Why there is Chinese privilege in Singapore, but it’s not analogous to White privilege

Academic Views / Thursday, June 17th, 2021

Sai Siew Min, a Singaporean historian now based in Taipei, discusses key features of the Singapore context which distinguish “Chinese privilege” from “White privilege”, including the role of political authoritarianism, the landscape of linguistic inequalities, and the visibility of racialisation as “Chinese” in Singapore, which connects to our incomplete understanding of the history of the organic Malay world of this region, Chinese migration within it, and colonialism.

Editors’ note, 21 June 2021: The heading and first two paragraphs of the fourth section of this article have been edited, at the author’s request, to remove the previous description of Chinese privilege as “earned assets” and emphasise the key point concerning the specificity of the ways in which Chinese privilege is visible/invisible. The author would like to acknowledge the critique of Laavanya Kathiravelu concerning this passage.


While scholars, commentators and politicians acknowledge the existence of racism and racialised privilege in Singapore, some suggest that the concept of Chinese privilege is too simplistic or inapplicable because it draws from a disanalogous context. The original 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh offers a definition of “White privilege” based on the privilege system that exists in the United States: the “invisible and weightless knapsack” of “unearned assets that [a White person] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [they are] “meant” to remain oblivious”. The author identifies key ways in which the privilege system that exists in Singapore differs, so that Chinese privilege–while it exists–must also be understood differently:

  • Singapore’s political authoritarianism has benefited heteronormative Chinese men and their outlook disproportionately, in a way which extends into many domains. As this is moreover defended as a quality of “Asian-ness” while leaving many Singaporeans feeling helpless, there is a qualitative force to privilege in Singapore which differs from unconscious White privilege.

  • Linguistic inequalities in Singapore, arising from educational reforms beginning in the 1970s, must be considered. Some argue this produces English language hegemony and Chinese language marginality, undermining the concept of Chinese privilege. The author argues that this partial critique does not take into account the marginality and inequalities affecting the vernacular languages of non-Chinese minorities, the elevation of English-Mandarin bilingualism above other bilingualisms, and the uniquely bureaucratic definition of “mother tongue language” which renders Chinese Singaporeans beholden to standards of Chinese-ness which cannot be met. These factors mean that Chinese privilege contains an element of undesirable skewing of the psyche, also identified by McIntosh as part of White privilege, in the form of a sense of grievance which makes it difficult to see injustices suffered by others.

  • Third, “White privilege” is said to confer “unearned assets” on people deemed “non-coloured”. In the Singapore context of policies based on the CMIO model since the 1970s, Chinese people are visibly racialised and face continual efforts to educate, reform, regulate, and police elements of Chinese-ness. Chinese privilege is therefore better understood as connected to ideas (including stereotypes) of Chinese-ness, in turn rooted in partial Sinocentric narratives about Chinese pioneering-colonisation-settlement-migration in the region. More understanding of the organic regional Malay world and the long history of Chinese migration here, not merely a binary understanding of “Chinese” colonialism versus that of “the West”, is needed to inform analysis of racism and anti-racist practice.

  • One of the most useful commentaries I have read about “White privilege” (and I must confess I have not read many) is a book review by Jacqui Shine, in the LA Review of Books, of The Perils of Privilege by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. Bovy apparently raised objections to the concept of “privilege” in America that resonated with several commentators and academics in Singapore. The Straits Times journalist Yuen Sin echoed Bovy’s critique that privilege is often used too loosely to call out individuals. Rightly or wrongly, such “privilege call-outs” jump-start cycles of toxic narcissism, consisting of scripted performances of self-righteous accusations followed by either penitent admission or outraged denial of guilt, which do not lead to meaningful interrogation of systemic inequalities and racism. Similarly, sociologists Daniel Goh and Terence Chong worry that the use of “Chinese privilege” has become “a pleasurable act of Foucauldian confession by some well-intentioned Singaporeans to reinforce their feelings of goodness and purity while avoiding genuine anti-racism actions.”[1]

    (Photo: Wikipedia)

    Jacqui Shine cuts to what I think is the nub of this debate about Chinese privilege. Shine argues that while the privilege concept is not without its flaws, its simplistic use on social media, in some instances by anti-racism activists themselves, is not unique to the privilege concept or activism aimed at consciousness-raising. One will be hard-put to find an influential concept or idea that has not been similarly “abused”. Confucianism comes to my mind readily. Shine, a historian, suggests that we read Peggy McIntosh’s original 1988 paper carefully instead of the more widely circulated abridged version. McIntosh’s original paper on white and male privilege was written from her vantage point as an academic-practitioner of Women’s Studies in America who is White. In it, McIntosh shares the critics’ concerns about the “perils” of the privilege concept used in naïve ways. In addition, Shine informs her readers of the long and productive intellectual genealogy of the concept in the Anglophone world. She looks at the term’s imbrication with colonialism, which I appreciate, since the currency of the Chinese privilege label belies a deeply historical dimension of how the privilege concept chimes with the way we think about language, race-ethnicity, and inter-ethnic relationships in Singapore today. 

    I believe the academic debate over whether Chinese privilege is a helpful concept does not point to the actual absence of racialised privilege in Singapore, but to inadequate intellectual work on how we can comprehend racialised privilege in this country. Singapore’s political leadership has acknowledged that racism exists in Singapore.[2] While Goh and Chong find the privilege concept unproductive, they too agree there is systemic racism in the country. Given the reality of racism, it is valid to ask together with Mcintosh whether racism here only disadvantages particular communities without over-empowering a dominant group(s) even in relative terms. We can only do rigorous intellectual work by drawing on empirical evidence. The myriad cumulative writings, observations, and testimonies of experiences of racialised privilege in Singapore provide more than sufficient data for social scientists to delve into the phenomenon and not dismiss the privilege concept as shallow, distracting, and reflective of “something” or “somewhere” else. It seems evident to me that critical intellectual work on privilege in Singapore has barely begun, and efforts in this direction should not be foreclosed prematurely. To be honest, I did find the debate over Chinese privilege frustrating and confusing initially, but learning about the privilege concept from multiple sources has surfaced what I think is a pressing issue, especially for Chinese Singaporeans. There is a profound lack of reflexivity on our own history of Chinese-ness in Singapore, one not tied intuitively to larger and, if I may add, equally simplistic notions of “Chinese language,” “culture” or “diaspora”, the authenticity of which can always only be located elsewhere. This vacated sense of Chinese-ness for most Chinese Singaporeans has fed a unique understanding of racialised privilege here which needs to be addressed head-on.      

    Chinese privilege, White privilege 

    But first, McIntosh’s 1988 paper.[3] All of the writing advocating the utility of the Chinese privilege concept leans on her definition of White privilege. She writes that White privilege is like an “invisible and weightless knapsack” of “unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious”.[4] It is this particular definition of privilege that is transferred directly onto Chinese privilege. Academic or not, Singaporeans are stuck with this definition, and we have been arguing incessantly over whether Chinese privilege exists and what “unearned assets” Chinese Singaporeans enjoy. Yet McIntosh’s paper makes clear this is an incomplete definition of the privilege concept. The most valuable point of McIntosh’s essay has not surfaced in our discussion of Chinese privilege at all, and this is her idea of a “privilege system”. 

    The second half of McIntosh’s paper points to the drawbacks of seeing the invisible and weightless advantages making up white privilege as wholly desirable. In contrast, some benefits confer dominance through the license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and oppressive, which should not be conceived as “desirable” in any way. Thinking of a “privilege system” holistically, McIntosh argues for an approach that documents a “more finely differentiated taxonomy of privileges” as well as their uneven and damaging effects, including on “skewed white psyches”. She writes:

    …the word “privilege” now seems to be misleading. Its connotations are too positive to fit the conditions and behaviors which “privilege systems” produce. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. School graduates are reminded they are privileged and urged to use their (enviable) assets well. The word “privilege” carries the connotation of being something everyone must want. Yet, some of the conditions I have described here work to systemically over-empower certain groups. Such privilege confers dominance, gives permission to control because of one’s race or sex. The kind of privilege that gives license to some people to be, at best, thoughtless and, at worst, murderous should not continue to be referred to as a desirable attribute. Such “privilege” may be widely desired without being in any way beneficial to the whole society.[5]

    Reading McIntosh 1988, it seems to me that the privilege concept applies to Singapore but only if we undo assumptions that Chinese privilege is analogous to White privilege, despite apparent resonances between the two. For example, the overlap between male and racialised privilege has given rise to the dominance of white men in one context and Chinese men in the other, with both groups functioning on assumptions of heteronormativity. Such resonances make the privilege concept compelling as a framework for examining interlocking inequalities supporting systemic racism, and point to productive possibilities of border-crossing knowledge production that has never been constrained in the first place by the invisible disciplinary and ideational boundaries we are so prone to. 

    On 16 July 2021, AcademiaSG hosted a roundtable on racism which can be viewed here.

    The privilege concept is not just relevant; it is necessary given growing class and income inequalities, so we should be reflecting critically on Singapore’s “privilege system” and its built-in biases. To approach privilege in Singapore holistically, it behooves us to ask questions that begin with the fundamentals, such as what characterises Singapore’s privilege system; what “taxonomies of privilege” and its effects can we observe and document; how does Singapore’s privilege system recruit, interpellate, educate, reward and punish individuals whether Chinese or non-Chinese, male or female, elite and non-elite; what historical processes, events, and contingencies underpinned the development of privilege in Singapore; what is the dominant worldview of Singapore’s privilege system; what ideologies and narratives are in play to construct, perpetuate and enforce it. This list is by no means exhaustive, but the point is that Chinese privilege does not make sense in relation to White privilege; Chinese privilege makes sense in relation to Singapore’s privilege system.

    One key difference between White and Chinese privilege is Singapore’s political authoritarianism and the extent to which educational and social hierarchies are interwoven in ways that concentrate power overwhelmingly in a dominant state. Consciously or otherwise, Singapore’s political authoritarianism has benefited heteronormative Chinese men and their outlook disproportionately. The dominance of their outlook also appears to extend from the political arena to other significant areas of life including the civil service, business, and academia.  That Singapore’s authoritarianism is defended loudly as a quality of our “Asian-ness,” (versus “the West”)—as “what works” and is assented to by Singaporeans who are overcome mainly by feelings of helplessness at the brazen workings of autocratic power—gives privilege a qualitative force quite unlike the diffused power of unconscious White privilege.  

    Chinese privilege and our language-inflected contradictions

    Many Chinese and non-Chinese Singaporeans agree that there are indeed “unearned assets” that accrue to the majority race-ethnicity by virtue of Chinese numerical superiority. Alfian Sa’at has tried to provide further clarity by explaining Chinese privilege is a type of majoritarian advantage. In thoughtful pieces, the Straits Times and Zaobao journalists, Yuen Sin and Ng Wai Mun, agree that as individuals from the majority race-ethnicity, it is all too easy to neglect and ignore the presence and perspectives of people from minority groups on an everyday basis. But this seems to be as far as most Singaporeans will concede. Even then, “unearned majoritarian advantages” become stretchy when it is shown, as the two journalists and Goh and Chong did, that Singapore’s post-independence language and education policies have disempowered large sections of dialect-speaking and/or Chinese-educated persons. Chan Heng Chee also repeated this and did not find Chinese privilege applicable in Singapore. She refers to two historical instances of “disadvantages” suffered by the Chinese community: one, when Singapore became independent, they did not push for Chinese as the national language even though they were the overwhelming majority population; and two, the closure of Nantah left entire generations of students educated in Chinese-medium schools without recourse to higher education opportunities. Many struggled with English language hegemony on a quotidian level. Understood as “unearned assets”, Chinese privilege does not seem to apply to this group of disadvantaged and often non-elite Chinese Singaporeans.

    Nantah monument. (Photo: lamcs52)

    Other commentators in Zaobao have also written that Chinese privilege is at risk of becoming a convenient and all-encompassing label. They are aggrieved at this misplaced criticism from the Anglophone world, which they see as yet another sign of English language hegemony in Singapore. Shen Zewei points to instances of English language hegemony and Chinese language marginality, arguing that Chinese Singaporeans fall into different types. There are people who identify with Chinese culture and those who do not; there are bilingual elites, monolingual English-speaking elites, and monolingual Chinese-speaking non-elites. Shen writes that if so-called Chinese privilege exists, it is definitely not applicable to the last group. Shen argues further that so-called “privilege” exists because it is habitual and unconscious, so whereas some see “Chinese privilege”, others see “English language privilege”. Shen finds it especially jarring that “negative privilege” is portrayed as “privilege” when the usage of one’s MTL is looked down upon and seen as reflective of low societal station.[6] And so, we end up with this contradictory situation that appears to disprove Chinese privilege: while the Chinese community constitutes the majority race-ethnicity, the hegemony of English has reduced all non-English languages—including languages used by large sections within the Chinese community —to “minority” languages. 

    Linguistic inequalities are especially crucial because they mark our second significant divergence from the American context and require deeper reflexivity on the specific character of these discourses. The problem of language begins with translating “Chinese privilege” as “huaren tequan/华人特权” in Mandarin, which re-translates literally into English as “Chinese special rights.” In light of Singapore’s fractious merger and separation from Malaysia in our recent past, this term—more so than its English original—invokes its direct parallel, “Malay special rights”. The notion of racialised “special rights” draws on an entirely different genealogy and meaning from the privilege concept understood as unconscious enjoyment of advantages originating from “White privilege”. A more faithful translation of “Chinese privilege” should convey the meaning of “privilege” as a favourable state or quality, but also create room for a holistic discussion problematising privilege systems and the positive connotation of the word as argued by McIntosh. In place of huaren tequan/华人特权, I suggest translating “Chinese privilege” as “huaren youshi/华人优势”; youshi/优势 is a direct and neutral rendition of the word “advantage.” 

    The cross-fire over Chinese language users’ lesser status does not point to the inapplicability of the privilege concept in Singapore. Instead, it is absolutely necessary to consider a holistic definition of privilege in view of multiple kinds of linguistic inequalities in Singapore. Linguistic inequalities are at the crux of several contradictions experienced by Singaporeans, but these experiences are not those of the Chinese-speaking community alone. Here is another contradiction: we bemoan the marginality of the Chinese language and dialects in the face of English language hegemony, and yet English language hegemony has created common ground empowering non-Chinese Singaporeans to articulate themselves and they are heard effectively. At the same time, we do not hear as much about the marginality of non-Chinese MTL speakers, whose experiences are locked away in vernacular publics or literature that is not usually translated. Within the Anglophone and Sinophone communities in Singapore, there is little traction for regarding Malay as the national language and not just the MTL of the Malay community, so we end up with an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans not knowing how to speak the nation’s language.  

    Logo from the Speak Mandarin Campaign, with the tagline “Chinese person, Chinese language”. (Photo: Chinnian)

    Yet another contradiction: even in the face of English language hegemony, the different valence of Singapore’s bilingualisms centres the English-Chinese combination over and above other kinds. Far more resources and greater attention are channeled to promote and nurture English-Chinese bilingualism. The Speak Mandarin Campaign and SAP schools are fine examples of resources and efforts extended not to promote Mandarin Chinese per se but English-Chinese bilingualism. Currently, Mandarin Chinese is a privileged MTL compared to other MTLs. These, then, are some of the multiple language-inflected contradictions experienced by Singaporeans. A holistic look at Singapore’s linguistic inequalities requires a layered and not reductionistic interpretation of absolute Chinese language marginality juxtaposed against English language hegemony.

    It is easy for Chinese language speakers to fall into a reductionistic critique of English language hegemony because of a trenchant language ideology that surfaces periodically in public exercises lamenting or shaming Chinese Singaporeans for our declining proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. This is supposed to be the MTL of all ethnic Chinese but while scholars understand MTLs as “living languages” a child is introduced to organically at home, Singapore’s definition of MTL is a uniquely bureaucratic one. MTLs in Singapore are artificially prescribed to us and artificially simplified, re-engineered, and enforced. Not only were Sinophone regional languages from South China the “living languages” for most Chinese Singaporeans before they were edited out of their lives, they had historically mediated communication between Chinese and non-Chinese in their hybrid and romanised forms. Sino-Malay and Baba Malay, for instance, feature predominantly linguistic influences from Fujian province, but the very concept of “a mother tongue” leaves little room for the region’s multilingualism and translingualism. Beholden to standards of authentic Chinese-ness located “elsewhere”, Singapore’s understanding of the Chinese MTL will always judge Chinese Singaporeans as “deficient” because we are “inauthentic Chinese” by definition. An effective decolonial critique of English language hegemony here should not berate Chinese Singaporeans for our deficient Chinese-ness by toeing the dogmatic line of a bureaucratic definition of the Chinese MTL; it should acknowledge the hybridised and inter-ethnic pasts of languages and cultures in Singapore and the region.

    The concept of Chinese privilege must take into account the uneven outcomes of a radical re-engineering of our linguistic landscape and education system. This transformation can be dated to the late 1970s, with the overhaul of our education system privileging English dominant bilingualism, with life-changing consequences for individuals and unequal effects for entire communities. However, criticisms of the privilege concept and English language hegemony argued using the dominant language ideology and advocating for only Chinese language speakers is a partial critique that fails to consider multiple language-inflected contradictions in Singapore. Singapore’s language-inflected contradictions do not point to the absence of Chinese privilege but to different “taxonomies of privilege”. When our intellectuals and leaders deploy a partial account of Chinese language users’ marginality to negate rather than connect with the commonality of marginalised experiences of non-Chinese minorities, to dismiss rather than validate these other language-inflected contradictory experiences, Chinese privilege may not mean “unearned assets”, but it does mean something else. As argued by McIntosh, Chinese privilege means properties far less desirable—the license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and oppressive in ways that demand unchecked dominance. This particular category of socially undesirable privileges, McIntosh notes wisely, damage not only our collective good but also those who “suffer” these privileges, producing skewed worldviews and psyches, in this instance, myopia nursing a sense of grievance so great they cannot or refuse to see injustices suffered by others.  

    The hyper-visibility of Chinese-ness and the invisibility of Chinese privilege; or how to decolonise our history effectively

    My final point concerns a third significant difference between Chinese privilege and White privilege. McIntosh writes that the invisibility of White privilege in America comes from how White-ness is experienced as a “non-colour,” which makes it easy to lull White people into believing they are not racialised in ways that “coloured” people are. Chinese-ness, or any identity in Singapore for the matter, is a “colour” because all Singaporeans live our identities in racially marked ways. As the majoritarian race-ethnicity, discourses and narratives on Chinese-ness are hyper-visible and hyper-audible in English and Chinese.  Because Chinese-ness driven by the CMIO model involves constant efforts from different quarters (top-down and bottom-up) in educating, reforming, regulating, and policing elements of our Chinese-nese, with anxiety over Mandarin Chinese standards exemplifying these efforts.

    A dance performance at West Coast GRC for Racial Harmony Day. (Photo: Choo Yut Shing)

    Chinese-ness in Singapore is never taken for granted and Chinese Singaporeans feel that we are at constant risk of language and cultural “loss” which requires us to put in conscious work to either “adapt,” “preserve” or “defend Chinese language and culture” against all odds. Chinese-ness in Singapore is, therefore, conscious “work-in-progress”. The unconscious enjoyment or “suffering” of Chinese privilege in Singapore does not occur because Chinese-ness is lived like White-ness, as a “non-colour”. Rather, the invisibility of Chinese privilege occurs as an aspect of Singapore’s dramatic re-making of language and education policies using the CMIO model from the late 1970s onwards. The un-even effects of this transformation surface in the multiple language-inflected contradictions we experience today. When these contradictory experiences are filtered through the perspective of the Chinese majority, the partiality and invisibility of privilege is buttressed by hegemonic language ideologies, narratives, and discourses on Chinese-ness specific to the Singaporean and regional context.

    As “hyper-visible coloured identity”, narratives and discourses on Chinese-ness in Singapore and the region are not innocent. Long-standing and complex narratives and discourses on Chinese-ness in English and Chinese, dating to the colonial period, have shifted and morphed to reproduce sustained racialisation of Chinese-ness in positive and negative ways into contemporary times. Chinese migrant grit, for example, is a popular positive stereotype Singapore has embraced. Invoking a direct connection between racism and colonialism, theorists inspired by the example of White settler colonialism have described Chinese privilege as a function or effect of “Chinese settler colonialism”. 

    Our latest attempt to theorise a “Chinese” version of settler colonialism draws from caricatures and systematic knowledge production about “Chinese settler colonialism” already popular in the Anglophone literature as European expansion in the region intensified from the nineteenth century onwards. In British colonial records, for example, “Chinese shipping” was consistently described as “colonial shipping”, and Chinese migrants and settlers in the region as “colonists”. Eurocentric accounts of Chinese migration and settlement understood the Chinese presence here through the familiar model of White settler pioneering. Adopting analytical frameworks that shift our focus to region-specific mobility patterns and settlement in the Malay world demonstrates otherwise. 

    Historian Sunil Amrith’s work on intra-Asian migration and the Bay of Bengal puts the history of Chinese migration into regional perspective. He writes that one key difference between intra-Asian migrants and their trans-Atlantic counterpart lies in “the numbers of those settled rather than returned”.[7] By 1930, about 85 million people of British origin lived outside the British Isles, whereas about 6 to 7 million people of Indian origin, as well as a similar number of Chinese, had settled overseas by the end of 1930.[8]

    Moreover, in contrast to permanent settlement characterising White settler colonialism, semi-permanence and “circular migration”—also known as “sojourning”—was the norm for intra-Asian patterns of mobility.[9] Scholars of Chinese migration explain that the Chinese word qiao/僑 refers precisely to this pattern of circular migration and temporary settlement, but as Amrith reminds us, “sojourning” was not unique to Chinese migratory patterns, but was a notable feature of Indian and intra-Asian migration in this region. 

    Historical studies on patterns and typologies of mobility of migratory Chinese in the region before the colonial period show that indigenous polities have traditionally accommodated and absorbed migratory Chinese individuals and communities. This phenomenon of integrating sojourning Sinitic groups did not just happen to mercantile communities, but was true of a later typology of migratory laboring Chinese communities that only emerged in the Malay world during the 18th century. Their chief interest was commercial agriculture and mining. It is tempting to understand these non-indigenous Sinitic-speaking labouring communities occupying and developing land in the region as “settler colonisers” in the mould of White settler-colonists. And this was precisely how the Anglophone literature wrote about them. Knowledge produced by these Eurocentric perspectives consolidated the movement and settlement of different Sinitic-speaking migratory groups as a single phenomenon of migration and settlement by a uniform and homogeneous “Chinese” collectivity, but Sinitic-speaking migratory communities did not operate as a homogeneous and independent unit; rather, they blended into the Malay port polity’s existing socio-political-economic interests and structure. 

    Indigenous rulers directly engaged and imported Chinese labourers to plant and mine the land which remained under their jurisdiction and control. This model of multi-ethnic interdependent relationships between indigenous political power, Chinese, and non-Chinese migratory groups was a striking feature of the early modern Malay world. Like other non-Chinese migratory communities, migratory Chinese in this world were accommodated with full recognition that they were “foreign” to the Malay world. Yet the boundary between “foreign-ness” and what we now understand today as “indigeneity” was kept fluid and porous. Identity formation in the context of fluidity and porosity of boundaries and the intensity of multi-layered inter-ethnic interactions gave rise to diverse Peranakan communities in the Malay world, including the Peranakan Chinese.

    Both positive and negative racialised stereotyping of the Chinese was widely practised during the colonial period. Both were ideological products of Eurocentric interests and structures of knowledge production, and both were implicated in imperatives of European imperial expansion and ideological domination of the Malay world. Recruiting non-indigenous groups such as the migratory Chinese as “intermediaries” and “collaborators” was one key strategy of European imperial expansion in the region, and their collective incorporation into racial hierarchies designating “the Chinese” as a middling category superior to “the natives” is well-known. From the late nineteenth century onwards, negative racialised stereotyping of the Chinese became increasingly shrill in the region. The Chinese were condemned collectively as “exploiters of natives” and, in general, were portrayed as a threatening and unsavoury presence. 

    Some of the most vehement expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment came from White people. Narratives overwrought with “white guilt” about colonial exploitation of “native” populations were disseminated with Sinophobic narratives highlighting “native” victimhood at the hands of “alien” Chinese, as well as fears of “Chinese imperialism over-running the region”.[10] Arguments that counter positive portraits of Chinese-ness by drawing on an equally troubling history of negative racialisation of Chinese-ness do a half-job in decolonising the structures of colonialism Singapore inherited, leaving us further ensnared in mutual recriminations of racisms that continue to pay homage to Eurocentrism. Colonialist genealogies of Chinese-ness, therefore, complicates this recent attempt to transpose the model of White settler colonialism to explain the historicity of Chinese privilege in Singapore today. 

    The ideas of Liang Qichao, characterising Chinese migration in the region in terms of “failed” settler colonisers in contrast to more successful Western counterparts, have been influential. (Photo: Wikipedia)

    Nor is the Sinophone reaction—interrogating and denying Eurocentric interpretations of Chinese settler colonialism—novel. At the turn of the twentieth century, when ideas about the Chinese “race” and ethno-nation were keenly debated by Chinese intellectuals of different political persuasions, the  influential iconoclastic scholar Liang Qichao, seduced by the idea of White settler colonialism, re-imagined the so-called “Nanyang Chinese” (Southeast Asian Chinese) through a framework of “comparative nationalisms” and “comparative imperialisms” using White settler colonialism as his reference. However, Liang Qichao emphasised how the Nanyang Chinese were “different” from White settler colonisers because they were “failed” settler colonisers who could not match their far more “modern” White counterparts. Later iterations of Liang Qichao’s ideas, disseminated widely in Chinese school textbooks in the region, turned “failure” into “strength”, by describing Nanyang Chinese settler colonialism as essentially a “peaceful” force compared with the violence of European colonisation. As “faux White settler colonisers”, Chinese school textbooks portrayed the Nanyang Chinese in stereotypically positive terms: Nanyang Chinese were mainly interested in earning a livelihood, and their labour had helped to open up lands for cultivation and economic development in the region. This portrait was the other side of “the myth of the lazy native” that served the purposes of the colonial economy. 

    As a result of Liang Qichao’s nationalistic interpretation of Nanyang Chinese history and for much of the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese language terms for Nanyang Chinese “colonisation” (zhimin/殖民), “migration” (yimin/移民) and “pioneering” (tuozhi/拓殖) were used interchangeably. During the post-World War Two period, in tandem with the anti-colonial tenor of nationalisms in the region and most parts of the world, these Chinese terms suggestive of settler colonialism or any reference to the Chinese as a “colonial” presence in the region were deemed chauvinistic, politically insensitive, inappropriate and dropped from popular as well as academic usage. 

    This dialectical interplay between Eurocentric and Sinocentric interpretations of Chinese migration in the region has displaced Chinese privilege from our purview in Singapore. The density and longevity of genealogies of settler colonialism in the Anglophone and Sinophone literature must be untangled and not reproduced uncritically in our discussion about Chinese-ness and taxonomies of racialised privilege in Singapore. Our current discussion of Chinese privilege—including denials of its existence—draws much of its language, tropes and reasoning from this repetitive dialectic that encourages thinking of “the West” and “Chinese-ness” in binary oppositional terms. Lest we think Sinophone writings are the loci of an authentic “Chinese” version of settler colonialism, historians who have studied Liang Qichao and the scholarship on the Nanyang Chinese have mapped multilingual sources of inspiration and circuits of knowledge production, enabling the emergence of this ethno-nationalistic narrative as continental China’s reaction to global Western imperialism. 

    European imperial formation in the Malay world has provoked translingual genealogies of Chinese-ness that defy convenient racial stereotyping and binary East-West thinking in the region. In my essay in Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History, I argue that just as selective and gendered scripting of “Chinese migration” traceable to a singular point of origin in continental China makes patrilineal lineage visible while matrilineal, matrifocal, and region-specific elements fade away into the fringes of national history, what is eclipsed by a partial Sinocentric interpretation of Singapore’s national history and identity—performed as if it was countering “the West”—and how that eclipsing takes place, are questions that merit deeper reflexivity.[11] Singapore’s national history has embraced a muscular narrative of continuous Chinese pioneering-colonisation-settlement-migration in the region, traced anachronistically to “an ancestral nation”, which masks fragmented and truncated formations of race and identity for all Singaporeans, as a result of radical reconstitution of indigenous polities, borders, and spaces caused by European imperial formation and subsequent nation-building in the Malay world. Partial Sinocentric interpretations of Singapore’s past displace dense webs of trans-ethnic interactions as well as overlapping and connected histories that once made up an organic regional Malay world. Surfacing this Malay world and its discrepant histories of Chinese-ness, I suggest, is a necessary step towards grounded critiques of racism and privilege as part of our anti-racist practice in this part of the world. 

    Sai Siew Min researches Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia with a focus on imperial formation in Southeast Asia, the cultural politics of colonialism, nationalism, language, race and Chinese-ness. She grew up with a mixture of living Chinese languages including Mandarin, as well as English, and learned Bahasa Indonesia as part of her training as a Southeast Asian Studies scholar.  


    [1] Daniel P. S. Goh & Terence Chong (2020): ‘Chinese privilege’ as shortcut in Singapore: a rejoinder in Asian Ethnicity. Goh and Chong were writing in response to Humairah Zainal & Walid Jumblatt Abdullah (2019): Chinese privilege in politics: a case study of Singapore’s ruling elites, Asian Ethnicity.

    [2] See for example, ‘Racism still exists in Singapore but identity politics must not take root, says Lawrence Wong’ in ST, 21 January 2021.

    [3] Peggy McIntosh, “White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies” Working Paper 189, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley, MA. 

    [4] Ibid., p. 2.

    [5] Ibid., p.9

    [6] 沈泽玮(Shen Zewei), “华人特权”与弱势华语”(Chinese privilege and the marginality of Mandarin Chinese) in 早报(Zaobao) 31 January 2021.

    [7] Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: the furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants (Cam., Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 104.

    [8] Ibid.

    [9] Sunil S. Amrith, Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2011) pp.2-4.

    [10] Oiyan Liu notes that the shrill rhetoric of Sinophobia in the British and Dutch colonies during the 1920s expresses anxiety over the large presence of Chinese migrants, which was described as an “imperialistic” force. Liu Oiyan, “Countering ‘Chinese Imperialism’: Sinophobia and border protection in the Dutch East Indies” in Indonesia, Number 97, April 2014, pp. 87-110.‘Many’ instead of most?

    [11] Sai Siew Min, “Why Raffles is Still Standing: colonialism, migration and Singapore’s scripting of the present” in Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History (Singapore: Ethos, 2021)

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