COMMENT: Cartoonist’s arrest stems honest discussion about race in Singapore

Leslie Chew a Singaporean cartoonist was arrested last week. (Screengrab from Facebook)


In order for Singaporean society to deal with race, religion and other sensitive issues in a mature way, they have to be discussed and debated publicly, not suppressed. Singapore needs to learn to talk honestly about race.

In that light, the most disturbing thing about the arrest last week of Leslie Chew, a Singaporean cartoonist, is that he appears to have been targeted for asking, through his cartoons, a very pertinent question: is there institutionalised discrimination against Malays in Singapore?

This is not a new assertion, yet it rarely gets the proper treatment it merits. Those who believe that Singapore has succeeded in building some multiethnic utopia might balk at the suggestion. And yet there is plenty of fodder to support it.

Consider the views of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, on genetic determinism. In a meeting at the University of Singapore on 27 December 1967, Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist, recalls Lee Kuan Yew sharing this anecdote:

Three women were brought to the Singapore General Hospital, each in the same condition and each needing a blood transfusion. The first, a Southeast Asian was given the transfusion but died a few hours later. The second, a South Asian was also given a transfusion but died a few days later. The third, an East Asian, was given a transfusion and survived. That is the X factor in development.

This world view was not unique—it is worth noting that Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981-2003, cited genetic differences as one of the key justifications for bumiputera affirmative action in his seminal work The Malay dilemma.

Mr Lee has recently said things that might offend many Malays. Mr Chew’s cartoon portrayed a high-level corporate dialogue in March, where Mr Lee suggested that companies in Singapore can recruit talented Chinese, Indians and “Caucasians” workers. The Malays were conspicuous by their absence.

Given his overarching presence in Singapore over the past 50 years, one wonders what impact Mr Lee’s views on Malays—and Chinese and Indians, for that matter—have had on Singapore’s politicians and citizens over the years.

Separately, as Mr Chew’s cartoon did, one might also point to the fact that the proportion of Malays in Singapore’s population has been declining over the years despite them having higher fertility rates. The reason is simple—Singapore has been naturalising relatively higher numbers of Chinese and Indian migrants.

Why? Again, Mr Lee’s comments provide guidance. In 1989 he said that the lower Chinese birth rate justified the government’s programme of encouraging Chinese immigration from Hong Kong. According to him, the Chinese majority must be maintained, “or there will be a shift in the economy, both the economic performance and the political backdrop which makes that economic performance possible.”

Singapore can argue that its policies are guided by realpolitik considerations, not racial ones. However, even if “pragmatism” is the cherished ideal that drives these policies, we must accept that their ultimate impact might be to disenfranchise Malays in society—hence sowing the seeds for institutional discrimination.

Given all that, is it really wrong for Mr Chew to probe the way he does?

To be clear, I do not want to suggest that the government actively discriminates against Malays. But I am convinced that, given the available evidence, it is an argument that must be entertained, not dismissed offhand—to say nothing of calling in the police.

One might disagree with how Mr Chew framed the discussion. “Damn racist government!” is not the most flattering descriptor. But that is certainly not the first time I have heard that phrase muttered in this country.

Moreover, Mr Chew is not in the business of writing diplomatic pleasantries. In a mature, thinking society, we need to accept—even celebrate—artists who ply their trade across the socio-political spectrum.

Mr Chew’s cartoon presents an opportunity for society to debate these fundamental issues. Does Singapore need to maintain ethnic proportions in society? Why does Singapore not have as many Malay immigrants? If there is, indeed, institutional discrimination, what can be done about it?

Race and religion have long been taboo topics in Singapore. But the salient point here is that given our level of economic and political development, it is absolutely crucial for society to start having open, honest dialogues about them.

Many Singaporeans have been shocked by the uptick in racist and xenophobic sentiment in the country—online and offline—over the past few years. But by suppressing discussion and dissent, we simply encourage opinions to fester in silos.

That is a climate in which bigotry thrives.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. He blogs at

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Singapore probes cartoonist for alleged racial nsensitivity

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