Politically apathetic no more? Young Singaporean perspectives on race and civil liberties

Academic Views, GE2020 / Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

Saleena Saleem (a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool) and Adi Saleem Bharat (an LSA Collegiate Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan and the co-founder and coordinator of the Jewish-Muslim Research Network) consider the implications of the events of GE2020 for how race and civil liberties are discussed in Singapore.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified deep societal grievances over job insecurity and inequalities, which had been brewing for some years. Although the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) acted decisively with fiscal policies and cash handouts to mitigate the impact of the crisis, its call for a strong mandate in the election did not materialise.

The PAP’s popular vote declined 8.7 points from 69.9% in the 2015 general election to 61.2%. Against this national backdrop, the Workers’ Party (WP) win in Sengkang group representation constituency (GRC) is particularly interesting. WP’s 26-year-old candidate, Raeesah Khan, was being investigated by the police for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race. The police investigation, which has not yet concluded, focused on past Facebook posts by her, critiquing institutional racism that disadvantaged racial minorities. Though some condemned her on social media, this was countered by an outpouring of support, with the hashtag #IStandWithRaeesah trending on Twitter over two days and a proliferation of political artwork. The eventual success of the WP team in Sengkang showed the limitations of the PAP’s decades-long practice of intimidating political opposition, as well as of Singapore’s silencing of more outspoken minority voices.

More importantly, the contest suggests an evolving political culture. First, some younger Singaporeans appear increasingly unafraid to express assertively more radical solutions to the country’s socio-economic problems. Second, under-30s appear willing to talk publicly about institutional racism, a subject long been pushed aside by the PAP government. Third, they reject the party’s longstanding distinction between, on the one hand, race issues and civil liberties and, on the other, economic insecurity or “bread and butter” issues. Instead, some Singaporeans recognise that racial inequality and freedom of expression are intimately linked to issues of economic insecurity.

Youth perceptions of race and freedom of expression

It is perhaps unsurprising that youth voices on racial inequality and political bullying arose in an election that most assumed would be dominated by the issue of economic insecurity. Younger Singaporeans have increasingly been pushing the boundaries on race—be it over migrant workers or Singapore’s racial minorities—in recent years. The #IStandWithRaeesah moment may be a manifestation of a brewing disconnect between youth and the PAP government on race and freedom of expression.

This satirical image, critiquing a resort to police investigations when race is discussed, has been widely shared on social media.

The same disconnect was apparent in the “brownface” saga last July. In response to a racially insensitive brownface advertisement, YouTuber Preetipls and rapper Subhas Nair produced a rap music video calling out racism and Chinese privilege. This was subsequently banned and they were investigated by the police under Section 298 of the Penal Code (the offence of deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person). While they were ultimately not charged, the incident underscored the PAP government’s rigid stance of curbing freedom of expression on racial issues for the sake of racial harmony.

In the months prior to GE2020, the COVID-19 crisis brought underlying racial and class inequalities into sharp focus. The rapid spread of the virus among migrant workers in dormitories precipitated Singapore’s two-month lockdown, which inevitably led to job losses. It brought to light the poor living and working conditions of low-wage menial workers, and the country’s over-reliance on cheap migrant labour. Familiar racist sentiments surfaced, such as assertions that the poor hygiene of South Asian migrant workers—rather than their over-crowded living quarters—was responsible for the virus’ spread. But, significantly, when a mainstream Chinese-language newspaper published a letter that called migrant workers backward for eating with their hands, a young Chinese Singaporean translated it into English and posted it on social media, flagging it as an example of racism. Online news media then ran with the story. Thus, there have been indications that younger Singaporeans are ready to push wider society to confront uncomfortable realities of race relations.

In this new milieu, authorities accustomed to smothering all provocative speech have found it a challenge to deal with antiracist satire, for example. Thus, in the tense pre-election period, police reports were filed over racially insensitive tweets about Indian migrant workers by @sharonliew86, a two-year old Twitter parody account that satirised racist micro-aggressions faced by racial minorities in Singapore. The satirical nature of the account was clear to many on Twitter; the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, had even engaged in light-hearted online banter with the account. The individual behind the account turned out to be Malay, and he was charged under Section 298A of the Penal Code (the offence of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race) only days before it was announced that Raeesah, herself Malay, faced investigations under the same law.

Given that issues of race and voice were already in the consciousness of younger people prior to the election, the PAP’s attack on Raeesah may have been a tipping point, prompting many Singaporeans to come out in open and vocal defence of the young WP candidate, as an emblem of the broader struggle against racism and for freedom of speech.

Virtual activism and social engagement in an unfree political system

This outpouring of support was spurred by a group of vocal young Singaporeans. Already socially engaged and attuned to such matters, they were also adept at utilising social media to galvanise public interest, enabling them to act with the urgency required by the short campaign period. This episode demonstrates yet again how the extension of the public sphere into online space allows activists to bypass the usual boundaries of acceptable discourse enforced by the state and mainstream media gatekeepers.

While there is little open discussion in Singapore’s establishment media on fundamental issues at the intersection of race and class, such discussions frequently occur on social media among Singaporeans who demonstrate a greater awareness of these issues.

Racism was the subject of much online discussion prior to the election, due in part to the Black Lives Matter protests going on in the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Just prior to the election, the re-ignited Black Lives Matter protests in the United States added to this race-consciousness. As white America faced a reckoning over its long history of anti-Black racism, Singaporeans of all races took to task on Twitter a Chinese Singaporean who claimed Chinese privilege did not exist in Singapore. Young Singaporeans also pooled together to compile online resources to educate each other on race relations in Singapore.

In general, Singaporean political Twitter is replete with strikingly assertive virtual politics that remain difficult to openly replicate in the formal public sphere. Singapore Twittersphere, in this sense, functions as a “subaltern counterpublic” where counter discourses that are normally excluded from dominant public spaces are expressed and propagated. Some research on Twitter and political movements suggest that tweets, characterised by concise and direct language and well adapted for easy mass diffusion, “may be catalytic in someone’s spontaneous decision to become involved in specific political acts online or offline, lending support to a certain movement.” As these counterpublics continue to develop and propagate, they may lead some Singaporeans to a greater engagement in social and political organising both within and beyond the virtual realm.

Indeed, there has already been a marked increase in youth civic organising around socio-political issues, signalling a waning of the aversion to political and social advocacy and activism that has been dominant among youth since the 1980s. Youth-led initiatives such as the Community for Advocacy & Political Education (CAPE) have organised political literary and civic engagement activities, including in the lead-up to GE2020. SG Climate Rally, a non-profit organisation led by young Singaporeans, held its first physical rally last year.

Like elsewhere in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has also seen the emergence of mutual aid networks in Singapore spearheaded by young Singaporeans. Mutual aid, a concept popularised by anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, refers to the voluntary, reciprocal exchange of resources and services. Often summed up by the slogan “solidarity not charity”, mutual aid is about empowering groups of individuals to come together to take care of themselves outside of the framework of the state, precisely because the state, in anarchist philosophy, is an inherently violent structure. Indeed, Wares, a group that has been coordinating mutual aid efforts in Singapore, states, “capitalism is the crisis, and the state keeps it in place.”

These mutual aid efforts explicitly include migrant workers, long marginalised and ignored by most Singaporeans. Younger Singaporeans have organised to provide assistance specifically to migrant workers during the pandemic, with a group called Citizen Adventures raising S$786,000 to this end. A preliminary observation of Wares’ mutual aid Telegram chat suggests an overrepresentation of young Singaporeans. Could this reflect willingness to organise outside of an unfree political system with which they are disillusioned? Anyone interested in the future of political change in Singapore needs to take this possibility seriously.

Opposition parties and political boundaries on race and civil liberties

However, whether younger Singaporeans can continue to engage and organise around these issues depends heavily on whether the PAP government now adopts a softer approach to dissenting voices, or doubles down on its rigid stance. The party has spoken of internal change since before the handover of the premiership of Goh Chok Tong, but it has been slow to evolve on racial inequality and freedom of expression. Opposition parties strengthened by the 2020 election may now have an opening to push the boundaries of such political discourse. However, not all are equally invested in this.

An ambulance damaged during the events in Little India in December 2013—an incident which brought public attention to the situation of low-wage migrant workers. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Few opposition platforms acknowledge explicitly that Singapore’s economic success has been partly built on the backs of poorly treated and severely underpaid migrant workers. For many Singaporeans, the plight of these workers came to the fore in December 2013, following riots in Little India, after an Indian construction worker was run over by a bus and killed. A potentially productive conversation about the frustrations felt by migrant workers was obfuscated by the government’s suggestion that alcohol consumption was to blame for the rioting (a ban on alcohol sales and consumption after 10.30pm followed).

During the 2015 elections, no political party’s manifesto even mentioned migrant workers. By contrast, in 2020, the opposition, to varying degrees, addressed migrant workers in their campaign messages. The newest opposition party, Progress Singapore Party (PSP), proposed curbs on the over-dependence on low-wage migrant workers to push employers to invest in higher productivity processes, but did not address the welfare of migrant workers. The WP proposed improving living conditions in dormitories, ensuring dormitory operators comply with the law, and setting up a statutory board to “proactively set and enforce standards for work and living conditions for all foreign workers on Work Permits.”

In the Singapore Democratic Party’s campaign messages, the party said it was not enough to improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers, arguing that Singapore had to move beyond its overdependence on exploitation. The SDP believes that instituting a minimum wage for all jobs will decrease reliance on the exploitation of cheap, ill-treated migrant labour.

On the issue of social inequality, while class differences were addressed by the PSP and the WP, there was hardly mention of the intersection of race and class. On the other hand, the SDP explicitly focuses on racial inequality. Although Singapore is a racialised society – with citizens carrying identity cards stating their race (something the SDP seeks to abolish), and racial quotas in public housing – public debates about race are strictly policed. Moreover, as mentioned above, attempts by minorities to highlight and criticise structural inequalities facing racial minorities have occasionally been met by (the threat of) legal action.

In particular, Malays in Singapore are disproportionately represented in the prison system, suffer from an increasing educational attainment and wealth gap, and face poorer health outcomes than Chinese and Indian Singaporeans. In addition, being mostly Muslim, Malays have long been constructed by the state as an internal security ‘problem’ to be managed. In this regard, the SDP is unique in being the only political party to explicitly address structural racism in Singapore, employing the term “institutional racism”, which is rare in mainstream Singaporean public discourse, but increasingly familiar to some younger Singaporeans.

Screengrab from SDP website (captured on 4 August 2020). The authors contend that the SDP is unique in explicitly addressing structural racism.

The personal trajectory of Jufrie bin Mahmood, who began his political career in the early 1980s in the WP before joining the SDP, is illustrative of the SDP’s long-term, explicit, and unique commitment to tackling racial inequality. In 1991, Jufrie was a WP candidate for the Eunos group representation constituency (GRC). His outspoken statements about racial inequality and the situation of Malays in Singapore led to the PAP labelling him a “Malay chauvinist”. Seizing on his use of the common expression “insya’allah” (God willing) in his campaign oratory, the PAP claimed that he represented a return to communal politics. At the time, the WP did not challenge the PAP’s attack on their candidate.

In 2017, the WP’s first and only Malay MP, Faisal bin Abdul Manap, was rebuked for bringing up in Parliament the unfair practice of banning headscarves from schools and certain workplaces. In 2019, Faisal was again fiercely challenged by PAP MPs and ministers, including Law and Home Affairs minister K. Shanmugam, who asserted that Faisal did not adhere to the secular principle of separating religion from politics. As in the Jufrie case, Faisal’s WP parliamentary colleagues did not defend him. Instead, Pritam Singh, the Secretary-General of the WP, appeared to agree with Shanmugam, stating that “it is important that you remember that you have to represent the interests of every community, not just yours.” In 2020, the WP fielded younger and more relatable Malay candidates. One of them, Fadli bin Fawzi, declared that “we should reframe the conversation about community issues away from the lens of race [and] instead look at the structural conditions and the socio-economic causes that give rise to these problems.”

WP candidate Fadli’s comments on reframing community issues away from race toward class prompted much discussion during the campaigning period of GE2020. (Photo: Fadli Fawzi Facebook page)

By this, Fadli may have aimed to shift the focus from a prevalent racist stereotype that attributes socio-economic disparities faced by Malay Singaporeans (compared to other races) to Malay culture. However, Fadli, like the WP more generally, inadvertently forwards the notion that these disparities will be ameliorated solely by economic reforms.

This framing may be an adaptation to the taboo on too direct a critique of racism, institutional or otherwise. Despite the overwhelming sociological and historical evidence that Singaporean society is significantly racially stratified, the prevailing doxa, enforced by the PAP government, is that public discussions and debates directly touching on racial inequality risk spilling over into communal politics. The authorities thus evoke the spectre of race riots from earlier Singaporean history.

The PSP—the other opposition party that will have a presence in the new Parliament—is led by PAP defector Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who has stressed compassion as a core party value, to contrast with PAP’s image as elitist and uncaring. The PSP obtained 48% of the votes in West Coast GRC, qualifying them for two Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats. The party is anchored by older establishment-type Singaporeans. Dr Tan made a concerted effort to connect with young people via social media, signalling his receptivity to their concerns of race and social justice by using terms such as “woke”. But the party may suffer difficulties growing beyond the charisma of its aging leader.

During the campaigning period, SDP candidate Damanhuri Abas pointed out televised debates were held only in English and Mandarin, and not in the two official minority languages (Malay and Tamil). Damanhuri’s critique, Jufrie’s switch from the WP to the SDP, and the more recent Faisal incident in Parliament reflects both the WP’s adherence (until recently) to the PAP’s discursively race-blind approach to politics, and the SDP’s greater willingness to explicitly challenge state-driven racial inequality.

The WP’s stout defence of Raeesah may signal a shift in the approach of Singapore’s largest opposition party. Interestingly, even the PAP performed an about-face of sorts. Its public attack on Raeesah ended abruptly; on the last night of campaigning, party leader Lee Hsien Loong seemed to make a peace offering to her young fans, acknowledging a generation gap in the way Singaporeans wished to talk about race. The coming months will reveal if indeed younger Singaporeans are finally bringing about change in how the country is prepared to discuss race and civil liberties.

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