Last week Amy Cheong’s Facebook rant against Malay void deck weddings sparked an outrage amongst Singaporeans. She was swiftly fired from her position of Assistant Director by the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), and a police report was lodged. The righteous (self-righteous?) indignation of many Singaporeans continued to rage online even after Ms. Cheong issued apologies on various social media platforms. Some described the whole episode as a witch hunt – they weren’t far off the mark.
Then it emerged that Ms. Cheong was not a Singaporean citizen after all, but a Permanent Resident with Australian citizenship. Suddenly the issue became, once again, one of local versus foreigner. What can be done to educate immigrants about Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious society? How can we teach these foreigners the respect that they should have?
Of course, the assumption that comes with these questions is one of Singaporeans somehow knowing better. It’s a deeply-held belief that since the racial riots of the 1960s, Singaporeans have learnt their lesson and morphed into respectful, understanding, cosmopolitan non-racists, and that the few bad apples amongst us are aberrations rather than indications of systemic racialism in our nation.
But how true is that, really?
If you really think about it, Singapore is a nation preoccupied with racial lines. From the insistence upon listing race on our identification cards (we’re so attached to the system that we’d rather have parents choose to double-barrel their children’s races rather than get rid of the practice altogether) to the way we hold the racial riots up as a bogeyman to scare schoolchildren into embracing “racial harmony,” much of Singapore’s structure is built upon race-tinted values and beliefs.
Unfortunately, the existence of laws like the Sedition Act have done well in ensuring that issues surrounding race and religion remain taboo in Singaporean society, lest we be reported to the authorities and charged. Although this has for the most part been justified as a way to keep the (apparently) tenuous peace between the races, the restrictions have also served to silence any mature discussion surrounding race and culture.
This can also be clearly seen in the recent banning of the film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. Although it originally received an M18 rating, a last-minute panel chose to ban the film due to racial content, because of a character who made fun of Indians. However, the makers emphasised that the film had been satirical.
The banning of a film just because of certain scenes (which had been meant satirically) once more highlights the authorities’ uptight, stuffy attitude towards anything remotely related to race or religion in our society. But if these issues are not allowed to be given voice and space in public discourse, how will we then be able to challenge, discuss and evaluate systematic racism in our country?
Due to our unwillingness to see the official rhetoric of “racial harmony” for what it really is – hollow words masking a stifling of public discourse – we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that Singaporeans are enlightened, accepting global citizens, much more “respectful” of difference than foreigners like Ms. Cheong. We then worry about the lack of avenues to “educate the foreigners,” forgetting about the fact that for the most part we have neglected to educate ourselves.
The reaction to Ms. Cheong being Australian appeared to come with a sense of relief: “Thank goodness, she’s a foreigner! Singaporeans aren’t racist after all!” But the sad truth is that even if we don’t manifest our racism in violent or hurtful ways, Singaporean society has been highly racialised, with or without the foreigners on our shores. The effort to change this is up not to the authorities (through lodging police reports every time someone says something bigoted) or immigrants (through programmes to get them to integrate), but to ourselves.