Saturday, 12 June 2021

The 3Cs of Racism in Singapore: CECA, COVID-19 and Culture clash

Fighting racism means calling it out, in public and online, rather than shrugging it off to keep up the pretence of getting along.
By Chua Mui Hoong, Associate Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Jun 2021

Racism has been much in the news after a video was widely circulated of a Chinese man scolding an Indian man, who was out with his girlfriend, for preying on Chinese girls. The Chinese man was heard on video calling their relationship a disgrace and saying they should date within their own race.

Mr Dave Parkash, 26, is of Indian-Filipino descent and his girlfriend Jacqueline Ho, 27, is half-Thai and half-Chinese Singaporean. The encounter was filmed by Ms Ho and made public by Mr Parkash, and rapidly went viral.

This came after an incident last month, when a Singaporean Indian woman out exercising with her face mask on that left her nose uncovered, was asked to wear her mask properly, and then reportedly kicked in her chest by a Chinese man uttering racial slurs.

Many have spoken up against these incidents, which are being investigated by the police.

Watching the latest video, I wondered what was on the Chinese man's mind when he accosted Mr Parkash thus in public. If you listen to his words, he appears to be making an assumption that many other Chinese Singaporeans will agree with him - that it is a disgrace to date outside one's race.

What struck me was not his sentiment - many of us would have heard similar comments on social media, or from relatives and friends. What struck me was how such bigoted views, once privately expressed in closed groups, were being expressed in public. As Irish writer Oscar Wilde observed, hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, so keeping mum on one's private bigoted views at least acknowledges the virtue of social norms that frown on the expression of such unsavoury views.

That the lecturer felt able to confront Mr Parkash publicly with his own bigoted views made me wonder if he felt others in society would agree with him.

That was what made me uncomfortable - the realisation that in Singapore, we may be creating a social environment where people think it is acceptable to mouth racist words and to chide those from minority communities for failing to conform to certain expectations.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who has been quick to call out such racist incidents in the past, shared on his Facebook page: "I used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony. Based on recent events, I am not so sure anymore."

Are things getting worse? If so, what has changed, and how did we get here?

The 3Cs: CECA and COVID-19 and culture clash

Several forces converge to expose existing fault lines on race.

First is the CECA factor. Short for the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, CECA is a free trade agreement between Singapore and India that eases the movement of goods, services and people between the two countries, allowing for easier business travel and for intra-company transfers. It has been blamed for facilitating the entry of Indian migrants to compete for jobs with Singaporeans.

Sociological theories on racism include a view that racism springs from resource competition. In this view, prejudice towards another race is due to competitive pressure for jobs, status or political power.

One can construct an explanation for this quite easily: Indian skilled workers take away jobs from locals; they may even hire among their own kind (economic competition).

Status competition is complex and extends to all major races. The arrival of highly-skilled and high-income Indian nationals with superior attitudes and caste consciousness upsets other Indian Singaporeans who feel they are looked down upon by the new arrivals.

The Chinese may also feel threatened if this group takes jobs and leadership positions away from them, or outbids them in prime housing areas (economic competition). The new Indian immigrants who become citizens influence the vote (political competition). Meanwhile, the Malays may also feel threatened if the proportion of Indians in the national population rises, upsetting the long-established delicate demographic balance.

In short, having many Indian skilled immigrants risks upsetting segments of the Singapore-born population. People may then act out of their anxiety, allowing personal bigoted views free rein. Politicians who spout such views, and failure by others to call them out as racist, also help make such views mainstream.

Apart from CECA fostering competition, the other factor fuelling racism is Covid-19.

Living in a global pandemic and being forced to adopt unnatural behaviours like social distancing and avoiding the workplace, while worrying over job and income loss, causes mental stress in many.

In May last year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres alluded to this when he said "the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering" and urged governments to "act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate".

Across the world, people stigmatise communities associated with each wave of Covid-19 infection.

Hate speech worldwide against Chinese and East Asians rose when the virus was described as the Wuhan or Chinese virus. Closer to home, anti-Muslim sentiments surfaced in Singapore online, when there was a surge of cases in Malaysia after large-scale religious gatherings there.

In Singapore in recent months, India and Indian nationals have been the target of online abuse as arrivals from India formed a growing proportion of imported cases, and as the Delta variant, which originated in India, became dominant here.

While some Singaporeans think online trolls and negativity are harmless social ills, research shows that social media hate speech, when prolonged and insistent, can spark real-life acts of hate.

In March last year, Boston University researchers tracking hate speech and other malicious activity on social media platforms noticed a spike in the use of words like "Chinese" and "virus". An international team of researchers from the United States, China, Italy, Germany, Cyprus and Iran, led by assistant professor Gianluca Stringhini, sifted large-scale data sets from Twitter and the alt-right fringe network 4chan's Politically Incorrect board, called /pol/, from Nov 1, 2019 through March 22 last year.

According to an article on the university website: "They reported an explosion of Sinophobia - anti-Chinese slurs, threats and conspiracy theories as the pandemic spread from China to other countries.

"Researchers tracked a shift on Twitter to posts blaming China for the pandemic, while on /pol/, known for polarising hate speech and where people can post anonymously, the shift was toward the use of more and new Sinophobic slurs."

The report added: "In April 2020, Stringhini and the other researchers issued their findings in a preliminary e-preprint as 'a call to action', warning that the online anti-Asian rhetoric evolving around the pandemic could possibly lead to hate attacks in the real world and most certainly harm international relations".

They were right, and the Asian-American community is today living with the reality of attacks.

This is a chilling reminder that a climate of hate speech online creates an environment that validates sentiments of hate that can eventually escalate to acts of violence.

Many Singaporeans have noticed a rise in race-fuelled xenophobic comment against Indian nationals online. While Singaporeans tend to draw a line between Singapore Indians and India Indians, as though negativity against non-citizens is acceptable, prejudicial and scapegoating views of any community are just wrong. It requires effort to police ourselves from racist or xenophobic behaviour.

We must remember that there are real-life consequences to racist and xenophobic comment.

Tribal instincts and generational shifts

The third C that explains the heightened race awareness springs from a contest or even clash of viewpoints on race.

On one side are those who say the long-established way of managing race relations has delivered racial harmony for decades and should continue. This includes using strong laws and social norms to maintain peace, and emphasising harmony while keeping disagreements and heated discussions behind closed doors.

But younger Singaporeans want more candid dialogue and more recognition of latent racism. Perhaps influenced by ideas originating from the West about social justice and critical race theory (the idea that racism is not just about personal prejudice but is embedded and perpetuated by systems and policies), they want to probe race issues even if this provokes discomfort among older Singaporeans. An increasing number also point out how the Government's own pronouncements and policies accentuate racial differences, such as the statement that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, or the way self-help groups are organised by race.

Alluding to the generational divide, Leader of the Opposition and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh wrote on his Facebook page: "Tectonic shifts are taking place with regard to societal norms in Singapore. And in my estimation, this is being felt most strongly between younger and older Singaporeans. There will continue to be episodes of divergent cultural and generational norms."

Openness to hearing the lived experiences of our minority communities is the beginning of genuine understanding and integration.

While most people do not see themselves as racist, racism is part of the human experience.

Evolutionary psychology has taught us that humans have a tendency to view people through a tribal lens. The human brain is said to be capable of forming close ties with only about 150 people - recognising and tracking greater numbers impose too great a cognitive load. As a short cut, when interacting with large groups, say in a city, we look out for people who look like us, who are likely to be our kin, to support us. The hunter-gatherer societies from which we are descended hard-wired humans to prefer those who look like us and to view others with suspicion - so the theories go.

Such theories explain the prevalence of racism across cultures. But even if correct, they do not excuse bigoted behaviour from modern humans with free will and intelligence, who should know better than to treat others of different skin colour as inferior creatures.

Singaporeans especially live in a society whose cultural DNA is precisely to overcome instinctual habits of racial affiliation. It is not for nothing that we pledge ourselves, as one united people regardless of race, language or religion.

In Singapore, many of us who love our multiracial country, cultures and cuisine, pride ourselves on not being racist. But in our eagerness to assert our multicultural credentials, we may fall into the danger of denial of racism as felt by others.

When we say, for example, that the recent incident is due to an individual's personal or mental health issue, we are guilty of deflecting from the mainstream. We try to minimise the impact of this incident by emphasising its singularity, when in fact it might be the opposite. As Mr Parkash and many other minority commenters have noted, encounters with such racist attitudes are not uncommon.

I have come to realise over the past year, talking to various people about race and religion, how much being a member of the majority Chinese community can blind me to the daily slights and insults felt by a non-Chinese person. Such obliviousness is not racist, but can be enablers of racism.

Father Clifford Augustine, an Indian who sometimes describes himself as a "big black man with a big brown dog" Rufus, is a Franciscan friar. He told me recently: "Do you know when I take the bus, even when it is fairly crowded, the seat next to me would be unoccupied? I am happy with that. I have the space. But it is telling."

We are both Singaporean. He is my friend. Hearing his quiet acceptance of his lived reality in the country of his birth tore me up inside.

A few days later, I came across an article on racism on website from Australia that included this observation: "A comment, joke or action doesn't need to be intentionally hurtful for it to be racism. But understanding this requires us to evaluate words or behaviours by their outcomes, rather than just their intention.

"Avoiding the seat next to an Aboriginal man on the bus could be hurtful, even if it was not intended to be. Imagine how this man might often face similar scenarios on his commute to and from work."

Plenty of recent research has shown how repeated experiences of avoidance can accumulate to create stress and discomfort, even mental illness, in the recipient, the article added.

This is the explanation about why "microaggressions" matter. These are acts, words or assumptions in daily life that are targeted at minority communities, that make them feel different and as though they do not belong. It is easy for majority communities to make light of a stray comment here and there about race. But imagine facing comments like these each time you step outside your home, day in and day out.

Those of us who are older grew up in a Singapore where casual racism was the norm. The concept of microaggressions had not been thought of; and we expected our friends of all races to laugh along at casual banter and racist comment.

We thought it was a mark of racial harmony that we all got along. But what if the price of that surface harmony was a thousand small cuts in the heart of our minority community friends? What if each careless comment or joke caused a small wound in his sense of self?

We can say - we did not know then. But we know now. Should we change or hark back to the fictitious good old days?

I am beginning to realise that to fight racism, it is not enough not to be racist. One must also be anti-racist. This means speaking up against racist comment or acts when we encounter them, online or in person. Silence is complicit. Every non-response emboldens those with latent racist views to think they have supporters among us.

Thus emboldened, some will escalate their words into action.

In fact, some already have.

Racial preferences cross the line into racism when overt and imposed on others, says Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam
Action should be taken if it breaches the law, says minister
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Jun 2021

People may have racial preferences, and that in itself is not racism, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

But if they bring it out into the public sphere and impose it on others, then it crosses the line, he added.

"You should call it out, you should frown against it, and you should take action if it breaches the law. Because it is cancerous, it is divisive, and it undermines the values of our society," he said.

He was speaking on the Singapore Today programme on radio station CNA938, following a recent spate of racial incidents.

Business owner Dave Parkash, 26, and his girlfriend, Ms Jacqueline Ho, 27, the target of the comments, filmed the encounter and later posted the video on Facebook.

The open display of racist behaviour, among several other recent incidents, has sparked criticism and debate. Asked by the radio presenters if racial harmony is under threat in Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said he did not think so.

"Name me a society where there is no racism which is multiracial," he said, adding Singapore has made tremendous progress in building racial harmony and is better than most other multiracial societies.

He noted that Singapore's leaders have always recognised the existence of racism here, whether in the form of deep racial fault lines, outright racism, or even overt racial preferences, and stressed that the key is in mitigating it.

"Many of the Government's policies proceed by accepting that there is both racial preference, as well as racism, and how do we mitigate that to make sure that meritocracy works, and that people of all races have fair opportunities," he added.

The incident involving Mr Parkash and Ms Ho, which is being investigated by the police, has also sparked discussion about whether Singapore's longstanding CMIO - Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others - classification framework may be an issue.

Asked what role the Government plays in safeguarding religious harmony, Mr Shanmugam said: "It's not a subtraction from Singaporeans to say, "I'm an Indian", "I'm a Chinese", "I'm a Malay", or sub-identities. Those are extremely important. They give us our cultural ballast. We are what we are."

But he said there was a need to build on the common identity even as people recognise, accept and emphasise their individual identities.

"We need to have that common vision to say, look, we want to build a system based on justice, equality, meritocracy, and where everyone can feel equal, and everyone can feel protected. The Government has a huge role in articulating that vision and being fair," he added, noting that this requires effort from society, people and institutions as well.

The minister noted that some people have criticised the Government for investigating those who respond to racist behaviour with racist remarks of their own. He said: "These sentiments are somewhat hypocritical... You don't respond to what you say is racism by your own racist remarks, by being racist yourself. So, we call that out."

He added if the Government lets it slide when an Indian or Malay person responds to racism by a Chinese person with racist remarks of their own, then the next time the tables are turned, the Government may find itself constrained when it wants to take action.

Some commentators have suggested that racist language, when employed as satire by minority races to call out the majority race, should not be treated as racism.

Said the minister: "Rule of law means the law applies to all - majority and minority - equally. Have we applied the law fairly? Do people believe that we are applying the law fairly? Across all races, is everyone protected? If they believe that, then people will say I accept the operation of the law."

Mr Shanmugam added that while the recent incidents should not be over-dramatised as signalling a breakdown in racial harmony, they have led him to question if the country is still heading in the right, "positive" direction.

"Are we sure that we are progressing in the right direction?" he said. "So it's a direction that I am concerned about."

Asked whether social media has made things worse, he said such incidents have happened but had not had as much publicity in the past.

"We must also accept that things are different now. People, and racial sensitivities, are also heightened, and there have been more in-your-face incidents," he added.

"I am not quite able to say that's only because of social media."


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