Does the celebration of Racial Harmony Day reinforce Singapore’s multi-culturalism, or does it perpetuate more subtle forms of racism instead? Writer Bianca Pelaez shares her thoughts.
I fondly remember the Racial Harmony Days of my childhood – yearly celebrations of everyone wearing cross-cultural outfits and sitting through half-day lessons that reinforced the importance of preserving the very harmony that made such a celebration possible.
As a “hotpot of culture”, Singapore’s harmonious city is rooted in its ability to nurture a thriving, multicultural society. However, the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in America has sparked debate amongst Singaporeans, begging the question: Is this harmony merely a façade created by our very own hands, or is it truly the outcome of the solid foundation of values we so pride ourselves on having as a society?
Singapore’s history is painted as a picture of a diverse group of people coming together to overcome adversities and achieve a common goal. Much like a Channel 5 drama, the protagonist tackles life alongside his four friends, each of a different race – extra credit if the protagonist is mixed race too! The best thing about these picturesque scenes is that they aren’t far from the truth. It is not an uncommon sight to see a racially diverse group of school children playing basketball in the afternoon, or a racially diverse set of elderly women having coffee at a hawker centre. This notion of being “colour-blind” in our personal relationships is even reflected in studies that show the percentage of racial diversity amongst friend groups in Singapore to be increasing. While this is great news for Channel 5 dramas, the discussion of the BLM movement in Singapore has shown that we are still far from achieving true racial harmony.
The BLM movement has become an international news. While some have only just joined the conversation, Singapore has always had an illicit affair with racial discrimination. Picking up from where last year’s “brownface” incident ended, many minority groups have started speaking up about their own battles with racism, particularly casual racism.
As the only country that denotes race in our identification cards, Singapore’s view of racial discrimination is based on observational evidence. If it’s blatant, piercing, and easily offends everyone, it’s also easily labelled as racist. But when it’s found in passing comments or subtle subtexts, it’s suddenly a lot harder to admonish. We just don’t want to call our auntie out for being racist in her comments on the living conditions of migrant workers.
At face value, casual racism doesn’t seem like racism, nor does it feel like it. But in the same way that a banana is a berry despite not looking like one at all, casual racism hides behind good natured jokes and off-handed comments spoken in safe spaces amongst friends. It’s sheltered under the pretence of a close relationship that makes it hard to address, leaving an uncomfortable knot in your stomach that never really goes away, but which lessens as you digest it and desensitize to the situation.
Casual racism wins when the target of racism is silenced, ignored, or sometimes drowned out. During these recent debates, minority voices are loud and clear; but even in the outpouring of minority voices – even there – there is still a minority. Not all voices are created equal.
Having immigrated from the Philippines at the tender age of six, my first few years in Singapore was an eye-opening experience for a naïve girl who had never seen anyone with a different skin colour. Celebrating Racial Harmony Day was wearing a cheongsam and singing Semoga Bahagia during morning assembly. I never questioned the lack of discussion on the “other” minority races, including my own. I never questioned why Thailand and Vietnam had to share a booth during the celebration. I never questioned why “Leticia” was the basis for all Filipino culture. And neither did anyone else. Fourteen years in Singapore, and 2020 was the first time I saw a Filipino’s voice become viral as part of a heavily shared Instagram post that compiled minority sentiments on racism in Singapore. They say patience is a virtue, but that’s a long time to wait for a sliver of your voice to be heard.
The viral tweets included in that post highlighted the type of casual racism that Filipinos living in Singapore face on a day-to-day – the constant jokes referring to us as maids or to the thickness of our accents. I always thought these jokes were funny, and that when my friends called me a maid for cleaning up our table after we ate, it was fine because they weren’t attacking my personal identity. However, a particular tweet one day shook me to my core.
“... i actively tried to un-learn tagalog when i was in primary school and was so successful that in uni i tried re-learning tagalog but my tongue will never roll the same way again …”
It wasn’t fine anymore. I am proud of my heritage, language, and customs and practices, but the moment I read that line, my heart dropped. I felt like I was out of my depth, like I was pushed into the deep sea, drowning in sorrow from the shame they felt for their own culture, from the shame I felt for my culture, from the fear of my role in perpetuating that shame, and from the regret at my inaction to combat that shame.
I always believed that actions done with good intentions would always be good, and good enough for me. But as I face this possibility of my actions contributing to the marginalisation of my race, I feel frightened. Did my failure to stop and correct the casual racism in my own relationships allow others to view it as a pass to reproduce the same conversation to other Filipinos, who might instead find it offensive or degrading? Did laughing at that one maid joke signal to eavesdroppers that it was alright to call us all maids? Did my silence gaslight my race's fears and perpetuate the silence of our voice?
Blatant racism in Singapore, while scant, is still very much present. The recent arrest of a student from Temasek Polytechnic is proof of that. Charged with inciting violence towards Muslims and “non-Chinese looking” people, many of us expressed disgust and anger towards this 19-year-old student. He represents a festering racist minority that still exists in our society. While his actions are in no way comparable to the “maid jokes” that you tell your friends, both still fuel that same hate that we are disgusted by and creates a space for their ideologies to remain in our communities.
Racial Harmony Day will always be a fond memory, but looking back on how it’s being celebrated, I question whether it reinforced and continues to reinforce a complacency with the status quo. This whole article could have been a long tangent, a repeat of sentiments that others have already shared, but I think that like the BLM movement, it needs to continue until the problem has been acknowledged and addressed.
We cannot wait for other people to speak up at "the right time". The time for this discussion is always right. This is my story, and I’m glad I spoke up. I hope you do too.