Can we expect more from the Singapore PAP on Race?

Singapore, a country that prides itself on being a model of “racial harmony”, has a problem with racism.

Of course, many minorities in Singapore will say that racism has always been a problem. But listening to those with less power is not one of Singapore’s strengths.

Recent events, however, have made the issue of racism difficult to ignore. An Indian lady was by a Chinese while exercising. A middle-aged Chinese man decided to give up his old (now) job as a polytechnic teacher for a young couple on interracial dating, calling Indian men “preying on” Chinese women. The prayer ritual of a Hindu family was disrupted by their Chinese neighbor, who insisted on rushing out of her home to . These incidents have gone viral on social media, making their way into Singaporean consciousness and demanding attention.

On June 25, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong denounced these incidents during his at the IPS-RSIS Forum on Race and Racism. He made it clear that such behavior was unacceptable and called on the Chinese in Singapore to be more sensitive to the needs and experiences of our minority compatriots.

The speech has since been praised for recognizing some of the challenges and micro-aggressions facing minorities, advocating calm and meaningful conversations and declaring that the ruling People’s Action Party is open to revising policies that affect the race. It should be noted that since Wong’s predecessor Heng Swee Keat stepped down as future prime minister designate, Wong has become one of the main candidates for prime minister. Judging by some of the sentiment online, Friday’s speech presented him as an impartial and empathetic leader, giving his profile new impetus.

Against the backdrop of a country with a history of shutting down discussions on racism, where high-ranking politicians openly say that , and where the major establishment Chinese-language newspaper recently adopted American right-wing talking points for on critical race theory, Wong’s speech can be seen as an improvement. At least he didn’t say we can’t talk about racismSingaporeans say to themselves. At least he admitted that it’s harder to be a minority in Singapore. At least he mentioned that it’s problematic for minorities to meet racist landlords or be excluded from group conversations that suddenly switch from English to Mandarin. At least he didn’t deploy a right-wing conspiracy theory to cry racism backwards!

Singaporean pragmatism is setting in. After all, can we reasonably expect more from the PAP? All in all, this is good enough already.

But citizens should not measure our political leaders against the lowered standards they have set for themselves. We should force them to uphold the standards of justice and equality.

This does not mean that we refuse to recognize gradual change. Human rights struggles and movements rarely achieve all of their goals overnight; experienced organizers and activists all know that this is usually a job that takes years, if not generations. But the point is, we must never let those in power lose sight of where we should be, even if we are unlikely to get there right away.


Photo credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People wearing face masks cross a road amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore on May 14, 2021.

This is especially the case when legislators have clearly can do more than them. Wong’s speech might be appreciated for acknowledging some minority experiences and leaving the door open for dialogue, but he always stops to implore Chinese Singaporeans to be kinder and more understanding to our minority neighbors and friends. It’s a laudable call to action if you’re a student-led campaign, but cabinet ministers can and should go much further. It is one thing to sympathize with minorities who have to deal with racist landlords and real estate agents in the rental market, but as a member of the government it is in Wong’s power to introduce policies or laws. , such as anti-discrimination legislation, which can help tackle the issue without waiting for racist landlords to get rid of their racism.

Statements about the PAP’s willingness to review its own laws and policies should not be taken at face value either. Such remarks are akin to New Year’s resolutions; anyone can say anything about what they intend to do, but none of it matters unless it is actually done.

In his speech, Wong raised some points of contention, such as the Group Representation Constituency System (GRC), which requires candidates to run in teams that include at least one minority candidate to challenge mega-constituencies in elections. , and the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) Schools, former Chinese-language schools which now enjoy government support to encourage bilingualism and “preserve Chinese culture.”

These two policies introduced by the PAP have since been criticized as perpetuating injustice and inequality: as opposition leader, Pritam Singh has , the GRC system has been “regularly abused on the altar of politics”, the representation of minorities being used as “a Trojan horse for the political objectives of the PAP”. Meanwhile, SAP schools have been reported as not only exclusively Chinese spaces, but also elitist and classist spaces, granting their (usually) Chinese students a social, cultural and even political capital that their Malaysian and Indian counterparts have enjoyed. less access. While not particularly loud or overwhelming (yet), there have long been calls for GRC and SAP systems to be scrapped.

These are policies introduced by the PAP which, according to Lawrence Wong, are not “cast in stone” … but not before they have spent time defending their continued presence. The PAP might be willing to “review” and “update” these policies, but this may not amount to a willingness to engage in more substantial reforms to tackle systemic and institutionalized racism.

Wong’s speech, less disappointing than previous PAP and establishment statements, offers some reason for optimism. But Singaporeans must be careful not to let optimism slip into naivety, or worse, the excuse. Politicians shouldn’t be given cookies – even figurative ones – for being a little less terrible on the subject of race (or whatever) than anything that came before.

The relief and appreciation that Wong’s speech received shows how much work remains to be done in a multiracial and multicultural Singapore. Despite years of reciting the mantra “regardless of race, language or religion” the bar is still low, and we still have a long way to go in developing a movement for meaningful change, as opposed to the facade.

READ NEXT: Don’t scold tea leaf readers. The Singapore government is the problem.

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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