Are Singapore’s politicians moderating or inflaming ethnic tensions?

fbwalk22Recent support by K Shanmugam, law minister, for a commentary by Tan Wu Meng, a fellow politician with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), begs the question of whether Singapore’s leaders possess the requisite broad-mindedness and maturity to moderate racial harmony in today’s prickly, post-George Floyd, “Black Lives Matter” world.

Tan, an ethnic Chinese, used the party’s online platform to attack Pritam Singh, the ethnic Indian opposition leader, for his support for Alfian Sa’at, an ethnic Malay playwright. Tan questioned the latter’s loyalties to the country. ”Singapore gave him his education and he earns a living here. An education and a living that is denied to many minorities in the region.”

By peddling the narrative of ungrateful minorities in Singapore, Tan has, intentionally or not, fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia. Right-wing patriots have launched unsavoury attacks on the two of them. It is all too reminiscent of a Trumpian tragedy.


Tan’s commentary would have been horridly provocative even in the best of times. In today’s Singapore, where a COVID-weary society has been contending with racism towards “unhygienic” South Asian migrant workers alongside xenophobia towards South Asian and Western “expats”, it is shocking that such a racially insensitive diatribe could pass muster with the PAP’s official publication.

It is not clear whether Shanmugam, in his support of Tan, is implicitly agreeing with the divisive tactics of this political attack or is just oblivious to its racial undertones.

Either way, Singaporeans must recognise that we can no longer count on politicians, with their own vested interests, to be calming, moderating influences vis-a-vis ethnic harmony.


Imagine Person A moves to Singapore aged twenty-nine. He becomes a citizen at thirty-five. And then stands for election aged thirty-eight.

Person A then wants to become a spokesperson for racism, prejudice and ethnic harmony.

That’s odd.

We all know that a person’s “lived experiences” with racial prejudices begin at a very early age. They are intimately shaped by kindergarten, school, and for men, military service.

Then comes university and entering the working world, and having to deal with employers’ prejudices.

Person A, having skipped all this, is surely in no position to empathise, to understand, to navigate thorny issues on race and religion?

Or maybe he is. That person’s name is Janil Puthucheary.

Janil, of course, famously refused to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces, which he had the option to do, and which would have better prepared him not only to defend our country but understand our social dynamics.

Imagine if Janil moved to any other multicultural country at age twenty-nine. And barely a decade later wanted to be a politician and lead discussions on racial issues. To become chairperson of the body that promotes racial harmony for the country.

He would be laughed out of town. What do you know?

But no, in Singapore it seems, you can stick a white outfit and a lightning bolt on somebody and have them lead any issue.

Janil is a smart cookie. He has shown the ability to clearly and authoritatively lead discussions on, among other things, technology issues.

But there are some areas for which lived experience is crucial. Race is one of them.

That is not to say, of course, that immigrants do not bring anything to the table. Ilhan Omar, congresswoman, and Trevor Noah, comedian, are just two of many respected for their articulate views on race and religion. But neither would ever dare claim the mantle of national authority, would ever dare prance around on state television in glitzy, scripted, programmes at the intersections of inequality and race.


Janil appears to have been sucked into the same elite civil servant-politician bubble, in which being exorbitantly paid and fawned over lulls one into intellectual arrogance.

File this under the “elite parachutes into new area, reads one book, and knows all there is” school of leadership in Singapore.

Some might argue Janil’s upbringing in Malaysia affords him sufficient experience in this space. Sadly, no. Racial dynamics are completely different there largely because of the different ethnic proportions and bumiputera policies.

Janil’s inadequacies are apparent in two recent instances where he failed to act. First, with the brown face brouhaha last year—he only came out to say something well after tensions had been inflamed. He should have criticised the offensive government-authorised ad as soon as it was published.

Second, Janil has been conspicuous by his silence in 2020, with all the COVID-19-related bigotry. The conspiracy theory is that the PAP is quite happy for Singaporeans to attribute the dormitory COVID-19 crisis to the worker’s hygiene because that deflects blame from the party’s own failures.

Why hasn’t Janil come down hard against this ridiculous “unhygienic South Asian” narrative being spread on social media? Is it for some higher political purpose?

If true, then the PAP is once again playing dangerously with race in order to fulfil a political objective, as many believe it has in the past, including with the constitutional changes for the reserved presidency in 2017 and the sidelining of Tharman Shanmugaratnam for party leadership.


To be clear, none of this is to suggest that the PAP is intentionally fomenting ethnic discord, something parties in other countries regularly do.

Rather it is a recognition that, as evidenced above, PAP politicians are increasingly ensnared in the politicking of the day, perhaps because of the electorate’s increasing demands for political diversity and the competition that engenders, both within the PAP and outside.

It is also not to suggest that any of the opposition parties, each with their own unique perspectives on immigration and multiculturalism, will necessarily do a better job at “managing” race.

There is nothing new about the suggestions to address these challenges. Ordinary Singaporeans need to feel more empowered to engage in open, honest dialogue about racial and religious issues. Society needs to move from a top-down model of discourse to one that is more distributed and bottom-up, starting in school. Perhaps taxpayer money can be redirected accordingly, away from the likes of Silver Screen Janil towards civil society groups and artists who have demonstrated their ability to spark healthy conversations.

Some might fear that with such openness long-held grievances could bubble to the surface. Yet Singaporean society is surely ready to handle such contestations. As shown by the “Is it because I’m Chinese?” incident, the vast majority of Singaporeans are moderate and well able to respond with humour to inflammatory statements. In recent months there have been wonderful examples of inter-generational dialogue over racial issues.

Moreover, it was refreshing to see many Singaporeans criticising Tan’s post for its racist and xenophobic allusions. Singaporeans must continue to come down hard on obvious bigotry as well as anything, like Tan’s piece, that might act as a dog whistle for racists.

Shanmugam’s depiction of the piece as “serious” and “thoughtful” shows that Singapore’s senior politicians may be ignorant of some societal fault lines in this fast-paced, social-media-powered modern world.

Multicultural societies everywhere are on edge due to rising racial tensions, which are often exacerbated by deepening political polarisation.

Singaporean politicians’ ability to lead society on these issues should no longer be taken for granted.


Image credit: Channel News Asia and The Straits Times


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4 thoughts on “Are Singapore’s politicians moderating or inflaming ethnic tensions?

  1. It’s like seeing Malaysian politics. But then again PAP & UMNO are like twin brothers. Come election, play racial issues to sow fear & force people to take sides. Immediately you see Chinese right (their target voters) took to their side while the Indians & Malays vainly defended the minority oppo politician & the poet. The end result is a net gain for PAP. The racial divide; its collateral damage they will repair afterwards. What’s 25% when I can bag 75% almost surely.
    I weep for my country.

  2. Looking at every problem or question through a lens of American-style racialized politics will always lead you to find racism. If you go hunting for racists, you will only find racists.

    I also an Indian immigrant to Singapore, have thought that Janil’s program that he lead was very well done (I am not saying it’s perfect).

    Also as someone who has lived in the US for a long time, the ability of Americans to racialize every issue is not something I hope Singapore takes up. Singapore is probably the easiest place I have lived. I like not to think of all my interactions through the color of skin or race but I can happily say that I have faced least or no racism at all in Singapore compared to the West.

  3. “It is not clear whether Shanmugam, in his support of Tan, is implicitly agreeing with the divisive tactics of this political attack or is just oblivious to its racial undertones.”

    Any good reason to claim that it is not clear…?

    You have already made this comment: “By peddling the narrative of ungrateful minorities in Singapore, Tan has, intentionally or not, fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia.”

    Since Shanmugam has expressed his support for Tan [a member of his party], Shanmugam can be accused of fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia, whether intentionally or not. Would you agree with this analysis?

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