Is Racism Prevalent in Singapore?

Hello! Can you believe we are reaching the end of 2020? 😦 This is a year that no one expects you to achieve anything, so I’d believe that it’s okay that SWE has been left dormant for longer than expected. (I know I kind of said that I’d be posting more of my reflections from the Parliamentary proceedings in Singapore, but that has been taking more time as my thoughts evolve) So this post has been sitting in my drafts since the furore over opposition party MP Raeesah Khan’s statements that were deemed to promote enmity between different groups and being in contempt of court. One positive effect of this episode, which started when police reports were lodged against these comments made in the past, was that the issue of racism and race relations were once again brought to the fore. This is the impetus for this post here.

As a member of the Chinese majority, I realised that I have not seriously considered this issue of racism and race relations until recent videos and articles addressing racism in everyday life surfaced on my social media/news feed (this one on youths’ take on racism in everyday scenarios is a great watch). Whilst these provided triggers to examine my own beliefs, I also found myself asking the question of whether racism is prevalent in Singapore. This question is important to me because it concerns social justice, a core value I hold.

The question “Is racism prevalent in Singapore?” requires a breaking down and contextualisation of at least 2 terms, lest the answer to this question be dismissed on grounds of cultural appropriation of the issues faced by Western societies. Singapore is indeed quite different from countries like the US, and there is a need to understand how this uniqueness affects a particular social phenomenon- in this case, racism.

Firstly, I believe that instances of overt racism involving aggression and open discrimination are rare in Singapore because there are laws sanctioning this like the Sedition Act. Further, the general populace has been effectively shaped to reject overt racism through explicit state discourse on the importance of racial harmony and social cohesion for the survival of the nation. The ‘racism’ that I am referring to in the question is therefore covert racism, which is racial discrimination that is subtle; private; behind the scenes; or even seemingly benign and socially justified (Coates, 2011; Chew, Young & Tan, 2019). An example is the recent incident where a promoter was told to remove her hijab to abide by ‘professional standards’, which cast light onto the implicit perceptions of women wearing a hijab. I wonder what the reactions will be (if any) if it was a lady wearing a bindi, a string of prayer beads or a cross necklace. Another illustration of racism that is subtle and seemingly benign is the jokes about different races that almost every Singapore-bred young persons can recount.
Here I want to give a brief mention of the damaging effects of covert racism, just in case some may be thinking that it isn’t ‘as bad’ as outright racism (Utsey, Hook & Stanard, 2008):
– Health disparities
– Lack of participation in community networks
– Chronic race-related stress
For a compilation of anecdotal ‘evidence’ on the effects of covert racism and how it is experienced by minority groups in Singapore, you can take a look at the Minority Voices IG page.

Secondly, the termprevalence’ is of importance because it lends weight to the significance of the issue. Of course, any racism is not to be tolerated even if it is confined to a small minority, but for it to gain traction as an important social issue, establishing the prevalence of racism is key. Anyone seeking to undermine the significance of the issue would also find it harder to support the assertion that racism is not really a ‘big issue’ to be prioritized in Singapore, especially with other ‘bread-and-butter issues’. Typically, to provide evidence for something involves various different kinds of data. With understanding about the prevalence of something, quantitative data that can allow for generalization to the population in question would be preferred.

Having established this, I proceeded on to a literature review to throw some light on the extent of covert racism in Singapore. I’d first qualify that this isn’t an exhaustive literature review on racism in Singapore, but a brief one to answer my question of whether racism is prevalent in Singapore.

1. Racism in mundane daily encounters– qualitative studies (Lee et al, 2004; Velayutham, 2007, 2017; ): By starting with the everyday experiences of minorities, I hope to highlight a common conclusion that these cited research studies done in Singapore have- covert racism in the form of stereotyping, interpersonal discrimination and verbal abuse is an ‘ordinary’ thing for minority groups.
– Lee & colleagues (2004) did a rather extensive mixed methods research in 6 neighborhood primary schools to study interactions between children of different races in Singapore. This included a questionnaire asking children about their friends and observations of children during their ‘free’ pockets of time in common-use areas like the canteen. There was a clear same-race preference in both the survey findings and observations: schoolchildren were inclined to group themselves by race, but also gender and educational level. This may seem normal and there were other observations of mixed-race friendships where children bonded over common activities. However, what was more heartbreaking to read were the vignettes of brutal name-calling and exclusion based on skin colour. This occurred in everyday school life for some children 😢

– Velayutham (2007, 2017) takes on the issue of what he calls ‘everyday racism’ more explicitly through his research involving racist incidents that happened over the Internet and social media, and in-depth interviews with Singaporean Chinese, Indians and Malays. Findings revealed how racism is prevalent in daily life- in workplaces, schools, shops, public transport. It is a tangible experience for those experiencing racial discrimination and stereotyping. Why? Because it involves important aspects of their identity- skin colour, appearance, personality, peer acceptance; and has significant practical consequences in their employment/promotion opportunities or ease at getting her leave approved by her employer for one respondent.

The above represent qualitative studies which by nature examine a phenomenon in an in-depth manner, but with a small sample which would not be representative of the population. While multiple qualitative studies on the same research topic can add up to form a more holistic picture, there is a lack of studies at present. Quantitative data on racism in Singapore is thus important.

2. Racism reflected in popular perceptions– The nation-wide survey IPS- Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony is hence a valuable contribution to understanding covert racism. Two waves of the survey has been done in 2013 and 2018 and you can also access the findings from the references (Mathews, 2014; Mathews, Lim & Selvarajan, 2019). The surveys used 10 indicators to understand the state of racial and religious harmony, which is beyond the scope of this article. I will be zooming in on the indicators of perceived discrimination and social exclusion.
– Survey findings seemed to highlight that a positive overall picture. Inter-racial and religious trust levels was high and increased from 2013, and general perceptions of racial and religious harmony was moderate or better.
– However, somewhat tellingly, the Chinese were more inclined to perceive the level of racial and religious harmony very positively compared to the other races.

From the 2018 survey:
– Across public spaces (transport, shopping, eating or enjoying leisurely activities), there was a higher frequency of minority races reporting discrimination than the Chinese. The percentage of Malays and Indians who perceived discrimination often, very often or always was reported to be low (6-8%). Comparing those who sometimes perceived discrimination, it was 6-8% for the Chinese compared to 21-23% for the Malays and Indians. This means more than 1 in 5 Malays and Indians perceiving discrimination in their everyday lives, and not as isolated incidents.
– Workplace discrimination is worse, where around 1 in 3 Malays and Indians perceived at work sometimes, often, or very often or always.
– At least 1 in 5 respondents felt that Malays and Indians had to work harder, or much harder than the Chinese to have a decent life in Singapore.
– Around 1 in 3 felt that the Malays and Indians had to work harder or much harder than someone of another race to reach top positions in their workplaces.
There could be different possible explanations for these findings. but it would be safe to conclude that racism is a felt reality for a significant proportion of Singaporeans. This includes the Chinese, but to a lower extent.

What was very troubling and heartbreaking for me was to imagine these vignettes and then to read that most of the children and interview respondents in the qualitative studies tended to take it as a normal occurrence. The quantitative findings support that these observations of covert racism are not sparse incidents but present in the social norms of Singapore.

How is it that racist words and actions are taken to be normal? And yet I can relate to the normalcy of it, as racial stereotypes easily roll off tongues at home and I can recall how I happily laughed along at a racist joke as a child. In all these situations, there was certainly no malice whatsoever. But this mini-research over the past few months has made me realise that a lot of what I feel and see as okay, is not okay if I critically examine how such everyday practices can contribute to continued racism in our social norms. This article and the process of going through different sources about racism represents my attempt to understand this issue that fellow Singaporeans face. I believe that this is the first step that those with Chinese privilege can do, to be aware of this privilege and how it came to be. Next would be the continuing process of uniting together to fight racism in our daily spheres of life- which could involve sensitivity in words and actions, calling out racism (however ‘subtle’) and unlearning certain stereotypes through questioning how we came to see them as ‘truths’.

There is really nowhere I’d want to make my permanent home than Singapore: daydreaming of my family making friends with neighbours from different races/religions and exchanging yummy snacks (or gardening tips) in my future BTO flat, seeing children from various backgrounds grow up together in the same neighborhood, and on good sunny days, musing that this diversity celebrated must be a bit like how heaven would be. I believe this is something most Singaporeans take pride in too, and so we must rally in the task remaining.

Chew, P. K. H., Young, J. L., & Tan, G. P. K. (2019). Racism and the Pinkerton syndrome in Singapore: effects of race on hiring decisions. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 13, e16. doi:10.1017/prp.2019.9
Coates, R. D., & Morrison, J. (2011). Covert Racism : Theories, Institutions, and Experiences. Leiden, UNITED STATES: BRILL.
Ganapathy Narayanan & Lian Kwen Fee (2016) Race, reintegration, and social capital in Singapore, International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 40:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/01924036.2015.1054113
Mathews, M. 2014. Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony: An Study. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies. Retrieved from:
Mathews, M., Lim, L., Selvarajan, S. (2019). Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony: Comparing Results from 2018 and 2013. IPS Working Papers, 35. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies
Utsey, S. O., Giesbrecht, N., Hook, J., & Stanard, P. M. (2008). Cultural, sociofamilial, and psychological resources that inhibit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stressJournal of Counseling Psychology, 55(1), 49.
Velaututham, S. (2007). Proceedings of the Everyday Multiculturalism Conference of
the CRSI – 28-29 Sept. 2006. Australia: Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie University. Retrieved from:
Velayutham, S. (2017). Races without Racism?: Everyday race relations in Singapore. Identities,24(4), 455-473.

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