A vocabulary of our own

Academic Views / Monday, July 20th, 2020

Nazry Bahrawi, senior lecturer of world and comparative literature at Singapore University of Technology and Design, and member of the international advisory board of Critical Muslim, a UK-based quarterly of global Muslim cultures, argues for blending global and organic vocabularies to tackle issues of race and religion in Singapore.

Singapore prides itself on being a model multicultural society, but when it comes to racial discourse, the 2020 general election has revealed a dissonance between perception and practice.

Key to this were events during the campaigning period concerning Raeesah Khan, then opposition candidate for the Workers’ Party and now MP-elect. A police report was filed on Raeesah’s past social media posts, alleging that they intended to cause enmity between different groups on racial and religious issues. Responses to this development revealed sharply differing views on how to think about race. In particular, the claim that concerns about and discussion of inequalities and discrimination are essentially “imported” points to a failure to recognise the negative experiences of Singapore’s ethnic minorities.

Divergence over Raeesah Khan

Soon after news of the police report against Raeesah broke, a public group on Facebook titled We Stand Behind Raeesah was established to show support. By polling day, the page had over 6,000 members. When interviewed for this article, the founder of the page, self-described third-time millennial voter Cadence Chua, said that one of her main objectives for setting up the group is to draw attention to the fact that racial discrimination exists in Singapore, explaining that “not vocalising it does not mean it is not there”.

A Facebook group was set up to express support for Raeesah Khan in the wake of the police report. (Art: @nasuhadarke)

However, some detractors dismissed Raeesah as holding Americanised political views concerning ethnic minorities and gender relations. This was criticised as potentially causing social instability. For instance, businessman and former NMP Calvin Cheng argues that Raeesah’s brand of progressive politics will lead to the import of “American violent culture wars in Singapore”. While Cadence Chua is not familiar with sociological terms on race like “microaggressions”, she also mentioned that some members of the page had spoken against the charge of Westernisation levelled on Raeesah for speaking candidly about this.

This simplistic charge feeds into the reductive theory of a civilisational clash between East and West. Foremost, it does not take into account the historical way the peoples of maritime Southeast Asia, including Singaporeans, recalibrated ideas from foreign cultures to suit their contexts. I call this the process of nuanced reworking (more on this later).

For now, I suggest that Singaporeans can in fact do better with engaging scholarship that is closer to home to develop our own critical vocabulary on race. This article hopes to begin such a venture among scholars and activists interested in ethnic relations in Singapore and its immediate region, Southeast Asia.

This may appear to contradict my previous claim. If we can rework foreign cultures and make it our own, why do we even need to consider new local ideas? Are we being nativist here?

The quick answer is a resounding no. There is certainly a danger that thinking natively can fan xenophobic sentiments. But my call for greater engagement stems from the position that cultures are not frozen in time. They evolve in tandem with the reworking of foreign ideas as well as the organic production of thoughts, traditions and customs locally and regionally. The evolution of culture is not a zero-sum game.

Not ‘Westernisation’ but ‘nuanced reworking’

In truth, this is not the first time that the spectre of Westernisation has been raised when race relations have been discussed in Singapore. It was also used last year when many condemned a demeaning Nets e-pay advertisement featuring Mediacorp actor Dennis Yeo in brownface.

Musicians Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair recorded a widely-watched parody music video to criticise the advertisement for using racial stereotypes. (screenshot from music video)

In reaction, retired academic Margaret Chan wrote an op-ed in The Straits Times arguing that the term does not represent Singapore well. She distinguishes between “brownface west” and “brownface east”, arguing that the latter does not exist here, as Singaporeans have always donned exterior aspects of other ethnic cultures on occasions such as during Racial Harmony Day.

This idea—that America’s racial context is different from ours and its terms of discussion therefore should not be imported—is the conventional view held by Singapore’s political administration, not just individuals such as Margaret Chan and Calvin Cheng.

Responding to a resurfaced past photograph of some Raffles Institution students in blackface, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung stated that while it is good that the young are “standing up for what’s right”, they also need to understand that Singapore’s racial situation differs from that of America, which has “a painful history of slavery, a civil war, and a civil rights movement that had to struggle against racial segregation”. The assumption behind this is that, in contrast, Singapore’s state of race relations is the result of a largely peaceful intermingling of the many economic migrants since our precolonial days.

This conventional view needs rethinking if we hope to begin the process of reconceptualising racial discourse in Singapore.

If we play up an East-West dichotomy on concepts concerning social relations—where terms with an allegedly Western origin therefore become inapplicable here—then one could likewise argue that we should rethink our use of terms like ‘meritocracy’ and ‘multiculturalism’, because these too originated from the same part of the globe as ‘blackface’.

Yet we have decided to make these concepts definitive of how we choose to live in Singapore. Put another way, we see resonances in these so-called Western concepts. We have adapted them to suit our contexts. We have not done this unthinkingly, but with some measure of critical reflection.

As I have highlighted earlier, this practice of nuanced reworking is not alien to the region of maritime Southeast Asia, to which Singapore belongs.  For instance, Islam was spread in precolonial Java by its wali songo, or nine saints, in a fashion that syncretised the then-prevailing Hindu and animist beliefs of the Javanese people.

The practice of nuanced reworking is also present in the concept of ‘canopied pluralism’ introduced by the anthropologist Robert Hefner to describe the fluidity of Malay identity in the region. Hefner argues that the different types of ethnic groups in the region like the Bugis, Javanese and such developed “a transethnic sense of Malayo-Indonesian civilisation” that promotes the flow of ideas and customs across the region.

We can describe this as fluid thinking that engages and modifies concepts from other cultures. Metaphorically speaking, it is commensurate with our region’s maritime landscape, where borders are porous. At sea, customs checkpoints are less of a fixture than on land. Ideas, like people, cross boundaries easily.

Toward an organic critical vocabulary

For Singapore’s ethnic minorities, subjected to years of culturally insensitive advertisements and jokes, the term ‘brownface’ is not a foreign idea imposed on us. Quite the opposite. It represents access to a compendium of critical vocabulary that can help us articulate the racial discrimination we face as a lived reality.

The strong reaction that came from ethnic minorities, especially younger Singaporeans, to the Raeesah Khan fiasco and the brownface advertisement, suggests that they feel that their negative experiences of racial discrimination have not been acknowledged. As an indication, a number of posts by some ethnic minorities on the We Stand Behind Raeesah’s page express disappointment at the punitive treatment of people who have spoken up about racial discrimination. The Instagram account Minority Voices recently highlighted a young Malay woman’s experience of losing out on a potential job because she was not comfortable with removing her hijab, as required by the employer.

I have outlined why drawing from global and organic critical vocabularies on race can happen in tandem with each other, and need not be seen as mutually contradictory. A good example of this dual process is the term ‘Chinese privilege’. This is sometimes seen as derivative of the concept of ‘white privilege’ in America, which makes it susceptible to the charge of Westernisation. Yet a smattering of emerging research suggests that this idea is not unthinking mimicry.

For instance, graduate student Hydar Saharudin, in his 2016 article Confronting ‘Chinese Privilege’ in Singapore, outlines how the concept developed historically within Singapore, independent of America’s racial discourse. He points to the creation of the Special Assistance Plan schools in 1979, which had transformed “Chinese-medium schools into well-funded, elite monocultural institutions”. Hydar points out that Malay and Tamil-medium schools were not extended this “special aid”. In this example, we see the blending of both global and local elements to the concept of ‘Chinese privilege’.

However, if we accept that Singaporeans have been better at drawing from a global critical vocabulary than from an organic one, what can be done to embrace the latter? As a start, one can take a leaf from the playwright Alfian Sa’at, who recently posted on social media about a number of academic and creative works that havec influenced his own thoughts about race.

These include the seminal sociological book The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) by Syed Hussein Alatas, a former head of the Malay Studies department at the National University of Singapore. One of the book’s most valuable observations is the ill-fitting venture of judging the work performed by native agrarian labourers according to the standard of European colonial capitalism. The author argues that one cannot equitably compare the work done by a coal seller in an Indonesian countryside and that of a factory worker in a European city. Their concepts of productivity and work cycle differ greatly. Yet this was exactly what the European colonialists did, leading them to dismiss Southeast Asian natives as indolent. In other words, theoretical frames shape our ideas of race and culture. An ill-fitting framework will result in a misdiagnosis, which could exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, a social issue that we wish to tackle.

Workers’ Party candidate Fadli Fawzi’s critique of racialism and his call for a shift toward a more structural lens provoked much discussion during GE2020. (Photo: Fadli Fawzi’s Twitter account)

In terms of framework, more work can be done to study racialism, a phenomenon different from racism. Racism is a malicious practice that dehumanises people on the basis of differences of ethnicity and at times religion. It is often expressed as hate speech, though not necessarily, as it can also come in the form of subtle remarks that can be described as ‘microaggressions’. Racialism, however, can appear rational and practical. It posits that races have essential traits proven by empirical evidence, such as education performance and health indicators. Thus, racialism categorises people neatly into manageable boxes. In Singapore, racialism manifests itself most clearly through racialised data which then informs our social, education and health policies.

This point was raised by electoral candidate Fadli Fawzi in campaigning for data transparency. He pointed to how race-centric data on obesity has led to the conclusion that this is a ‘Malay issue’. He advocates that policymakers should also factor in income levels when trying to address such issues, to avoid pinning the blame entirely on an ethnic community’s culture.

While access to a global critical vocabulary allows us to see resonances across contexts, developing an organic vocabulary enables us to be precise about our experiences. This can help us better articulate the uniqueness of our situation and can possibly result in policies that are more reflective of our contexts.

Here, we should ask ourselves an expansive question like “How can we understand the experience of racial discrimination in Singapore?” and not “Does racism exist in Singapore?” or “Is brownface relevant to Singapore?”. The latter questions invite yes-no answers which may be easier to tabulate, but do not tell us very much of the complex ways that people experience discrimination and privilege. They can, in fact, even stop us from delving further into a dialogue.

With more expansive questions, we might expect to hear a plethora of answers that may point to how existing structures in legislation, policies or hiring practices have contributed to racial discrimination. They will lead to responses that may be difficult to hear, but if we approach these with an open mind, we could make more targeted changes to structures that have a real impact on how we lead our lives.

In the aftermath of GE2020, Education Minister Ong has announced that his ministry will train a group of specialist teachers to facilitate discussions about race, language and religion “openly, knowledgably and respectfully”. There is some reason to be cautiously optimistic about this announcement as a first step towards a better racial discourse.

However, it is also important here not to design a pedagogy about how to communicate better. The examples that I have outlined suggest that racial discrimination and privilege are not abstract concepts but issues with real material costs, such as losing out on job offers. In this sense, racial equality must be seen as a bread-and-butter issue.

In essence, there is a need in Singapore to shed our fear of talking about race in a frank manner. This also means to shed the fear of ‘Westernisation’, especially if ideas from elsewhere can empower Singaporeans to reflect critically about our own situations. Yet it is high time that scholars and activists interested in race relations in Singapore and Southeast Asia do the hard work of mining our own traditions and contexts to articulate our own experiences. We must not become nativist nor reductive in this venture. The work is cut out for us, but the region is certainly not bereft of deep thoughts on the matter.

Further reading

Alfian Sa’at, “Views on race in Singapore”, Facebook(8 Jul 2020), accessed 15 Jul 2020.

Lode Frank Brakel, “Islam and local traditions: Syncretic ideas and practices”, Indonesia and the Malay World, 32.92:5-20 (2004)

Margaret Chan, “’Brownface’ is not Singaporean”, The Straits Times (7 Aug 2019), accessed 15 Jul 2020.

Calvin Cheng, “First post – 14th parliament of Singapore” (11 Jul 2020), accessed 16 Jul 2020.

Fadli Fawzi, “Reframing community issues away from race” (3 Jul 2020), accessed 15 Jul 2020.

Robert W. Hefner, “Multiculturalism and citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia” in Robert W. Hefner (ed.), The politics of multiculturalism: Pluralism and citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (University of Hawai’i Press, 2001)

Hydar Saharudin, “Confronting ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore”, New Mandala (2 Nov 2016), accessed 15 Jul 2020.

Losing out on a job offer because of the hijab”, Minority Voices (16 Jul 2020), accessed 17 Jul 2020.

Syed Hussein Alatas, The myth of the lazy native: A study of the image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to 20th century and its function in the ideology of colonial capitalism (Routledge, 1977)

We stand with Raeesah”, Facebook group, accessed 15 Jul 2020.

MOE to train teachers in discussing race, language, religion issues: Ong Ye Kung”, Yahoo News Singapore (17 Jul 2020), accessed 17 Jul 2020.

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