Monday, August 4, 2008

S'pore: Where racism is normal

By Constance Singam
Today online, 02 August 2003

ARE you a racist? We are kidding ourselves if we think we are not. Let's admit it. We are all racist. That's the first step towards change.

In Singapore, racism is institutionalised and we don't even challenge that. It is "normal".


However, racism is a learned social phenomenon. Children learn it from their families, through education, religion, the law and the media.

I recall an incident in which two children, four and six at that time, thought it was fun to mimic a language they didn't understand while watching an Indian programme.

Their father reprimanded them for being rude. "What do you think you are?" he asked them. They were surprised to discover that they were Indians.

Another little boy I know, who must have been four at the time, discovered the notion of race when he was told that he was Indian and that his friend was Chinese.

He then wanted to know what race his friend's brother was!

By the time children go to school, they would have learnt what it means to be "different". They learn it from their parents; they learn it in the playground.

A young mother related a heart-rending experience that her two year-old son faces every time he goes out to play in the playground of her HDB block.

Other mothers in the playground warn their children against playing with this little boy because of his "difference".

Once in school, they learn it in their "mother tongue" classes. They learn it from their teachers. They learn it when they fill forms.

By the time they reach Primary Six, their identity card would forever confine them to their racial group, labelling their "difference" and depending on their experiences, they would have learnt to celebrate that "difference" or be ashamed of it.

A child told her mother recently that she wanted to kill herself because of her dark complexion.

A principal of a school that a little girl I know attended is known for her racial biases. Some of the teachers, as an exercise in empowerment, taught the Indian girls an Indian dance for a school concert.

While the students proudly displayed their skill, the principal's comment was: "They can shake, shake. But they can't study."

In such an environment, they would have difficulties with their studies. Low self-esteem and internalised acceptance of the myth of racial inferiority or superiority are the consequences of racism.

So, we should not be surprised by the results of the recently-published study by the National Institute of Education which revealed that children of different races are not mixing with one another.

But it doesn't end there at the school level. A young woman, proficient in Mandarin and English, was not picked for a job because she was not Chinese.

She applied for the job at a career exhibition, the requirement of which matched the qualifications she had, including proficiency in Mandarin.

But she was told that the company was looking for a Chinese. These examples may be countered by the argument that that there is racism in every country — which is true.

But racism is racism wherever it takes place. It threatens humanistic values and undermines the moral development of the whole society.

The biggest problem we face in Singapore is that racism has been normalised. It is normal to describe people in terms of race, for instance.

It is normal for the media to identify people in terms of race; it is normal to compare the achievement of various groups (for instance, examination results) of school children along racial lines; it is normal to divide people in HDB housing estates according to their ratio in the population; it is normal to limit the learning of language to "mother tongue".

These practices are racist and the tendency towards sticking together and preferring the values and personal beliefs of one's own group perpetuates racism.

And so, a society may live in peace together but they do so in a state of mutual isolation, suspicion and incomprehension. And no wonder! In our system we are taught "racial harmony" with a narration of the history of racial riots.

That is "normal".

Yet, there are signs of tolerance everywhere.

For instance, there could be a Chinese funeral in one void deck while a Malay wedding is celebrated in another. Churches and temples stand side by side, in amicable co-existence.

The Buddhist temple, the Christian church and the Sai Baba Centre located next to each other in Moulmein Road, is an amazing testimony to this high degree of tolerance.

The most positive affirmation of the triumph of a common humanity is seen in the ever increasing number of inter-racial marriages.

And who among us has not experienced the wonder of cross-cultural friendships, occasions of kindness and generosity across racial and, sometimes, even language barriers?

My own experience in civil society supports my optimism in the ability of Singaporeans to suspend their individual prejudices, racial and class differences, and work towards common values and goals.

However, for all that optimism, the level of racism will not diminish if we continue to assume that group differences are biologically determined and, therefore, inherently unchangeable.

We will then remain a nation of racists. Study finds children of different races are not mixing. Should we be surprised?

4 comments:

Ganga said...


Tolerance versus Acceptance.

We are tolerating one another which goes to say that I don't have to understand; I don't have to care; I just have to put up with it.

This is opposed to acceptance, where I make a genuine effort to understand why you do the things you do and accept the rationalisation of your culture on your terms.

They've always taught us to tolerate instead of accept differences. Of course, the danger in tolerance is the fact that our hatred does not change one bit - if the social fabric collapses, what is there to stop us from doing our worst?

Thank you for this poignant article, take care.

Anonymous said...

I see that the article is dated back in 2003 ... does it hold true even today? esp. dark skin color??

ed said...

Where a discursive environment that recognises this is not faciliated, the marginalised will move on to being second-class citizens by way of the socialisation of their children within a milieu wherein they will learn that they haven't done their best if they haven't tried hard enough to look for the scraps at the bottom of the table. Hence, they will nUrturally not ask why they aren't seated around it.

It will only be deemed a problem when the marginalised cannot find any leftovers. However, as that is not the case, they will tend to do their best in picking them up as opposed to engaging in a relatively tedious and longer term strategy of countering these conditions. The conditions that underdevelop them will tend to disable their inclination to do that. In this, they will be underdeveloped when it comes to self-efficacy. In the longer run they will indeed become less - thus justifying the continued discrimination of this group.

I recall a conversation with a chinese acquaintance, whom i asked, why he thought there were hardly any Indian actors in English dramas. He replied, 'because they can't act'. With discrimination, not only are the marginalised not let into certain professions, they will also not keep alive those traits that will enable them to do so in the longer run. That is the condition of the singapore Indian of today as opposed to Indians of the 60s to the 80s. They are indeed doing and thinking far less than their visually-similar predecessors.

Strawberryfish said...

I can't believe that principal. It must have hurt the girls' feelings so much!