Multiculturalism: “Not That Kind of Indian”
The painful realities of everyday racism in Singapore
On the occasion of our nation’s 54th birthday, we gather different four different young Singaporeans to reflect on one of Singapore’s biggest, and most essential, ideas – a harmonious, multiracial, multicultural society. Here, an Indian woman reveals the tumultuous emotional aftermath of the Preetipls vs ePay saga, what everyday racism looks like, and the insidious culture of internalised fear it breeds.
Brownface is one racist incident. Racism is everyday. When I was 6, I was called “apu neh neh” every day. I got bullied incessantly by this boy named Damien and I came home crying all the time. I met him years later, when I was in secondary school and I reminded him of it. While I carried these memories with me for life, he laughed it off with, “Oh, is it? Lol can’t rmb.”
Regularly, people speak in Mandarin during meetings. You might think that this is no big deal and can be solved with me just asking a question. However, what this means is that I have to interrupt. I have to raise my voice over that of my superiors or clients to say, “What does that mean?” That’s awkwardness and discomfort, and that burden is on no one but me.
Very often, a Chinese person would come back from a holiday and another Chinese person would say “Eee, you so chaota”. That phrase gives me a visceral pit in my stomach. The same pit I’ve gotten all through my career each time a colleague groans about having to do an ad in all four languages or refuses to have a minority lead in a film because the majority “can’t relate”.
Then there are all those times people imitate Tamil with nonsensical gibberish to get everyone laughing. Seeing something like that on HardwareZone – that’s expected, it’s roll-eye stupid. When it happens in a professional or, worse, friendly setting, that’s more like a punch in the gut.
As a Chinese person in Singapore, you hardly have to feel that you’re Chinese – no one puts you in that position. As an Indian person in Singapore, I am constantly made aware of my Indian-ness. As an Indian Singaporean, I’m an outsider.
From witnessing the double standard treatment of Havas vs Preetipls and Subhas Nair, to watching the Ministry of Home Affairs deem Preeti and Subhas’ (very clever) apology “not good enough”, then seeing the two of them forced into submission and made to apologise even though they really really should not have had to – this entire week has surfaced all these feelings. Minorities have to know their place.
Racism is not defined by feelings. (But feelings matter.)
Lesson time: racism is about objective realities that harm and disadvantage specific groups of people, for reasons as arbitrary as the colour of their skin or assumptions made about their work ethic and values.
There are many articles out there, especially those that have come out in recent times, with eloquent, clear explanations for why racism is about more than hurt feelings. Racism is about power structures and inequalities. Racism is about the Little India riots being characterised as a problem associated to Indian drunkenness, when in reality, it is better explained as a result of our horrible treatment of migrant workers. Racism is Indian drunkenness as a stereotype that denies people jobs (which they already struggle to get because “Mandarin speakers preferred”).
What frustrates me, however, is that on top of all this we are almost never allowed to talk about the emotional hurt that racism causes. There is a common derision of emotion when you (an Indian person) discuss racism. “Offence is so subjective; it isn’t a valid reason for stating something is racist,” for example. Or the much simpler, “Aiya, everyone gets too easily offended these days”.
When a minority person tries to educate Chinese people about racism, there is always an added pressure to keep your arguments objective, to list facts, laws and proof. To not speak about (or even apologise for) your emotions. Because it’s “just” a matter of feeling. And feelings – your feelings – don’t count.
But let’s be clear, by writing off hurt feelings, we take responsibility away from the offenders (who are just trying to be funny) and put it on the offended (who need to be less sensitive).
Racism is not defined by feelings. But it really does hurt.
How to Educate on Racism: “E for Effort”
When you educate someone about racism, you’re not complaining – as much as someone else will try to convince you otherwise. It’s painful to recount memories of racism for the purpose of convincing a Chinese person that, yes, just because something doesn’t obviously exist for them, it doesn’t mean that that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Whenever I do this, it’s heavy and it’s painful – it feels like acid rising up my throat or an open wound that I’m just prodding at with a rusty nail again and again.
Which is why what happened with the Singapore Kindness Movement over the weekend was basically a prime example of privilege. Orchestrated by one Edwin Yeo, who released an article that trivialised minority perspectives as an attempt to be more ang moh and play identity politics, basically.
While the rest of the Brownface series of events made me really tired, this infuriated me because it was coming from a government body (let me clarify, I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry because of their purpose and influence).
And then, after many minority people tirelessly educated and explained and purged and picked at scars, it was eventually revealed that it was all a stunt. For Edwin Yeo and his team, this was a fun little social experiment. For every minority out there fighting him, this was pure pain. It was a nationwide racist joke made with classic Chinese impunity. Proving that in Singapore, racism is truly status quo.
This is Home… Truly
I think more than the E-Pay ad, one advertisement that truly offended me over the years was Starhub’s #RegardlessofColour campaign. And particularly, its final line, “What the world dreams of, we are blessed to call home”. Because it’s not only phony, it encourages a very ill-informed sense of comfort in a very broken place.
If this entire Brownface incident has taught me anything, it’s this: in Singapore, we might talk about racial harmony, but what Singapore understands as racial harmony is really an acceptance of casual racism. Casual racism is framed as inevitable, as natural, a small price to pay for multiculturalism. “If everyone took offence, we wouldn’t get to where we are today” – but should we actually be proud of where we are today?
Here’s the problem with the term “casual racism” – it suggests that it’s actually chill, unproblematic, no biggie, something that doesn’t need to be addressed or fixed. What casual racism really means is normalised racism; hateful gestures performed at the expense of minorities without a second thought, and subsequent punishment of the ones who call it out.
With normalisation comes the worst feeling – internalised fear. An emotion that is best exemplified in the way many minorities in the older generation speak. This week has shown that more young people are willing to be vocal about racism in Singapore, but older people in my community, on the other hand, have counselled me not to voice my thoughts on this issue. They say:
“Racism has always existed in Singapore. As Indian people, we just have to accept it. If you fight it, they will make your life very difficult.”
“Your job depends on a Chinese person liking you. You have to show them you’re not that kind of Indian.”
“You have a good life, don’t ruin it.”
These mindsets reflect a deep-seated fear. The fact that this fear exists should scare you, too. Because it proves that everyone who thinks that racism has only become an issue with this generation – thanks to PC culture, “western ideologies”, libtards, etc – is wrong. Racism has always been an issue; Singapore just successfully scared the generation before ours into not speaking about it.
It’s good to see people speaking out, but to be honest, I’m still scared.
I’m still too scared to post this under my real name, because my parents think it’ll place my job and future job opportunities in jeopardy. I’m too scared to reveal the specifics of many other racist incidents I’ve experienced (all of which were worse than being called “apu neh neh”), because I’m afraid these details would allow specific perpetrators to self-identify – which would make things even more difficult for me, for calling them out. And out of all the emotions I felt this week, fear is the worst. The consequences Preeti and Subhas faced have only served to entrench this fear.
Where do we go from here? We’ve definitely seen many allies emerge and stand by minorities and that’s very heartening. However, this incident has also armed many more people with tools to defend racism – one of the most dangerous being the terms “distasteful” and “offensive”. This is language that has been used in an official capacity to protect racists and punish those who call it out. These terms have now become a convenient shared language for those who are comfortable with the status quo in their efforts to keep things as they are.
If there’s anything anyone can do to really get us going in the right direction, it’s to stop parroting the dominant voices and pay attention to those who experience racism firsthand. Many, many people have worked hard to educate – there’s no lack of education out there – it’s now time for everyone else to listen.
This essay is part of a series on multiculturalism in Singapore.
First-Person is a narrative column by JUNK, exploring the real lives and perspectives of people in (or influenced by) Southeast Asia. Have something to add to this conversation? Email us your thoughts at [email protected]