READ: An in-depth look into the history of ‘Chinese privilege’ and how it became entrenched in Singapore

The term ‘Chinese privilege’ has been thrown around in Singapore over the past couple of years, and it’s a highly polarising one. Some fiercely deny its existence, while others (mainly those in the minority segment of the population) have multiple anecdotes that depict its systemic permeation in society today.

Awareness of ‘Chinese privilege’ has taken on an exponential frequency, thanks to the articulate voices of people like playwright Alfian Sa’at and independent scholar Sangeetha Thanapal on social media. Others, such as journalist Surekha A. Yadav, have brought up Singapore’s “persistent and pervasive Chinese chauvinism“. Netizens rallied behind a minority model who was criticised for not portraying an accurate “representation of Singapore”. Comedians skewered the notion by reversing the Singaporean standard of beauty. A lifestyle website was accused of practising ‘Chinese privilege’ by being ignorant to the cultural norms of a minority group

The latest enlightening discourse on the polarising issue was recently published by Nanyang Technological University student Hydar Saharudin, who wrote about the origins of ‘Chinese privilege’ and how it has become such an entrenched phenomenon here. Tracing its roots to the ’70s, when the government sought to “re-Asianise” Singapore, Hydar explores how policies old and new have — intentionally or not — “favoured, privileged, and valorised Chinese-Singaporeans.” 

It’s a fascinating read into how Singapore became the Sinocentric country it is now, and it’s one that should be essential reading in understanding ‘Chinese privilege’. Do read Hydar’s essay in full here, and check out some highlights below: 

On the ‘Asianisation’ of Singapore

‘Chinese privilege’, however, has not always existed, as demonstrated by the PAP’s battles against the Chinese-educated in the pre-1970s. Its inception can be located from the late 1970s onwards, when the party sought to ‘re-Asianise’ Singapore. This agenda shift has been attributed to several issues: the PAP’s fear of ‘Westernisation’, its then ‘poor’ electoral performances, and Lee Kuan Yew’s newfound appreciation for Confucianism and the Mandarin language. Other factors include the political demise of left-wing Chinese-educated groups and the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping’s China.

This period of ‘Asianisation’ saw the PAP-government promote a self-fashioned form of ‘Chineseness’ via policies that, intentionally or not, favoured, privileged, and valorised Chinese-Singaporeans. According to distinguished scholars like Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Michael Barr, and Terence Chong, state-sanctioned ‘Chineseness’ emphasised paternalism, elitism, apoliticism, fluency in Mandarin, a deference to authority, and the Confucian Junzi ideal (one whose ‘humane’, ‘benevolent’, and ‘righteous’ conduct makes them exemplary).

On how residential racial quotas are ironic

In 1989, the PAP-government introduced residential racial quotasto encourage racial integration and dismantle non-Chinese ‘enclaves’. For racial minorities, this reduced their housing options, while ensuring they remained numerical minorities in most constituencies. Ironically, if racial mixing was the objective, multiple nation-wide surveys by the Institute of Policy Studieshave since revealed that Chinese-Singaporeans are the least receptive to interracial relations. Despite their official multiracial rationale, the GRC system and racial quotas operationally guarantee Chinese political dominance. As the quotas maintain Chinese numerical superiority, they also bolster the community’s voting clout. This incentivises GRC candidates to appeal largely to the Chinese electorate, or overlook ‘sensitive’ minority interests.

On why discourse on ‘Chinese privilege’ is important

Nevertheless, the discourse of ‘Chinese privilege’ has already generated constructive outcomes. First, it has redirected attention to the centres of privilege and power, highlighting how Chinese pre-eminence is manufactured, maintained, and expressed. Second, it has further questioned the prevailing belief that the cultures and biologies of Singapore’s racial minorities are principally responsible for their marginal societal standing. And last, it has empowered Singaporeans to confront racial inequities, particularly those obscured by doublespeak, ‘colour-blind’ ideologies, and political expediency.

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