I am mesmerised by this image of a red cliff face and a row of women, backs bent, ferrying baskets trudging up a fenced mountain path. I see steam billowing from below joining the plumes of clouds at the mountain top. The women are all dressed alike—forming a line of uniformed white and brown dots—and there seems to be a leader, a lone woman sans basket at the top; she stands apart from the line. The incription describing the photo says, “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in Yunnan.”
Once upon a time, I used to live on a tropical island. I grew up thinking that its people have always lived harmoniously. I am too young to know about the racial tension and riots that took place there in the mid-1960s. When I was growing up, nobody talked about these riots. When I was growing up, my friends were Malays, Indians, Eurasians. When I was growing up, we recited a pledge that goes like this:
“We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity
and progress for our nation.”
I was proud to recite this, proud that a little island-nation made up of a hotchpotch of diverse people are living together harmoniously. I was proud to be who I am, I’m still proud, and so were my multi-ethnic friends, who are still proud of their identities too. I was, above all, proud that my little nation home was peaceful.
But a recent spate of events that occurred on this little island in the tropics have led to much conflict in this multi-ethnic nation-state. These events put this pledge, the National Pledge, into question. These events filled me with consternation and rage, forcing me to re-examine (once more) my sentiments towards my identity and to Singapore.
The events led to me feeling conflicted about my position as a former citizen: Chinese-Singaporean, privileged, educated and upper middle-class. I was conflicted because I heard a Chinese man on video telling an Indian-Filipino man that he is ‘disturbing’ the race because he is “preying on a Chinese girl”, the Chinese girl being the Indian man’s date. The video spanned over 5 minutes of air time and was watched over 3,000 times since it was uploaded on Sunday (June 6). Such in-your-face racism is the first I’ve witnessed coming out of Singapore, I’ll be honest. If you’ll bear with me: the last time I lived again in Singapore was between 2013 to 2020. And as a privileged, somewhat wealthy and educated woman, who speaks English well, I was not subject to such vitriol. It’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Racism always has. Casual racism has always existed; it is very prevalent there. Motherhood statements like ‘Malays are lazy’, ‘Indians are smelly’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ are very much part of the national narrative. I have heard all these growing up in Singapore. My husband is ‘Ang Moh’, a European or ‘red hair’, even though he is from one of the Med countries. And you know what? ‘Chinese are greedy’, ‘Chinese always talk about money’ are real statements too. Then, there are other casual statements such as ‘Mix-raced girls are pretty’, ‘Eurasian kids are good looking’, and by Eurasian, the average Singaporean almost always means half-Asian, half-European because the racial category of ‘Eurasian’ means something else—Anglo-Indian. These statements were usually kept within individual communities because there was an unspoken agreement amongst its multi-ethnic citizenry that if these statements were vocalised, they would foment the already existing racial divide in the country and highlight the racial hierarchy within the society.
Why the conflict and the rage? I am shocked that this man can so blatantly disturb a young man and his date in public by calling the young man, Mr Dave Parkash, aged 23, a ‘racist’ because he and his half-Chinese/half-Thai girlfriend are from ‘different races’.
It is absolutely gobsmacking that this Chinese expounder of such Nazi race relations theories could be a lecturer at one of Singapore’s higher education institutions. And that he could have been passing down his limited and yes, supremacist ideas of race to his students. And doing so for many years, before he exposed himself publicly by calling himself a racist too and saying these “quite unacceptable” and “very worrying” things. [quoting Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.]
I am mad because this man is not all that much older than me. And that his generation of ethnic Chinese, someone of the diaspora, where China hasn’t been the ‘Motherland’ for centuries, could behave this way. I am outraged because as a Peranakan-Chinese, I was always made to identify Chinese, and in a convoluted but unassociated way, made to choose Chinese (like this racist man) over being anything else, and especially over simply being Singaporean.
And, what I’m most angry about is that most Chinese Singaporeans would cry out ‘racism’ ASAP when they leave Singapore and are suddenly not the dominant race anymore, but would hesitate to recognise that they can be racist too…in their own country.
Race, as we know, is a social construct, next to gender. The taxonomy of race is a colonial construct. And, unfortunately, post-colonial nations bear this legacy, which has served its independent governments equally well—maintain the status quo, uphold the dominant race. The Chinese race is dominant in Singapore. The indigenous Malay race is dominant in Malaysia and Indonesia. And racial tensions have co-existed next to racial harmony in these nations and the region since time immemorial.
In the UK, where I live and have lived since 1992, anyone other than White is ‘Other’. White supremacists are real here and more vocal because they often spout Nazi-like theories and expound racist comments on social media. One just has to google a man named Laurence Fox for some vitriolic entertainment. But entertainment NOT. Fox’s white supremacist ideology and comments are far from entertaining. They are hurtful, damaging, and absolutely abhorrent.
Here in the UK, I am not privileged. And I am proud not to be. Since the Pandemic, hatred for and towards East Asians and Southeast Asians has increased. I have lived with this everyday since returning to England in 2020. But I don’t live in fear. I live to challenge this.
My children are Eurasians: half-Asian/half-European. They identify strongly with their dual heritage. They are examples of the rapidly increasing diversity in this world. And their children will be more multi hyphenated than them. The UK 2001/2011 census shows that “the number of dual heritage children up to four years old rose from 116,000 in 2001, to 220,000 in 2011.” [Source] And these statistics are old. In London, over 45% of the demographics is mixed-race.
My husband is European. Today, he would be very unwelcome in Singapore, judging from what some White expat friends living there are saying regarding the treatment of expats (somehow mainly targeted at the white expat community). Apparently, expats are stealing jobs and getting preferential treatment, and they’re racist too. Likewise, he is also very much unwelcome in the UK because…Brexit. And seen through the same lens by Brexit-voting English — here to steal their jobs.
The topic of racism is an uncomfortable subject to raise and discuss. But we need to sit with that discomfort and talk about it to our children. Being an ostrich about it doesn’t help to change the status quo. Singaporeans need to tell their children that casual and blanket statements like ‘Indians are smelly’ or ‘Malays are lazy’, even ‘Chinese are greedy’ and ‘Ang Mohs are dirty’ must be questioned and critically discussed. Schools have to take up the challenge to do this too because what good is there if students only pass exams and pass them well, but live in denial that they could be racist because their elders – grandparents, parents, and teachers – continue to be casually racist without being confronted and challenged.
Here’s a true story:
My husband was having lunch one day. He was just biting into his roti paratha dunked in mutton curry when a Singaporean-Chinese male colleague said, “You like Indian food?” [surprised that a Med European could]. After my husband had answered in the affirmative, the Chinese man continued, “I’ll let you finish first and then tell you why I don’t eat Indian food.” [like he was being considerate]. All eager to share why he doesn’t eat Indian food, the man watched as the hubs gulped down his last bite of roti and then proceeded immediately to tell him a story about how ‘dirty’ Indians are, how ‘they are not clean and wipe their hands on their sarongs’ and ‘how they use the same hands to [fill in the blanks here] and then serve food.’ According to the male Chinese colleague, when he was a young lad, his uncle had told him this and showed him the dirty hand prints made of curry, pointing out to him that this is why ‘Indian people are dirty’.
The hubs was not only upset, he was aghast that this Chinese man is a colleague, someone who works in and for a multi-national corporation that is all about diversity and inclusion, and yes, a degree holder.
And most of all, what disturbed the hubs was that this Chinese colleague felt he could disclose such blatantly racist remarks to him because being of the privileged race, he saw himself as “equal” to a White man and therefore conversely, the White man would agree with his sentiments and, you’ve got it—pat his back in approval.
This, my friend, is racism at its most real and most high. Racism at its most dangerous–internalised and verbalised.
So, when Singaporeans say that racism doesn’t exist or that they are a multi-ethnic and a harmonious society and SO racism cannot exist, please think again.
But most of all, let’s consider this: ”Love is love. Love has no race, love has no religion. You and I should be able to love whoever we wanna love. Let’s not become like this man in the video.” – Mr Dave Parkash.
And mull over this: “To this man who may end up watching this, I hope you learn to stop being a racist and let us all live in harmony.” – Mr Dave Parkash
Mr Parkash’s words echo photographer Eng Chung Tong’s: “Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos.”
If there is anything important to learn from this spate of events, it is that the nation must come together to talk about this and to never let this happen again. Otherwise, chaos would follow suit. Lest the island-nation forgets, the 1964 and 1969 race riots weren’t all that far away behind us.
‘Synergy of Humanity’ by Eng Chung Tong, Malaysia, Shortlist, Open, Culture (Open competition), 2019 Sony World Photography Awards, “A humanity view of one of the minorities tribes in Yunnan going about their daily working life. Teamwork, coordination, and cooperation are essential for efficiency otherwise it will be chaos. An impression of once upon a time in yunnan.”