Can Singaporeans Truly Live ‘Regardless Of Race’?

Racism in Singapore

Screengrab from Toggle.Sg

I missed the Channel NewsAsia documentary ‘Regardless Of Race’ when it aired on TV, so I watched it on instead. Hosted by Janil Puthucheary, Chairperson of, the film sought to tease out Singaporeans’ thoughts on our race relations. But I guess a TV programme will have its (obvious) limitations – people are unlikely to speak their minds if they know that what they say will go out to the ENTIRE nation. So was this ultimately an exercise in futility or will it spark some kind of meaningful conversation? And why did this air now (so coincidental!), just as we are talking about which race our elected President (and perhaps also, our next PM) should (or can) come from?

*Here’s the URL if you want to watch the programme: (just copy + paste it into your browser)

Is racism alive in Singapore? And more importantly, are YOU racist?

#1: Racism (or Racial Awareness, if you’d like) is definitely alive here in SG

Because of its obvious negative connotations, few of us would want to admit to being ‘racist’. Also, I think people define “racism” differently. If you’ve traveled, studied, or lived overseas in countries which struggle with blatant racism, you might be of the opinion that racism involves people getting (wrongfully) shot by the police, getting harassed by people on the streets (being called “CH*NK!”, “N*GGER”, etc) when you’re just minding your own business, or if you’d steer clear of certain streets or districts inhabited by people of a particular race who are likely to rob you or even worse, kill you.

If you don’t want to admit to being “racist”, would you consider yourself “racially blind” then? Do you treat everyone the same way? Are your best friends all from different races? Do you enjoy being in the company of people of different races? As an employer, would you hire anyone from any race as long as he/she is a good worker?

I’m not sure if there are people who would tell me that there’s just one race here, and that it is the “Singaporean race” and that we are well and truly “one people”. Because it’s quite clear that there are people from many different races living here in Singapore and we are all very different. And because there are many nationalities of people living and working here, it simply adds to the confusion. For instance, you can’t exactly call me racist if I don’t like certain people of the same race as me but who come from a different culture. Ethnically, we are alike, yet we have different food preferences, backgrounds, practices and maybe we won’t even understand each other when speaking what is essentially the “same” language!

The pressures of urban living on what is a very small island-nation can potentially cause conflict to arise along any (real or imagined) fault-line there may be. It could be due to nationality, class, religion, (even) sexual orientation, and of course, race. That being said, I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of the racial tensions in the 1960s. Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot. I think demonstrations and protests are a thing of the past. We simply don’t have the time, money or energy to waste. And we most certainly want to avoid jail. #kiasi

#2: Don’t blame it all on RACE

I do think that the CNA programme might have inadvertently oversimplified things. Asking people how they’d react if they notice a neighbor being mistreated? And then following up with another question about what if the neighbors are of a different race?

Well, first of all, I’d pat those people on the back for being observant (or kaypoh, whichever it is) and noticing that a neighbor is being mistreated. Often, I’m holed up in my bedroom blogging, reading or watching a Korean drama so I wouldn’t know if a neighbor was being beaten up or worse, murdered. Thankfully, it’s peaceful in my neighborhood. Perhaps my neighbors are also watching Korean dramas.

Secondly, whether I choose to react or not will depend on more factors than one about race. Is a kid being mistreated, in a way that is unreasonable? For instance, a kid being caned won’t raise a brow among neighbors but a kid being slammed against a wall might, and should actually. If an elderly person is being reprimanded (or nagged at, whichever you prefer) for leaving the cooking unattended, or heading out for a walk without notifying someone else in the family first thus worrying everyone, I think it’s possible to look the other way. But an elderly person with a bruised eye, that I’m quite sure was inflicted on purpose? Then a police officer or social worker should be brought in to probe. I find it very hard to believe that people would respond differently if their neighbors are of a different race.

#3: Racism need not be a bad thing

Google the term “racism” and you get this definition: “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

People often dwell on the negatives, but neglect the positives. For instance, if I were to ask you to point out the race you would associate with:

(1) Lawyers in Singapore. There’s one particular race which seems to churn out the most lawyers, or the “best” lawyers. People from this race are thought to be the best at speaking, putting forth arguments, etc. Also, they are pretty good moneychangers. You know who I’m talking about?

(2) Making the best sambal? Or the best prata? Or the best Singapore chili crab?

(3) Alternative medicine, e.g. acupuncture?

I do think that Malay housewives are better at cooking than Chinese housewives (I like Malay food stalls more than Chinese cai fan stalls too!). And I’d view a Chinese prata stall with more than a bit of suspicion, and quickly pick the ones manned by Indians. However, I’d only allow a Chinese sinseh to prick me with acupuncture needles, and not a Malay or Indian doctor, and definitely not a Eurasian doctor. I’m judging them only by the color of their skin, and not their qualifications per se. But can you blame me?

I DO think that some races are better at certain things, and I think that’s great! We know who’s good at what (or we assume that what we think is right), and we (perhaps) spend our money wisely. Yes, I’ll happily be called racist for pooh-poohing the efforts of a Chinese man selling prata. But if someone other than a Chinese person is selling me char kway teow, carrot cake or hokkien mee, I’m not buying. #UnlessHeReceivedAMichelinStar #NeverSayNever


We won’t reach that utopic state of having eradicated “racism” in Singapore. But we can all put in a bit more effort to avoid alienating people of other races in our schools, offices, neighborhoods, etc. We can work at not making racist jokes and also, omitting unflattering terms from our vocabulary. But thinking that we can become racially blind is simply wishful thinking. As an Indian teacher in JC told my class, there is “veiled racism” in Singapore. It exists all the time, except when you’re being interviewed for national TV…

2 thoughts on “Can Singaporeans Truly Live ‘Regardless Of Race’?

  1. Agree with you on so many things! A friend of mine suggested that perhaps we are still a very young culture, and in a few generations with more inter racial marriages, we might be less aware of race?

    • We’ll always be aware of race, simply because it’s impossible to avoid noticing. From the color of our skin to the length of our eyelashes, to the forms we have to fill in which will ask for our race… Also, we cannot expect everyone to marry someone outside of their race. So race related issues are here to stay, perhaps forever, but I don’t see it as a bad thing. 🙂

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