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Stamping out casual racism must start in our own social bubbles

How can we better address the increasing racial issues and bring Singaporeans together?

Noreen Shazreen

Probably the coolest cat lady you’ll ever meet.


Published: 14 July 2021, 1:21 PM

A few years ago, ‘racism’ was a sensitive word that was not overtly used in Singapore.

However, that same word has become more prevalent now than ever, especially with the increasing series of events involving open displays of racist behaviours. More of such cases have surfaced on social media, reflecting a growing understanding of what racism is and why it needs to be addressed.

By now, almost everyone has probably seen the video of a polytechnic lecturer making racist remarks and taunting an interracial couple. 

In the aftermath of this post going viral, many expressed their disgust and horror, and some even publicly denounced the lecturer’s actions as racist. 

As a minority in Singapore, I wasn’t surprised to see the growing number of racism incidents coming to light. Microaggressions happen all around the world, and for a long time we in Singapore have also swept such incidents under the carpet in hopes of cultivating a harmonious society. 

While certainly not everyone is a racist, one cannot deny that racism does exist in Singapore and we must sit up and take action to manage these tensions.

Here are the three steps Singaporeans can take to tackle racism more effectively.

1. Acknowledging racial discrimination in Singapore

The first step to tackling racism is acknowledging that racism and discrimination exist in society.

Although we pride ourselves on being a multicultural society, there is still an underlying attitude involving racism that shouldn’t be ignored. No matter how much we try to be silent about it, racism is a pressing societal issue in Singapore that needs to be addressed.

However, there are individuals – especially those unaware about recent events – who believe that we shouldn’t complain about Singapore’s racial issues because no country can ever be free of racism. 

Being defensive and denying the problem only shows severe neglect of decency and aggravates the situation, leading to a more divided society.

 

Denying that racism exists in Singapore will only make the problem worse. PHOTO CREDIT: SCREENSHOT FROM TWITTER

 

Although racism instances in Singapore are not as frequent as in Western countries, this does not mean that they are any less significant.

Instead of gaslighting or labelling victims of racism as sensitive, we should understand and give them a chance to speak about their experiences with racism.

It is also crucial to show allyship and condemn racist behaviours against all ethnicities. Whenever you encounter someone being verbally abused because of their race, use your voice to speak up for them whenever you can rather than to stay silent.

There are also other ways to address and fight racism, such as listening to and understanding victims’ experiences. By listening, you are showing support and understanding other ethnic groups’ perspectives. 

2. Providing Singaporeans with room for growth

Though Singapore is a multiracial and multireligious country, not everyone has the opportunity to meet people from different cultural backgrounds. 

Unfortunately, there are many people who want to learn more about other ethnic groups but are dragged down by the notion of not being ‘woke’ enough. The fear of being called out for not knowing much about other cultures makes many people reluctant to ask genuine questions.

Daraspreet Singh, 23, a freelance photographer and videographer, shared with me that he encountered a negative experience in secondary school when he was shut down for raising race-related questions.

“I once asked a Chinese friend what the purpose of the Hungry Ghost Festival is. I understand that the question might have come across as rude as I had phrased it incorrectly, even though I didn’t mean to offend him.

“I had to explain to him that I was genuinely curious and wanted to know what this practice was about. But then, he started scolding me for being disrespectful and not knowing the culture,” he said.

 

In many cases, youths are hesitant to ask questions regarding race due to their fear of coming across as rude or insensitive. PHOTO CREDIT: REAGAN TAN

 

It is important to allow room for growth and let people learn about the different ethnic groups in Singapore, rather than assuming they are ‘woke’ and fully understanding of all cultures. 

Of course, you shouldn’t be asking racist questions that will only cause people to get angry and tense up. However, asking and being open to answering genuine questions and educating each other about our cultures is essential to appreciating the diversity of races in Singapore.

3. Addressing casual racism at an everyday level

While we are quick to decry the outright racist actions being surfaced on social media, we shouldn’t forget that casual racism happens frequently in our own social bubbles.

A recent survey showed that nearly two in three Singaporeans had heard casually racist remarks, with about half of them being made by their colleagues and friends. In my experience, Singaporeans tend to let it slide when it comes to casually racist jokes being made in everyday conversations.

But how can we proudly declare that we are an ethnically diverse nation if we refuse to treat others respectfully and continue to engage in casual racism against other ethnicities? It would be hypocritical to celebrate Racial Harmony Day annually and ignore all the microaggressions that victims endure on a daily basis.

 

Casual discrimination should be addressed at an everyday level rather than ignored and allowed to fester. PHOTO CREDIT: REAGAN TAN

 

While strict laws such as the Penal Code are imposed to prevent hate speech and racial crimes, it is our collective responsibility as Singapore citizens to prevent casual racist remarks from getting a free pass.

One of the best ways to address casual racism is to address it at a friend level or in a small group setting, instead of extending it to the digital realm where individuals can add their opinions, which can worsen the situation.

When little bits of casual racism go unnoticed, they grow into the monster we are witnessing today, as shown by the polytechnic lecturer. Such blatant acts of racism would not have developed overnight if he had friends and colleagues who were willing to call him out on his casual racism in the years before.

The same could happen to our friends if we do not educate them personally.

Calling out our loved ones privately regarding casual racism is better than doing it on social media. As soon as racism cases are posted online, everyone gets heated and starts pointing fingers at one another, thereby only adding fuel to the fire.

In addition, calling people out and publicly shaming them online can also damage their reputation as they are at risk of getting ‘cancelled’ immediately, giving them little space to grow and improve.

 

The emergence of these issues provides us with the opportunity to deal with racism more seriously, which is something that has gone under the radar in the past. Apart from acknowledging that racism exists in society, we should not be afraid to call people out when we experience casual racism.

We need to preserve our identity as Singaporeans – and that means looking beyond our race and respecting the different cultures in Singapore. In order to achieve a harmonious society, we must remain committed to the fight against racism – something that falls on the shoulders of both you and I. 


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