COMMENT: Race ties in Singapore’s workplace – softly, softly approach won’t work

People walk during lunch time at the Raffles Place financial business district  in Singapore on February 16, 2021. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk during lunch time at the Raffles Place (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Just hours before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke on race relations and wage disparity on Sunday (29 August), I had a rude awakening on how deep the race divide has seeped into our body politic. I have heard many stories about racial discrimination in Singapore but what this 12-year-old boy told his father at a cafe was not something I thought I would ever hear. “The lady gave me a plate of rice when I asked for fries. That is because I am an Indian,” he said without batting an eyelid.

I was at a loss for words after hearing the comments. Meanwhile, his father kept silent, not wanting to engage his son on how he came to that conclusion. An opportunity was lost, I must say, to ask the boy what made him equate the lady’s action to an issue of race.

Could she have made a genuine mistake? Was she just having a bad day? Or was the boy not explicit enough with his order?

The timing was surreal as Lee, after many years of his government’s reticence in tackling the race issue directly and decisively, said that the government would take that elusive first step to make discrimination in the workplace illegal, an issue directly related to the import of foreign talent. The guidelines for fair and progressive employment will soon be written into the law to deal with a problem that has been spilling over into the public space as after-effects of the COVID crisis.

Even then, he said, the government would take a softly, softly approach on this front, even as it is tightening the criteria for foreigners coming to the city-state to work. “This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment,’’ he said at his National Day Rally speech.

Workplace relations

If there is one place where racial issues need urgent attention, it is the workplace. That is where Singaporeans have first-hand experience of how foreigners perform. And, generally speaking, it has not been a pretty sight.

The frustrations follow a similar pattern: many Singaporeans claim that foreigners have stolen our jobs, tend to mix with their own kind, are good at currying favour with the bosses, and so on. Some of these accusations are exaggerations but when repeated over lunch and coffee, they have a way of being believed.

Until now, the government has not taken the bull by the horns, letting the issue simmer. An opportunity came after the 2011 general election when voters showed their anger at the sudden spike in foreign workers who, in their eyes, were responsible for jamming up transport and making flats harder to get.

Yet, the government did not address the angst directly, hoping that medical subsidies for the Pioneer Generation would do the trick to assuage voters. Ten years later, partly because of COVID, the frustrations are boiling over.

Too little, too late?

Why this reticence? The government has been too focused on the economy, making sure that Singapore does well on this front. With employers’ over-reliance on foreign labour, restricting the flow of outsiders would only force companies to look elsewhere to grow their pie.

In fact, Lee did tell Singaporeans not to push too hard as trade and investments are the country’s lifeblood. “We must not…give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners. It would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub. It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities,” he said.

Lee and his team have an uphill climb in this battle. So far, they have been using intellectual and ideological reasons to fight what are essentially emotional arguments. And from anecdotal evidence, this has not worked. The pandemic has silenced the government’s arguments.

My gut feel, having spoken to many Singaporeans here, is that their experiences with what they call racism are somewhat misplaced. Like the case of the 12-year-old boy I mentioned earlier, a friend’s story told to me with a lot of anger and frustration was also somewhat flawed.

He said, “I have never faced overt resistance since I came here nearly 40 years ago. But last year during the lockdown, my wife and I sort of faced a racist onslaught. It was by a Chinese cabbie who kept shouting at us for no valid reason. We are both sure that it was a racist attack because he perhaps thought we are Indians bringing in the virus.”

I asked him a simple and straightforward question: What made you feel it was a racist attack?

“I can’t prove it. But we felt that way,” he said.

I am sure many such comments are misplaced if you probe further. Nonetheless, the law mentioned by Lee will show that the government is tackling racial issues seriously. Implementing it decisively, squarely and fairly will make the difference in lessening the misperceptions about race among Singaporeans.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at