Outside The Margins: Chinese Privilege in Singapore
There’s been a fair bit of discourse about Singaporean Chinese privilege recently. It started with this Medium post, and another article talking about racism and privilege was released at on the same day. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the tone of the Medium post was terribly helpful. The title, “To My Dear Fellow Singapore Chinese: Shut Up When a Minority is Talking about Race,” put readers in defensive mode before they’d even read the whole thing.
Trying to explain Singaporean Chinese privilege to Singaporean Chinese who have previously never thought about it or even noticed it is like trying to tell someone that the sky is green. You’re telling someone that they’ve technically been cheating in a card game the whole time because the rules allow them to have a few more cards than the other players. When you’re introducing such shocking information (to which the first instinctive response is going to be denial, because it’s such a new and wacky idea to some), a hostile tone probably isn’t the best way to go about it.
However, it was an eye-opening starting point for discussion. The discourse in reaction to these articles put forth some strident and interesting viewpoints, including:
1) Chinese privilege exists in Singapore, just as white privilege or male privilege exists in other countries.
2) Chinese privilege doesn’t exist in Singapore, and those who claim that does exist are either racist themselves, or troublemakers/ malcontents, etc.
3) Chinese privilege does exist, but racism in Singapore isn’t as bad as it is in other countries.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at what ethnic privilege is. It can be difficult to separate ethnic privilege from racism during discussions of either or both issues. Where does ethnic privilege end and racism begin in Singapore? Privilege usually entails a more passive role, in which the dominant ethnicity enjoys the benefits of being the majority ethnicity. Those who enjoy privilege do not always realize it. Racism usually involves a more active, conscious role in terms of the individual’s choices in thought, behaviour, attitudes and assumptions about another race. Racism isn’t exclusively directed at minority ethnicities in a society, while privilege affects minorities negatively, de facto. While (in my opinion, at least) ethnic privilege and racism are two different things, they are not entirely unrelated. I think that ethnic privilege, left unchecked, can make it more difficult to be mindful of racism in oneself and in others, and thus, more difficult to recognize and reject.
I understand that it is difficult to see or understand ethnic privilege because it’s one of those things that you only notice when it is absent. It’s also a little unpleasant to know that you have been unwittingly using a cheat code that doesn’t work for other people because they’re not Chinese. So here is a brief exercise for Singaporean Chinese who don’t understand what Singaporean Chinese privilege is.
Imagine Singapore on an alternate historical timeline. Imagine never hearing Mandarin spoken in public places. Imagine seeing maybe one other Chinese person in public every month, at the most (that is exactly how often I see other Kristang who aren’t my relatives). Everyone else is of a different ethnicity, and the alternate to English (let’s call it Babel) is a language that your neither speak nor understand. Imagine needing kind strangers in the hawker stall queue to translate your order because the hawker doesn’t speak English, and you don’t speak Babel (this actually happened to me at the food court at Tan Tock Seng Hospital a month ago). Imagine Mandarin being completely useless to you because barely anyone else speaks it. Imagine looking through a classified jobs section filled with listings which state that applicants need to be “effectively bilingual in English and Babel” although Babel literacy has absolutely no effect on your ability to communicate with your clients or colleagues (they all speak English). Imagine going for job interviews and knowing that you have to be twice as impressive as the majority ethnicity candidates in order to get the job. Imagine having to resort to saying “Eh, switch to Channel 5 please!” in school when your group mates insist on speaking Babel during group discussions although they speak English and they know you don’t speak Babel. Imagine, for a moment, what it feels like to be such a tiny minority that you are automatically instant friends with anyone you meet from the same ethnic group. Imagine the ethnic majority being allowed to burn tons of paper and have noisy processions with not a whisper of protest, while the cultural or religious processions common to your ethnic group draw resident complaints and see a heavy police presence. Imagine having to explain to nosy strangers that you really are Singaporean and that your ancestors have been here for a long time. As often as daily, if you take taxis frequently.
Is that a terrifying alternate reality? An alien one which you wouldn’t want to live in? Well, congratulations. Now you understand: this is the dark side of Singaporean Chinese privilege. This is also why Singaporean ethnic minorities find it mildly amusing that Singaporean Chinese harbour such loathing for the PRC nationals living and working here.
For those still wondering what all the fuss about Singaporean Chinese privilege is, perhaps Singaporean Chinese privilege can be explained from the lens I’ve been viewing it through for my entire life: as a superbly tiny, soon-to-be-extinct ethnic minority in Singapore.
I’m Eurasian (that’s old-school Eurasian harking back to the colonial era, and most definitely not Pan-Asian), by way of the Portuguese explorers who came to Malaya in the bad old days of a no-holds-barred colonial shopping spree in Asia. My ethnic group is a subset of an already miniscule ethnic minority in Singapore, the Eurasians. Because the Portuguese Eurasians, also known as the Kristang, have been marrying outside their ethnicity for a while now, we are dying out. The strange combination of Iberian and Southeast Asian skin tone and facial structure, our creole Portuguese language, our raucous Easter parties where shepherd’s pie meets curry debal, all that will cease to exist. In 200 years (probably much less than that), it will be as if we never existed. That’s probably why I can think and talk about ethnic privilege and racism in Singapore without getting emotional about it. Dying out tends to put things in perspective.
Growing up in Singapore, I always felt like the Switzerland of discourse on ethnicity and racism here: neutral, and outside of the main fray. The worst racial slurs I’ve received are about being promiscuous (because our European blood makes us totally slutty, see), musical and party-loving. I have never experienced the magnitude of negative racial slurs that other minorities here have tolerated. I’m sure most of you know of these slurs. I’m part of such a tiny minority that I never actually felt marginalized by Singaporean Chinese privilege. I have observed it affect others, and I have been on the receiving end of it. I know it exists. But I’m an outsider even among the minority ethnicities, so it doesn’t bother me on a personal level. Exhibit A: When I was eight years old, I felt so different from my Chinese, Indian and Malay classmates that I questioned my mother about the possibility of being a werewolf (she denied it, but I have my suspicions).
I don’t feel like I’m being marginalized by ethnic privilege, because I am already well outside the margins, even without ethnic privilege in the equation.
Now, let’s be really clear about this: I’m not bitter, angry or angsty about the existence of Singaporean Chinese privilege. It doesn’t affect my work, my happiness, or my identity. I’m pointing it out dispassionately because I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe and experience the dark underbelly of Singaporean Chinese privilege as minority, without experiencing bitterness or reactionary negative attitudes directed at Singaporean Chinese.
This doesn’t mean that I think Singaporean Chinese privilege is a good thing.
Whether you’re in the denial camp or the apologist camp, the fact remains that Singaporean Chinese privilege is An Actual Thing. And just like racism, it is not going to magically resolve itself. We need to put on our big kid pants and talk about it like adults, instead of sweeping it under the carpet.
In 1989, Lee Kuan Yew told us that we are “not ready” for a non-Chinese Prime Minister. You know, I really don’t care if our next PM is Chinese, non-Chinese, or a piece of bak kwa. I just want the next PM to do their job, possess the gravitas expected of that office, and avoid starting any wars in the region.
Even if Lee Kuan Yew’s statement was true in 1989, it’s been 25 years since then. A quarter of a decade, folks. Honest, constructive discourse on ethnic prejudice and privilege in Singapore is extremely overdue. The question that will arrive after my admittedly optimistic vision of the discourse on ethnic privilege is: What then? Do we shrug and accept it? Or do we challenge the existing status quo?
There is no overnight solution, no quick fix that will enable us to neutralize power structures built on ethnic privilege. Before anything can happen, we need to have long, sometimes painful conversations about ethnic privilege and prejudice in Singapore. Change of this sort is never easy or pleasant.
Some things, like language and population dominance, obviously do not have a solution, short of appropriating a time machine and drastically altering history. (For those of you with no sense of humour: I am not seriously advocating this.) Other aspects of ethnic privilege are more easily fixed, like the “effectively bilingual” requirement in job listings, where candidates arrive for the interview to find out that “bilingual” means “Mandarin-speaking” for a job that doesn’t actually require Mandarin literacy. Top-down changes – in the way of stricter legislation for discriminatory job listings, for example – are helpful, but they are only putting a band-aid on the problem. On a somewhat related note, for those who have encountered negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities in Singapore and have no idea how to broach the topic (especially when dealing with children), you might like to read about how this woman did a fantastic job of challenging negative beliefs about ethnic minorities in the classroom.
We need, as a society, to talk about this, to come to terms with it, to figure out how we can keep making this country better than it is: more than it is. I don’t agree that Singaporean Chinese need to “shut up,” when a minority is talking about prejudice and privilege, as that Medium post suggested. Listening with an open mind and contributing to the discourse on ethnic privilege and prejudice from the perspective of the ethnic majority are not mutually exclusive.
They need to be part of the conversation, as do the minorities who experience the negative consequences of Singaporean Chinese privilege. I recently had a great conversation about this with Adrianna Tan, in which she raised a valuable point: we need to understand this as it occurs in our society’s ecosystem, instead of using middle-class white privilege as a base point for talking about Singaporean Chinese privilege.
Building on her point, I think that to understand ethnic privilege here, we need to hear from everyone: those who benefit from ethnic privilege, and those who suffer because of it. Saying that one set of perspectives isn’t valid simply because it comes from the group that benefits from Singaporean Chinese privilege is like saying that misogynistic views are irrelevant in figuring out the hows and whys of aggression directed at women. Acknowledging someone’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to agree with or condone it.
A Singapore in which we can talk openly about the dark underbelly of our multicultural society in the quest to make things better is a Singapore that I’d like to see, a Singapore vastly better than the Singapore I know. And I heartily encourage everyone, minority or otherwise, not to “shut up” about it until we’ve fixed this fault line in our society.