When I met UK Member of European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Hannan in 2019, he curiously inquired about Chinese Privilege in Singapore.
I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that a UK MEP would be interested in the racial relations of a small city-state. But what I told him was that “Chinese Privilege” is mostly a hackneyed importation of “White-Privilege”-style social justice arguments from the West, propounded by a minority group of young radical Lefty activists that spent a little too much time reading Marx when they should be reading Hayek instead.
I’ve followed discussions on Singapore’s “Chinese Privilege” closely for several years now. I still think the notion of Chinese Privilege is one that is prevalent mostly in the minds of a younger minority.
Yet, I’ve slowly observed the nascent usage of the term that once exclusively existed in the marginal corners of Facebook slowly trickling into sociopolitical discourse.
The latest wave of Chinese-Privilege-style posts follows in the wake of the George Floyd riots in the U.S. Although this was an American media story, it has prompted no shortage of local activists, public commentators and social media influencers coming out the woodwork with public condemnations of racism and their own social commentary of racism in the Singaporean context.
I try to read many of these with an open mind. But in my years of following the “Chinese Privilege” discourse, I’ve given up on finding an original and persuasive argument. It wasn’t any different this time round.
What I do find, when I decide to sieve through social media posts, are emotionally-charged anecdotes of racism. Alfian Sa’at — arguably the loudest cheerleader of the Chinese Privilege brigade — is particularly effective at recycling these stories. So when I saw him pummeling the emotional console in another one of his viral Facebook posts this week, I rolled my eyes. Then I cringed, because he had to reach as far back to an incident in 2016 to say something relevant in order to capitalise on the ongoing media hype.
What’s wrong with “Chinese Privilege”?
The problem I have with the Chinese Privilege ideology is not because I think race doesn’t affect a person’s lived experiences, or that racism doesn’t exist in Singapore. Of course they do, on both counts.
Rather, the issue I take is that the rhetorical volume of race activists when they make their grand proclamations of widespread systemic racism does not accurately reflect the historical facts and reality of racial relations in Singapore.
Consider Sangeetha Thanapal, a prominent voice in the Chinese Privilege brigade (she insists on intellectual property ownership for “innovating” the term “Chinese Privilege”) who loudly proclaimed that “Singapore is a terribly racist country” before diving into a series of wild conspiracy claims of Indian construction workers being killed due to “lax labour safety laws” and buried underneath skyscrapers.
Or take for example journalist Kirsten Han (whose activism on the death penalty I have much respect for) who goes so far as to say in her recent blog post that “if we’re still at the level of debating whether systemic racism exists in Singapore, then we’re contributing to the problem”.
No end of scattered blog posts with incendiary titles like “To My Dear Fellow Singaporean Chinese: Shut Up When a Minority is Talking About Race” will turn up if you Google “Chinese Privilege”. All to remind us how deeply racist, and Chinese-chauvinistic Singapore is.
Where does Singapore stand on racial relations in the world?
No matter what you believe about racism in Singapore, it’s indisputable that we’re doing much better relative to the rest of the world.
These inconvenient facts are widely substantiated in empirical studies that have attempted to measure “racial discrimination” across countries. Yet they are consistently ignored or downplayed by the Chinese Privilege crowd.
According to the Global Creativity Index 2015, Singapore ranks 6th in highest number of natives when questioned on “how nations stack up on the openness to and acceptance of racial and ethnic minorities”.
In the Legatum Prosperity Index of 2015, Singapore ranks at number 1 (yes, one) in the category of “tolerance of ethnic minorities”, while Egypt comes out last.
In a 2016 study by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, there is an overwhelming consensus of Singaporeans that see multiculturalism as an ideal; 91% stated that they enjoyed social cohesion among a diverse ethnic matrix; 96% respected people from all races; 95% held the view that all races are equal and 96% that people of all races should be treated equally.
This is the perspective that is sorely absent in the rhetoric of the race activists when they get carried away with their racial justice crusade.
This reality didn’t come about by chance. Why are none of the achievements of Singapore’s racial relations ever celebrated, mentioned or appreciated by local race activists?
If the goal is to cherry-pick and pinpoint isolated instances of explicit or casual racism, and then proceed to extrapolate that to extravagant claims of widespread systemic racism, you can easily achieve that in any community of a thousand people — let alone a city-state of 5 million people.
Unfortunately, that is the kind of partisan activist hackery that passes for a “productive conversation on race” these days, rather than one that constructively and genuinely advances discussions around racial relations.
Malay-Muslim discrimination in the Army
There are a few often cited policy examples that supposedly “proves” systemic racism and Chinese Privilege in Singapore. The most popularly mentioned is racial discrimination against Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces.
Yet, racial discrimination in the armed forces doesn’t apply to other minority groups in the army, most notably Indian minorities. Therefore, “Chinese Privilege”, by definition, cannot be true. At best, it is “Chinese, plus sometimes Indian and other minority groups Privilege”. Not the most snazzy term to embark on a racial justice crusade with.
But if the “Chinese Privilege” ideology were true, then all other non-Chinese races in the army would face similar racial discrimination. It is not, and already we find the first gaping hole in the Chinese Privilege ideology.
The standard PAP justification for the policy is that Singapore, being situated next to several Muslim-majority nations, would put Malay-Muslim Singaporean soldiers in a prickly situation during military deployment.
I’m not a geopolitical analyst. But even the most hardened sceptic of the PAP’s explanation here must concede that there is some credence to this policy given how closely synonymous the Malay race and Muslim religion is (something like 99.6% of Singaporean Malays are also religious Muslims).
This doesn’t mean we should ignore the disadvantages of Malay men in the army. What it does mean however, is that geopolitical realities — namely Singapore’s diplomacy within the ASEAN bloc — are extremely complex and deserve serious study.
Yet, race activists conveniently gloss over these complexities while forcefully sweeping the Armed Forces policy under the rubric of “Chinese privilege” and systemic racism.
The Ethnic Integration Policy
Another prominently mentioned policy as “evidence” of institutional racism is the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), which mandates racial quotas in public housing where the majority of Singaporeans live. According to its critics, the EIP was aimed to reduce ethnic clustering so as to reduce the political clout of racial minority groups and the potential emergence of a pro-Malay political party.
This is a truly incredible argument. You would think that the EIP was damning evidence that policymakers were intentionally trying to facilitate racial interaction and social cohesion. After all, the PAP’s rhetoric of racial harmony and equality is something heavily perpetuated through our education system, our politics, and all manners of political messaging.
Are we supposed to believe that the PAP has intentionally plotted to scatter racial minorities throughout public housing, all in pursuit of a grand scheme to subjugate minority groups and create a Chinese racial majority in every neighbourhood?
If the objective was to suppress racial minorities, why was the group representation constituency (GRC) system modified in 1988 to mandate minority representation? Why was the Presidency reserved in 2017 for a Malay candidate?
Why has the Singapore government explicitly gone out of the way multiple times to recognize the Malayan origins of Singapore? For instance, written into the Singapore Constitution is the infamous Article 152 “Minorities and special position of Malays”, which explicitly states that Singaporean Malays possess a privileged status and protection above the other races:
(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.
(2) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognize the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.
Does Alfian and his peers wish the EIP be abolished, so Chinese, Malays, Indians and other minority groups could accordingly cluster into their own racial enclaves? Because that seems to me like a recipe for social disaster. Racism exists, and to that end, it is best combated via social contact and exposure, not by increasing isolation.
The removal of the EIP would move Singapore’s racial relations in the philosophical direction that the most hardened racists among us would prefer—the segregation of people based on the colour of their skin.
Moreover, even if both GRCs and the EIP were abolished, enabling racial minorities to form concentrated racial communities, there is no reason to believe that racial minorities would possess some semblance of “political hegemony” — which is what critics suggest they lack.
An electoral parliamentary system would not magically improve the political bargaining power of racial minorities. If anything, the problem here lies in the nature of democracy where the rule is commanded by the tyranny of the majority. As the Minister for Law K. Shanmugam said here:
After separation from Malaysia, Chinese groups pressured the Government to make Mandarin the main language, he recalled. Mr Lee resisted, telling them that he would never allow the Chinese majority to lord it over the minorities in Singapore.
It is nothing else but strict constitutional rules and an independent judiciary that will protect all manner of minorities from majoritarianism.
Yet, race activists have somehow managed to manufacture a twisted interpretation of the EIP to fit their racist narrative.
A brief history of Singapore policy on racial relations
I don’t deny that certain policies such as the SAP schools have benefited the Chinese majority. But the reverse is also true. The Singapore government has on many occasions taken measures to ensure racial privilege for minorities, to the extent of large discomfort for opponents of affirmative action.
Our Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system has a racial diversity quota to ensure minority representation in Parliament, and the last presidency was controversially reserved for a Malay candidate. The Presidential Council for Minority Rights was set up as a government body to safeguard minority interests by scrutinising laws.
The Malay-Muslim community enjoys their own fully tax-funded state courts. Two government institutions, the Council for the Development of Malay-Muslim Children (MENDAKI) and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), are dedicated to assisting Malays through tuition subsidies at the tertiary education level.
In From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew spoke about the early PAP leaders’ reluctance to initially organising these welfare groups along racial lines as this went against their race-blind meritocratic ideals. PAP pioneer and Singapore’s first Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam objected to it, seeing it as “backsliding” from Singapore’s multiculturalist “ideals of a colour-blind policy”. These self-help groups were so successful it was eventually extended to the Indian, Eurasian and Chinese groups, as I have wrote elsewhere.
The theme of racial equality is consistently reflected in the Singapore National Pledge and the annual Racial Harmony Day celebration in public schools. Thanks to the previously mentioned EIP, racial quotas are enforced in the public housing system, ensuring that the socioeconomic problems of any given racial group is not clustered and isolated from general society.
Strange policies for an allegedly racist government.
Students of Singapore’s history will also be aware of the country’s past conflicts between the Chinese high schools and universities of the day and the early days of the PAP. In the 1970’s, the Chinese daily newspapers Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau saw dozens of their staff arrested under the Internal Security Act because they “reacted brashly to the prime minister’s warning that it should not play up Chinese language issues.”
In sum, if activists can point to one instance of discriminatory government policy to support their warped ideology, there are several more that blatantly contradicts it.
An elephant occupies the room, but race activists only notice the furniture.
This doesn’t mean that policies that disadvantage minorities are in any way excusable. What it does mean is that the Chinese Privilege ideology rests on an intellectually bankrupt foundation.
A well-meaning friend told me that even if the ideology was exaggerated, racism does after all exist. To that end, raising sensitivity and inoculating more people against racism would be a net benefit.
The problem with that train of thought is that it ignores the long-term harms and costs of perpetuating overblown claims on how the government handles race issues.
The younger generation (millennials and Gen-Z) are being sold a patently false narrative that the political scales in Singapore are tipped against racial minorities, without any appreciation for the thorny history of Singapore’s development.
The continued perpetuation of these overblown claims of “institutional racism” threatens to undermine the strong fabric of racial relations that Singapore currently enjoys. As the adage goes, repeat a lie long enough and it becomes true.
If you can’t appreciate the progress that Singapore has made, I invite you to observe Malaysian or Indonesian politics, and see how explicitly politics are formed along racial lines. In fact, being a politician in these countries necessarily means that you would have to take a public stance on racial issues.
Was it an international conspiracy that Singapore’s Prime Minister won the World Statesman Award in 2019, an award that recognises a country’s achievements for facilitating the peaceful coexistence between different cultures (especially in one like Singapore with high religious diversity?)?
That is taboo in Singapore politics, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think that political democracy is a productive way to address society’s problems to begin with, but at least in Singapore, attention in political discourse is directed at addressing more substantive issues, and not have to be saddled with partisan, racial bullshit.
Nuance is desperately lacking in Singapore’s racial discourse. Racism exists in Singapore, and it’s a good idea to call it out when we witness it. But recognizing the evils of racial discrimination also means calling out the overblown demagoguery of many Chinese Privilege activists. The two are not mutually exclusive.