The first time I heard a racist slur directed at me, I was 18 years old and traveling to a university lecture on a bus in the Midlands in the UK. Having just arrived from Indonesia, I was still trying to figure out pounds from pennies. As I fumbled around for the change, the bus driver shouted: “Why don’t you just go home you Paki,” which in equal parts upset and confused me. I am not Pakistani, and home was Jakarta, so I had no idea what he meant.
Everyone who has experienced it remembers that kind of in-your-face racism. As a minority in a foreign land, when you look and sound different to those around you, it is an unfortunate rite of passage. It is unacceptable, but — you tell yourself — excusable. It is not your country, you do not belong there, it is not your home.
But imagine when it is.
That feeling of being outsiders in their own nation, minorities with no “safeguards,” is what Indian Singaporean rapper Subhas Nair and his sister, Preetipls, say led to the creation of their rap video in 2019. It was “born from a place of frustration and pain,” they said in an apology published on Preetipls’s Facebook page, and was in response to an ad campaign in Singapore that they saw as being tone-deaf to how it portrayed minorities.
Nair and Preetipls, an influencer, received a police warning for what authorities said was an “expletive-laden, insulting, offensive” video that was subsequently taken down. The video, along with other incidents, led to Nair receiving a six-week jail sentence on Tuesday last week after he was convicted on four charges of attempting to promote ill will among racial and religious groups. He has pleaded not guilty to all of them, and his lawyers say they will appeal.
The case has highlighted the difficulty and discomfort with which Singapore talks about race — and why it needs to be far more honest about prejudice in a nation that prides itself on racial harmony.
The offending video was made in response to an advertising campaign that was accused of “brownface.” It featured a Chinese Singaporean dressing up as different minorities in Singapore, including an Indian and a Malay, wearing a headscarf and darkening his face. People were in equal parts outraged by Nair’s video and the ad. The companies behind the ad apologized, no one went to jail and no legal action was pursued. The issue was efficiently swept aside.
Race has always been a pivotal part of this city-state, whether the government likes us talking about it or not. A small nation created out of the need to survive, Singapore has maintained strict control over racial and religious harmony. It has to do that, it says, to ensure that unrest does not threaten the tightly woven fabric of its society.
For the most part, it has worked — particularly when you look back in time. In the 1960s, it saw some of its worst race and religious riots, with dozens killed and hundreds injured. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia, because of deep economic and political differences, but there was also the issue of race — the visions of Malaysia and Singapore did not match.
This narrative has formed the framework for how the nation deals with race today. Equality is enshrined in the constitution, a common language was chosen to help unite the different races, and it is a secular state, with religion kept out of politics. There is a law in place to govern religious harmony and another one in the works to address racial harmony, but there are inherent contradictions at play.
The nation might not have a history of slavery like the US, said Chong Ja Ian (莊嘉穎), associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, but “racial discrimination, injustice and prejudice targeting minorities remain around us.”
He points to landlords refusing rentals because of skin color, workers feeling discriminated against because of their race or religion, and “people mocked at school and at workplaces for how they look.”
For the longest time, talking about these issues was not something some minorities felt they could do, for fear of being dismissed as being too sensitive, or worse, accused of stoking racial tensions, but that has led to stereotypes “festering,” said Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, founder and board member with the Centre for Interfaith Understanding.
“When people want to talk about race now, they are not sure how to do it, or it comes out in ways that are offensive,” Taib said.
A good place to start talking honestly about race is the usefulness of the Chinese-Malay-Indian and Others (CMIO) policy.
The Singaporean government says it needs this to maintain the racial balance and preserve social stability, but a Institute of Policy Studies survey last year found that while two-thirds of Chinese respondents want to retain the CMIO policy as it currently exists, less than half of Malay and Indian respondents say the same.
Class, money and race. These are things that divide people the world over, and Singapore is no different. Social cohesion is vital for its survival. It can and should do more to get it right.
“This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation,” founding Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) said in a now historic news conference announcing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.
Addressing his people directly, he said: “We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example.”
One hundred years after his birth, this is still a worthy goal. Singapore is a work in progress.
Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC’s lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia for two decades. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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