ON a recent trip to Singapore, I was drawn into a conversation about racism and social inequality in a country which has long touted its cohesive multiculturalism and merit-based system of governance as a better alternative to its neighbour, Malaysia.
The after-dinner debate was sparked off by the recent Facebook ban of a locally-produced rap video showing an ethnic Indian YouTube star railing against a “racist” advert in which the skin of an ethnic Chinese actor was darkened to make him look Indian.
In the video, comedian Preeti Nair delivered an expletive-ridden rap with her brother, Subhas, against the Chinese majority in an apparent response to the advert. Days after it went viral, a police report was lodged against the “offensive” video and authorities launched an investigation.
The government-owned media group behind the advert, which attracted backlash for being culturally insensitive, has apologised and removed it.
The incident has sparked discussions on social media about the fragility of Singapore’s multiethnic relations, and raised questions on the government’s iron-fisted approach in shutting down most public discussions on racial prejudice and cultural insensitivity.
Singapore has always prided itself on being a shining star in the region when it comes to maintaining a harmonious multiethnic society, but resentment appears to have always been simmering under the surface, if online commentaries by members of the ethnic minority are to be taken as representative of the community’s sentiments.
But how is it that this resentment has remained off-the-radar, with the exception of outbursts and incidents like the rap video?
“Each time someone speaks up, the government clamps down, saying such talk will only incite hatred and unrest,” said Rudy, a Singaporean with Indonesian ancestry.
“So nobody dares to speak up, and nobody on the outside sees the racism.
“I guess when you don’t see it, it ain’t there,” he told me over a hearty meal of nasi padang.
Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority make up more than 75% of the population, while Malays and Indians make up slightly more than 20% collectively.
As a Malaysian, I had to admit that I would never have associated the term “racism” with the Singapore government, which had always served as a sharp contrast to our painfully-racist policies.
Malaysian culture and society has for so long been dominated by racial and ethnic preoccupations that I have come to identify racism only if it existed within government policy as was, and in many instances still is, the case in Malaysia.
Racism is hard to ignore and impossible to dismiss in Malaysia, but for the ethnic minorities of Singapore, their grouses have always been easily dismissed as baseless and overly-dramatic.
Yoga, a 30-year-old Singaporean, told me that while he has never felt discriminated against in terms of opportunities, he has had to live with the racial insensitivity of the majority race all his life.
He claimed to have lost count of how many of his Indian and Malay friends have been told they are not welcomed as tenants purely because of the colour of their skin, and he strongly suspects he’s also lost out on job opportunities because of racial prejudice.
It is common to hear Chinese colleagues say things like “You drink like an Indian” or make jokes about other races, he said. Everyone often laughs it off even if it might make some uncomfortable, he said.
“Singapore’s constitution guarantees that we are all equal, when it comes to race. I have the same rights as my Chinese and Malay brothers,” he admitted with a measure of pride, while we were having a nightcap in the island’s popular Boat Quay area.
“But on the ground, it’s different. There is a strong sense that the Chinese feel they are better than the Malays and Indians.”
For many decades, Malaysia’s minority groups developed a sort of coping mechanism for the institutionalised racism which has defined our politics and governance from the time of independence – we have simply ignored it.
But while Malaysia’s minorities have grown thick skins, persistent outrage against racial discrimination over the years has helped our society slowly but surely accept the fact that the racial ways of the past can no longer be sustainable.
In other words, countering racial prejudice can only start to take place when one accepts it’s a problem.
Singapore does many things right and the fact that it was founded on the basis of equality means it already has a headstart in the road to becoming a model multicultural nation.
But perhaps now is the time for those difficult and uncomfortable discussions about insensitivity and minority rights to start taking place in its public space.
Not many in the republic are hopeful that those discussions will take place anytime soon, though.
“It’s hard to talk about the ways Singapore’s minority feel disenfranchised, because on paper, we really have nothing to demand,” Rudy admitted.
“But racism and prejudice is no less harmful simply because it isn’t institutionalised.
“Not being able to see it from the outside doesn’t mean everything is all right.”