

Lester Lim wrote that understanding the structural inequalities is a rational approach to lifting everyone in society:

“There will always be inequality in society, and specific groups of people being privileged as a result of their circumstances. The focus should be on the discriminatory practices against the underprivileged, and how they prevent the underprivileged from improving their lives.”

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