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An Outlook On Racial Discrimination And Its Development In Singapore

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Like other analyses of racial privilege, be it in Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, or the United States, ‘Chinese privilege’ requires constant theoretical refinement. Its deficit in localized definitions and processes must be resolved. Furthermore, how different would ‘Chinese privilege’ function at micro and macro levels, or when it intersects with class, gender, religion, language, and sexuality? More importantly, as observed in international cases, how can Singaporeans meaningfully discuss ‘Chinese privilege’ without triggering denial and deflection from its architects and beneficiaries? Racial Discrimination by definition is when someone is treated less fairly than another person in a similar circumstance due to their race, colour of their skin, ethnic origin and descent. It is a form of unfair treatment or bias against someone from a certain race and ethnic group. It is discrimination through ignorance, inconsideration, racial stereotyping and unconscious prejudice which disadvantage ethnic minority people. 

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According Carmichael and Hamilton, there are two forms of racism that takes place which are institutional and individual. Stokely Carmichael was a Trinidadian-American civil rights activist in the United States. Charles V. Hamilton is a civil rights leader and a political scientist. Charles V. Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael are the authors of the book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. The book construes the revelation and the understanding of the fundamentals of racism in the United States. One of the primary focal point of the book is portraying the trials that African American communities faced. 

Institutional Racism is defined as racism expressed in terms of political and social institutions. It consists of collective of failure of an institution to provide professional and appropriate service to people because of their culture, ethnic origin and their colour of their skin. It can be expressed in variations such as income, housing, wealth, health care, education not to mention political power. Organizations and institutions having the power to make decisions that intentionally harm or disfavour people of the minority races. When racism takes place in establishments, it can be tough to combat due to their advantages. Organizations, on numerous occasions, have more power, history, money as well as prestige than individuals. Institutional discrimination is a form of racial discrimination that has been established as a behavior that is normal within organization or society. An example of institutional racism is Jim Crow segregation laws. “Jim Crow” was a derisive slang term for a black African American man, making it a suitable name for the laws that were enforced in a few Border States and in the south of the United States of America. The Jim Crow persona by Thomas D. Rice, who was a racist theatre character in blackface, spurred to stardom for performing musical routines as the fictional character. The racist character was an ethnic portrayal, in line with contemporary white ideas of African Americans and their culture, a caricature of dimwitted and clumsy black slave. At the beginning, Jim Crow laws demand the segregation of people of colour and white people on all mode of public transportation and in schools Eventually, Jim Crow segregation laws was imposed and implemented for restaurants, public pools, hospitals, restrooms, cinemas, jails and phone booths including elderly homes and residential homes for the handicapped. The underlying purpose of Jim Crow segregation laws was to avoid contact between white people and black people as equals, validating that white people are the dominant race as opposed to black people who are in the inferior race. “Coloured and “Whites Only” signs were never ending reminders of the enforced racial order.

Examples of Jim Crow laws were that it is unlawful for coloured and white people to be served in the same room at a restaurant or other place for the serving of food. Forbidding marriages between whites with black, Mongolians, Indians and Malays. They were declared void and illegal. Any intimate relations between African Americans and whites was illegal. If they failed to follow this law, it will result in up to five years in prison, fines up to one thousand dollars, or both. It is statutory that all Chinese to carry a “certificate of residence” at all times. If they do not have it on them, a Chinese immigrant could be jailed and arrested. Coloured and white children must be racially segregated and should not be taught in the same school. Separate textbooks were also given for African American and white school children. White and African American families were prohibited from living in the same house and no businesses or person were not authorized to rent an apartment in housing buildings and apartment complex to someone who is of a different race from other residents. 

Individual racism is defined as an individual’s racist beliefs, behaviours and assumptions. It is also referring to racial discrimination that is rooted from personal, conscious and unconscious prejudice. that can both be active and passive. Individual racism occurs when someone’s actions and attitudes are based on stereotypes, prejudices and biases against another race. An example of individual racism is the ideology that white people are biologically distinguished to people of the minority race. As we live in a culture of individualism and freedom of speech people tend to argue that their ideas and statements are not racist because it is just their own personal opinion. Individual racism is expressed when a person believe that their race is more superior than others because of their ethnic origin and the colour of their skin. In reality, there can be conscious and unconscious racism.

Conscious racism is when a person says that he or she is not racist, what they usually mean is that they do not consciously believe that white people are superior. This outlook assumes that racism transpire only in the conscious mind. For example, if a white man is casually degrading people of colour by shouting derogatory remarks, he is engaging in individual racism. Hence, individual racism at a conscious level is having to concede biasness and prejudice against people of colour.

Unconscious racism otherwise known as implicit bias are learned stereotypes that are unintentional, automatic, prevalent and able to influence action and behavior of an individual. Implicit animosity and bigotry provides great evidence that most people have deeply ingrained negative associations with minority groups that can result in subtle discrimination without conscious awareness. Harvard researchers explain grouping people together based on their image and the way they look is a shortcut and an alternative route that our unconscious brains work very swiftly to make judgements and decisions. Favourably, the mental shortcuts in our brain are not a problem. However, Americans have been exposed to adverse ideas about people of colour for generations as a result of American institutions, history and media having persistently produced negative images and perceptions of people of colour. Over a period of time, by being exposed to these harmful ideas and images, can corrupt the unconscious brain so completely that it becomes trained to link minority group with negative traits. For example, if a white woman reflexively becomes frightened when someone of colour enters an elevator that she is in, she is indeed engaged in individual racism. 

For example, as of recently, Britain’s Prince Harry speaks out on unconscious biasness and its connection to racism. He says that some people did not realize that their own animosity as well as prejudices and that stigma was handed from generation to generation. A person’s perspective on life and the world as well as people is something that is taught. Prince Harry has criticized some racist overtones in media coverage of his wife who is mixed race. 

Moving on to the little red dot, Singapore. Since it was a British colony, Singapore has been a multi-racial nation. The British grouped non-European colonial citizens into four primary groups. The four primary groups are Chinese, Malay, Indian and other. According to Hydar Saharudin, a history major at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, said the British rule also reinforced discriminatory schemes. An example of discriminatory schemes is the ‘colour bar’. The colour bar is defined as a social and legal system in which people of different colour or race are being segregated, and not given the same treatment and opportunity. The British rule has established formal racial classification and popularized racial stereotypes. Portraying Chinese as deceptive and devious, Malays as sluggish and lazy, Indians as immoral and servile.

Although Singapore is ethnically diverse country and as accepting as the majority of Singaporeans would see themselves, racism is still a big issue. Since 2008, notable Singaporeans such as Sangeetha Thanapal who is an activist, Surekha Yadav, a journalist and Alfian Sa’at who is a playwright, have claimed that term ‘Chinese privilege’ exists in Singapore. Sangeetha Thanapal, revealing that she is a PhD on Chinese supremacy, Chinese privilege and racism in Singapore, mentioned that she defines Chinese privilege similarly to white privilege. They dispute that Singaporean Chinese have the benefit of enjoying exclusive racial advantages that put them as a political, economic, cultural and social core of Singapore. 

Chinese Privilege is the term that came about through history. Chinese privilege can be referred similarly as white privilege. Since independence in 1965, Singapore has one ruling party which is The People’s Action Party (PAP). The People’s Action Party (PAP) was the official Chinese political party immediately after independence. The PAP plays a predominant role in producing ‘Chinese privilege’. Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government strives to “re-Asianize” Singapore with policies that were privileged to Chinese citizens as they were the majority race that make up 74.6 percent due to fear of westernization. Thus, it is not surprising that the Chinese race hold substantial social and political dominance in Singapore. The ruling party introduced plans like programs such as Special Assistance Plan to advocate and cultivate Singapore’s Chinese character. The Special Assistance Plan turned schools for the Chinese into upper-class and well-funded monocultural institutions as compared to other schools that were being overlooked. From the 80s to 90s, the government launched campaigns such as “Asian Values” and “Speak Mandarin” which densely emphasized Mandarin and Confucian values as a standard benchmark. Thus, leaving little space for non-Chinese narratives and voices. In terms of employment, 90% of the companies require people who are applying for a job to be able to communicate in Mandarin. There are citizens who do not feel that they need to make an effort to speak in English because the Chinese language is prioritized. Though, English is the most common language as compared to the other four national languages in Singapore. (In fact, the national language of Singapore is the Malay language whereas English is the main working language. 

Other examples of Chinese privilege are social status and representation. In 2015, a distinguished US fashion brand held a worldwide social media, Instagram and Twitter, by submitting photos using the hashtag #castmemarc for an opportunity to be featured in the campaign ad. Admirably, a Singaporean Malay, Indian and Arab descent, Nadia Rahmat was chosen to be a part of a renowned US fashion brand Marc by Marc Jacobs Spring 2015 ad campaign. The 24-year-old was endorsed and handpicked by the creative director of Marc Jacob out of 50,000 people who took part in the casting from around the world to be one of the 11 new faces of the campaign. The campaign ad captures portraits of women from all around the world to depict that beauty is not all about skin and outward appearances. However, local netizens did not seem to respond and acknowledge positively as expected to this incredible achievement. Unfortunately, Nadia’s unconventional and striking looks was somewhat for from ideal and quintessential beauty for a small group of critics on Facebook who expressed their discontent. Despite the fact that she made headlines for the being the only Singaporean to be featured in Marc Jacobs Spring ad campaign, a Facebook user named Alex Sim criticized and slammed her very harshly, commenting that she is “so ugly” and even compared her to a “ghost”. Another Singaporean named Lim Jian Ping, thought there were many other Singaporean women to choose from to represent Singapore instead of Nadia. She has received backlash and was being made fun of online for being inaccurate representation of Singapore beauty saying that she was “not suitable”. Luckily, through all the backlash that came across, Nadia is still unfazed. She mentioned that the negativity that received is not affecting her and the only thing she can do is be true to herself. Furthermore, national beauty pageants also inclined to recognize a Chinese ideal of feminine beauty as compared to other race or ethnicities. Hence, becoming immensely rare for someone who are of from the minority race to win these competitions.

Fortunately, she also had received positive and encouraging messages from Singaporeans who have gone out of their way to express their support. Her friends and family have been supportive and encouraging her as well. During the ongoing repercussions, Nadia took to her Instagram addressing the trolls while politely expressing her thoughts.

Overall, it may be said that being of a Chinese descent in Singapore that makes up 74.6 percent of the island city’s 5.7 million people, means that you are from the majority. Privilege exists everywhere all around the world as there will always be a majority, raising and spreading awareness of its existence is very important. Despite the Chinese population being the predominant group, we should treat and give recognition whenever it is due to everyone regardless of race and religion. Singapore, being a multi-cultural country, it is necessary and essential for Singaporeans to stop comparing races and be more mindful and attentive to every Singaporean individual. 

09 March 2021

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