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.