Millennial Voices

Understanding Chinese Privilege In Singapore – The Capital C In Cmio

On January 11, an uproar occurred over remarks by the DJs of radio station Kiss 92 FM when they joked that Chinese people get less sleep compared to Malays and Indians because they have “to send their kids to school and leave early for work” while Malays and Indians “work less and go out and party”.

To me, that sounded like Malays and Indians lead a much better life compared to us Chinese but jokes aside, this insinuates that the minority races are lazy and unwilling to work, and naturally, it drew a chorus of outrage from Malays and Indians alike on social media.

Of course, a quick scroll through the comments revealed that some still thought the outrage was ridiculous and all part of the stupid PC culture propagated by Western lib-tards, and that the minority in Singapore has been spoilt.

Not the first time, not the last

Such an incident is reflective of the underlying social framework which privileges Chinese culture over all other races in Singapore. This isn’t the first time it’s happened and it certainly won’t be the last. There was the blackface controversy on Toggle last year, along with the tasteless video by theSmartLocal where they tried Indian food as if it were the food of an uncontacted tribe. Let’s not forget one of the most egregious incidents by the Government themselves 2 years ago, when the playing of music got banned at Thaipusam festivals, complete with the flimsy reasoning that lions dances are allowed because they are “often held during social, community events” and are “non-religious”, while “the risk of incidents is considered to be higher” for Thaipusam.

It speaks volumes that the Chinese lion dance has achieved the vaunted secular status of “non-religious” while the Thaipusam foot procession is deemed to carry significant risk, and must therefore be devoid of music. Shanmugam even adds that “the Hindus are actually in a privileged position. There are many other religious groups which have asked to be allowed to hold foot processions. These appeals have generally been rejected.”

Come on man, we tolerate the long Buddhist and Taoist chantings of Chinese funerals and the raucous drummings of Malay-Muslim weddings at our void decks. I don’t see why we can’t do the same for Thaipusam. Unless those two things are also somehow “non-religious”, which is just ridiculous.

Roots of Chinese Privilege

Several articles have been written on the topic of Chinese privilege, including those by Cher Tan on VICE news, Hydar Saharudin on New Mandala  and Sangeetha Thanapal’s interview with Adeline Koh on b2o – the place where the term ‘Chinese Privilege’ was first coined.

All three are unanimous in stating that the PAP played a large part in this entrenchment of Chinese culture as superior. After all, Lee Kuan Yew’s definition of Asian values was essentially Confucian values. On top of that, there is LKY’s statement that:

“Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no way you can govern a Chinese society.”

Most of us probably remember this sentence as emblematic of his confrontational approach in dealing with his political opponents but what is also worth noting here is his use of ‘Chinese society’. Much of Singapore’s national consciousness is conceptualized as a primarily Chinese consciousness, with a smattering and sprinkling of Indian and Malay-Muslim bits here and there.

We have our Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools with their sprawling social networks and predominant emphasis on Chinese culture, which usually also happens to be where many of our ministers also come from. There is the ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ because China will supposedly overtake the US any minute now. I doubt there will ever be a ‘Speak Malay’ or ‘Speak Tamil’ campaign, on the grounds that there is little economic use for such languages given our state’s pragmatism-driven mentality. This limits the space for such languages to the public space at arts festivals and the domestic sphere.

Further back in time, there was also the liberalisation of immigration policies for people of East Asian origin when Chinese birth rates fell below those of Indian and Malay in 1989, which happened in order to maintain Singapore’s racial balance. There was also the disturbing sterilization incentive of $10,000 for women without O levels below 30 years of age who already had 1 or 2 children. This doubly impacted our racial minorities as education levels have always been the highest among the Chinese, thanks to the SAP schools.

And finally, who can forget the criticisms and stereotypes leveled at Malays that plagued the 90s and 00s: Malay students did not do as well because their cultures lent themselves to laziness, hence the need for Singapore to adopt a primarily Chinese work ethic.

All in all, far from being the multi-religious CMIO, in Singapore, it has always been Cmio – with a Capital C. The next question then, is how do we make the Chinese majority aware of this? I personally think it will be extremely challenging, in no small part because the majority is always disinclined to listen to the minority… Because we can afford to.

Coming to understand my privilege

I will admit, I was completely clueless to any of these concepts or of my privilege until I spent 6 months in the US in the first half of 2015. No, it did not stem from the feeling of being a minority in the West – when you spend 6 months in a country on exchange, it’s still a very long holiday and you are still primarily a student-tourist. Neither did it come from spending my secondary school years in a typical neighbourhood school, where I was constantly in contact with students from minority groups.

Instead, I only became aware of it when I took a class on African-American authors. It was kind of a Social Studies class on African-American history and society, since the days of slavery. Much was made about the constant belittling of black culture by various white politicians, the structural faults of the political system that discriminated against them and even the internalization of their own stereotypes which gave rise to the perception within their own  black community that a hardworking black person was essentially a white person with black skin.

Since most of the students in that class were black, class discussions were often lively and vivid with examples of annoying and exhausting micro-aggressions they faced on a regular basis. One of them shared, “In high school, once slavery and segregation is brought up, everyone turns to look at me.”

And then, LKY passed away and there was much mourning back in Singapore, along with the publishing of his many statements. As I looked through the things he said, a sense of unease grew within me as I realised many of the statements he had made as the basis of his policies bore striking resemblance to what many of my African-American classmates were calling out their politicians for.

One example is the aforementioned ‘Chinese society’ statement.

And then there was this: “We could not have held the society together if we had not made adjustments to the system that gives the Malays, although they are not as hardworking and capable as the other races, a fair share of the cake”.

And this: “Our neighbors both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful. They are hard working and, therefore, they are systematically marginalized.

In fairness to the first statement, LKY apologized about this afterwards, but since the lazy Malay stereotype had gone out, the damage was done.

With regards to the second statement, my first thought was the model minority stereotype of Asians propagated in the US. In a sense, this sentence effectively buys into that rhetoric. In SE Asia however, this sentence had the dual effect of elevating the superiority of Chinese culture while putting down other regional cultures. Taken in conjunction with the first statement, there is little wonder Chinese culture has been touted the cornerstone of our state’s success.

The problem is that being part of the Chinese majority in Singapore makes us blind to these problems because these are problems that only affect the people lying on the edges of our national consciousness. That, however, doesn’t make it less real to those who suffer them, and if anything, it is an issue that has the potential to unravel our “multi-racial”, “multi-religious” country if not adequately addressed.

The way I see it, there are only two ways out of this: either through education at the school level or through larger minority representation in our arts and culture scene. Thankfully, within our arts scene, there are already prominent voices who do a fantastic job of bringing out the voices of their respective groups such as Alfian Sa’at for Malays and Pooja Nansi and Marc Nair for Indians, to name a few. Also few things on Facebook are as entertaining as watching them, especially in the case of Alfian Sa’at, eviscerating some of the stupider moments of racism in Singapore and calling out problematic statements by our ministers.

With regards to education, the problem is much more critical. A change to the syllabus is needed, along with a redefinition of the whole point of that totally-not-a-means-of-social-engineering Character and Citizenship Education. An hour spent illustrating why Chinese, Malay and Indian kids have different headstarts in life is infinitely more useful in raising awareness and stamping out long-running stereotypes than that useless 好公民 textbook that only tells us to do our homework, greet our teacher and obey our parents.

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