The Art Of Racism (In Singapore)

The art of racism in Singapore isn’t in its blatant words of open criticism or hate crimes; no, because that’s too easy to police. Instead, the art of it is in its subtlety, the way it can be easily swept under the big rug they call ‘jokes’, how each sentence begins with ‘no offence’ when they shouldn’t be the ones deciding what offends and what doesn’t.

The art of racism in Singapore is in the way the once admired and treasured Racial Harmony Day tradition of wearing each culture’s ethnic costumes is tainted by the need for today’s youth to entertain their friends and themselves. Instead of respect for the culture and its garments, these clothes are worn for the sake of social media, and some even go so far as to wear them as a costume, believing it as a free pass to re-enact stereotypes and mock its traditions. On paper, this sounds serious and exaggerated, but when teenagers don the sarong and mimic the actions of smoking on camera, when boys claim they want to wear the turban so that they may “look like terrorists”, it’s far from funny. Because then, these jokes are on the internet, in the eyes of everyone in the school to take offence.

The art of racism in Singapore isn’t in its intolerance of other cultures but in its desire to treat all the same, instead of celebrating the nuances. It’s in the way the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, a bazaar, traditionally held to celebrate the month of Ramadaan, invites more than half its stalls to sell food that isn’t halal. Sure, it’s important to include everyone in its celebrations, but when a bazaar is called a Ramadaan bazaar but its food restricts the Muslims from enjoying it, well then it’s just a regular bazaar cruelly exploiting the business that this religious month brings.

The art of racism in Singapore is also in the way foreigners, particularly Bangladeshis and Phillipinos are treated with an attitude so carefully crafted, that it can’t be labelled hostile, but neither is it friendly. It’s in the way “bangla” is used as an insult and each time a foreign construction worker is on a bus talking loudly on the phone, an expression of condescension and scorn can be seen on our faces. It’s almost as though we’ve forgotten that we were all too, once immigrants and that we still continue to struggle to adapt to a different cultural environment when we travel overseas. We’ve ignored the fact that these foreigners have entered a country so vastly different to theirs’ that instead of helping them adapt, we drive them away from jobs that we ourselves refuse to take.

The art of racism in Singapore is in the way we boast of a multi-racial community that lives harmoniously. It is in the way every day, students nation-wide chant with their fists across their chest “regardless of race, language or religion” when in fact what they believe is regardless of race, as long as it’s the majority’s. Because how else can you explain how bosses, in some workplaces, insist on speaking Mandarin to a multi-racial workforce, how “speaking Mandarin” is a hard requirement for many jobs, how Chinese subtitles litter the bottom of the screen of many of our local English-speaking channels. How else would you explain compulsory Chinese new year celebrations in schools but somehow the memo is lost when it comes to all other celebrations? How else do you explain only one Halal stall in a canteen of 6 to 7 food stalls?

At the end of the day, racism in Singapore has become an art form because we have so cleverly rehearsed our craft, that in plain sight, it no longer fits the description of racism. So if you ask me, should we stop the Racial Harmony Day celebrations and do away with the annual Ramadan bazaar? Of course not, just because a few bad apples are present doesn’t mean we throw the whole fruit basket in the trash. It just brings to light the fact that we have so much left to work on if we want to remain as a country free from racial tensions. It means that tolerance, indifference, acknowledgement and celebrations are on a spectrum. It also means that if your jokes are pointed out by someone as offensive, apologise instead of justify because as the majority, defining how the minorities react is a dangerous step towards oppression.



Our Underrated Treasure Cove

This essay was written for a certain application with the prompt “How will your research interest (literature and linguistics) contribute to Singapore’s development?”

Arguably underrated in what many would call a utilitarian Singapore, the study and research of literature may ironically be just what Singapore needs to take a step forward. Although there has been a slight shift in attitudes towards the arts and humanities with the setting up of SOTA and liberal arts college YaleNus, I believe that further research into literature and linguistics will open doors to more development.

The study of literature is the study of humanity, as it not only documents but also mirrors society and its mannerisms. It teaches soft skills such as argumentation and reasoning and most importantly for a country that boasts social cohesion and racial harmony, empathy. Research into various fields and genres of literature promotes a wide range of perspectives demanded to be understood. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is rich with the often misunderstood culture and struggles of Muslim Iraqis during the Taliban regime, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes echoes the then recent tragic events of The Columbine Shooting while Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close fills it’ pages with the effects that 9/11 had on it’s victims’ families.

Literary works from all over the world encapsulate its representative culture and school of thought. As such, because literature stands the test of time as well, it often complements History by portraying societal attitudes in response to certain historic events. For example, the works of Charles Dickens brings to light the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while The Chrysalids warns the dangers of nuclear war. At the same time, research into our own local literary scene can not only revive our roots and anchor our sense of identity, it can also promote the development of Singapore as an Arts Hub by encouraging local artists. As the literary and arts industry expands, so does Singapore’s development as a financial hub.

Literature and Linguistics also supplement Psychology. Works such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Room presents a different perspective carefully cultivated to portray a message for its audience about mental illness. Whether it demands sympathy or acknowledges the despair that one may face, empathy is once again garnered, hence increasing awareness while chipping away at the stigma. Research into linguistics also provides a better understanding in the way we use language in different mediums for different purposes. Since language is something that everyone experiences, it is crucial to understand it’s power to aid better communication among groups of people. Not only will study in linguistics be beneficial to the researchers themselves, when put to use, the knowledge garnered may bridge the gap between different cultures and age groups, and foster a stronger sense of identity.

As a first world country, Singaporeans deserve to be able to freely express their creative sides. With further research into literature and linguistics, we will be able to have a firm grasp on our roots and identity while being able to project ourselves for further development through understanding social dynamics, principles and challenges to the norm.

Farahna Alam



When I was twelve and you were five, you came into my room one night just to ask me what beautiful looked like. There were other questions,  easier questions, that I answered before but the definition of beauty?  I couldn’t find the words to explain it right. So then I started listing things, hoping you’d get the drift. Our mother, our father, the neighbour next door, the woman on the television, your favourite doll. The sun looking smaller from our treetop house, where you hid almost every day so you didn’t have to play with the other boys. The colour of melted ice cream on our counter top, pink from mine, and blue from yours, mixing in the middle to create a secret galaxy. I wished I could’ve hidden you there the day you came home with a broken nose. Kids will be mean, kids will be cruel. But the worst of all was Dad’s cold shoulder when you couldn’t catch a ball. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I told you beauty was in yours. Because even though the world hated your skirts and your strange little quirks, you took that pain and pushed it down. I knew Mum hated that you couldn’t fit in, and Dad just didn’t get why you did what you did. I wished all those years before the fights and lonely lunches, I had just told you back then, that even though you weren’t happy with the way you looked and even though you had blue ice cream when you always eyed mine, you were still beautiful every time you smiled.