Conversations on Chinese privilege in Singapore are long overdue

Kirsten Han
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Surekha A. Yadav, Sangeetha Thanapal and Adeline Koh have done everyone a great service by highlighting the issue of race and Chinese privilege in Singapore. 

The subject is a controversial one. There’s been no shortage of denial from Chinese Singaporeans; we’re quick to point out how we ourselves are not racist, how we can’t help it if certain institutions are discriminatory (it’s the government, you see) and how angry rants from ethnic minorities are “not persuasive” or not the “right way” to go about things. 

The reaction wasn’t surprising, but was disappointing nevertheless. The intersectional problems of racism, elitism, classism, etc. are in dire need of examination and discussion in Singapore, where getting ahead often comes down to a skewed game of privilege bingo (what race you are, what schools you went to, where you live, what assumptions people make based on your nationality and/or accent…)

Fault lines did not just appear in Singaporean society when foreigners became a noticeable minority in our country. Singapore is not just now paying the price of a fragmented nation because of an influx of “outsiders”. As a Chinese Singaporean this is a truth that I am only now slowly beginning to understand. I suspect it is something people from ethnic minorities have known for a much longer time.

Some have taken issue with the assertion that the Chinese majority should “STFU” when someone from a minority group speaks, saying that a person shouldn’t be told to shut up and not participate in discussion just because they happen to be from a majority group.

But that isn’t it at all. Saying that the privileged Chinese majority should stop talking when someone from an ethnic minority is sharing his/her views and experiences isn’t about depriving a Chinese person of his/her rights. It’s about encouraging those from the majority to stop and listen. 

It’s just like many other social issues. Heterosexual people should stop and listen to the experience of LGBTQ people when discussing sexual orientation and gender identity issues, because we aren’t the ones dealing with the discrimination and the stigma. Men should stop and listen to the experiences of women when talking about misogyny, because women are more often than not the ones dealing with objectification, sexual harassment and other sexist attitudes in and out of the workplace.

It’s not about one party “playing the victim” and silencing another. It’s about people in a majority group making a conscious decision to take a step back and allow others the chance to talk. We already dominate the mainstream media and public discourse most of the time; surely it isn’t that much of an ask to just listen and consider rather than speak and defend when it comes to the discussion of an issue that affect others in ways we don’t even have to worry about?