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We have Racist Spectacles, but where is the national reckoning?

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
6 min read

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Covid-19 update

We're almost at the end of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert). On Monday we'll be transitioning to the new category of Phase 3 (Heightened Alert), allowing us to gather in groups of five. Those of us who miss dining in, live performances, and going to the gym are going to have to wait until 21 June.

Vaccinations are also open for Singaporeans aged 12–39! I'm excited because I've already got my slot. Register for vaccination here.


When will Singapore's national reckoning with racism come?

I want to dedicate most of this week's issue to this subject, and amplify the voices of minorities.

Dave Parkash was just out with his girlfriend when they were confronted by an older Chinese man who started berating them about interracial couples and characterising Indian men as "preying" on Chinese women. He was later identified as Tan Boon Lee, a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Engineering. He's since been suspended, and the police are investigating the incident. He has previous form, too: a former student shared an experience of being the only Muslim student in class when Tan started going on an Islamophobic rant. Ngee Ann Poly says they're looking into the incident, and won't hesitate to take disciplinary action, including termination, if necessary.

Meanwhile, the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao published a very disappointing editorial blaming the recent spate of racist incidents on the pandemic, social media, and... Critical Race Theory.

Another video that went around this past week was this one of a Chinese woman loudly banging on a gong to disrupt her Hindu neighbour's prayer ritual. Kokila Annamalai wrote a heart-wrenching Facebook post about how hurtful this was to see:

If I had to put my finger on one reason, though, I think it would be this - I can see her face in the video. I can see the unmasked hatred, the mocking expression, the contempt, the disgust, the spite, the vindictiveness. In her face, I see how she planned this, how all this anger has been festering in her, how she got her prop ready and took time out of her day to disrupt this family's sacred practice, and let them know just how much she detests them and their practices.
In her face, I see all the "apuneneh"s and "keling-kia"s that children screamed in our faces, all the impatient Chinese shop owners who "tsk" at us, who bark "what you want?" at us, I see every time my friends and I have been made to feel like pests, I see the woman who spat at me and my lover on a train, I see the source of the shame I know we have all felt about the intimate, beautiful things our families, cultures and lands have given us - our coconut oil, our pottu, our incense, our kuzhambus (or curries, to you), the way our tongues roll, our dark skin, the dance numbers in our films, our deities, our bells.

The police are also investigating this incident.


The following is a contribution from a reader of We, The Citizens.

The Racist Spectacle

I’d like to talk about the Racist Spectacle. It’s what people mean when they say that racism in Singapore is becoming a very dire situation. Between the video of the Chinese man accusing Indian men of preying on Chinese women in interracial relationships and the video of the Chinese woman harassing a Hindu family during their prayers, it certainly feels that way.

We know that almost everybody has access to a camera and the Internet these days. That makes it incredibly easy to broadcast these acts of psychic violence. It happens every few months. Somebody from a privileged community is caught denigrating another group. The footage is circulated. Outrage occurs. The establishment weighs in with a call for calm and a reiteration of the importance of racial harmony. The news cycle moves on and we wait for the next time this happens.

The Racist Spectacle is easy to dismiss. They are always kitschy, over the top. The perpetrators say things that nobody would dare to in polite company. Their voices are too loud, their tactics are too gauche. How easy for a reasonable person to say, “Oh that is not me! What a horrible person.” I’ve seen this sentiment on social media from people who I know hold backwards and racist views about minorities in this country. The same person who decries Tan Boon Lee is also someone who avoids sitting next to an Indian person because they “always smell like curry”. Someone reposting the video of the racist lady interrupting the Hindu family’s prayers also believes that Muslims are “taking it too far” with demanding Halal dietary accommodations at work events. Someone mocking Beow Tan on TikTok says they only want a “local chn” on dating apps. It is easy to meme the Racist Spectacle, to turn the aggressor into a caricature. It does the crucial work of distancing the Racist Spectacle from respectable citizens, even if they are respectable racists.

The Racist Spectacle is, however, a necessity in present day Singapore. It forces people to pay attention. Racism happens every day for minorities. We have seen in the case of the polytechnic lecturer that the filmed incident was not his first racist outburst. An ex-student of his shared her experience of Islamophobia in his classroom. The comments section is filled with testimonies from other past students of his. It was an open secret but nothing happened. Many minorities do not report incidents of racism because they are more mundane than this. No HR department would act upon a complaint like “my supervisor implied that Malays are lazy”. This happens everyday in schools, workplaces, buses, in lifts. What is documented is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also the racism that minorities don’t see. We don’t know when we are being passed over for promotion, or being mocked in a group text, or being turned into a bogeyman to scare somebody’s children. The Racist Spectacle is the oil that leaps out of the pot and scalds you. The oil was bubbling this whole time.

The Racist Spectacle is a structural issue. Imagine being a Muslim student in that class. The instructor, who is in a position of authority, is an overt racist. Would you report this incident knowing that at least one person in power at your institution is a racist? Would you take the risk, jeopardising your position, knowing full well that the institution has already harboured one racist? We also live in a country where the slightest sign of dissent is seen as a betrayal. So many of us cannot speak freely about our experiences with racism, unless they become a Spectacle, because we work for institutions who would censure us. Even those of us who do talk about the Racist Spectacle run the risk of doing so with too much emotion or not enough grace. Then the institution who censures us becomes the government.

Minorities need the Racist Spectacle in order for even the most blinkered apologist to take us seriously. Even then, it’s not always successful. Already, our politicians are explaining away the latest programme of Racist Spectacles, telling us that Singapore is a fundamentally multiracial and harmonious nation. If anything, the Racist Spectacle proves that even the most outlandish display of racism can be ignored because the Singaporean structure is built on the premise that systemic racism does not—cannot—exist. To still say that Singapore is racially harmonious, in the face of everything we know, shows that Chinese racists have the potential to get away with anything as long as they don’t draw blood. To the naive citizen, Racist Spectacles are anomalies. Only unreasonable people could behave that way. Thinking that way is permission to view racism as a manifestation of explicitly antisocial behaviour. However, these incidents are all interconnected. A society that excuses one Racist Spectacle inadvertently grants permission to the next.

What is the solution? What will it take for Singapore to accept that a national reckoning is long overdue? Is it saddling minorities with the task of cataloguing every racist encounter? I hope not. How much writing needs to be on the wall before the comfortable decide to look up and read?


Got some more…

Family members have spoken out about frustrating and difficult experiences after a Covid-19 cluster was found at a centre for people with intellectual disabilities. Reading their accounts, it sounds like a real mess. The Ministry of Health has said it's looking into how to improve its process.

A judge has granted leave for a bus driver's case against SBS Transit to be heard in the High Court. Chua Qwong Meng (whose case has another 12 drivers linked to it) is taking action against the company for allegedly unfair labour practices, including unpaid overtime and long working hours.


The Kaya Toast Mini-Mentorship Initiative!

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Weekly WrapsGuest Issues

Kirsten Han

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.