Should the opposition be speaking out more against racism in Singapore?

This is what K Shanmugam, Singapore’s home affairs and law minister, called for this week in response to some quite awful anti-Indian incidents around town.

Yes, I agree with him. The opposition should. We all should. It is a daily battle.

However, we should also recognise the efforts made by the opposition over the years to distance themselves from racist and xenophobic strands. Here are two examples.

In 2015, the Workers’ Party (WP) manifesto contained some language and policies (around population growth) that gave off a whiff of xenophobia. I criticised it in my writing in 2015, and then again whenever I saw any of the WP leaders in person. Many others complained.

By 2020, the WP had scrubbed its manifesto of anything even remotely nativist. From my conversations with party members, the WP today is ultra-careful in how it wants to go about addressing the issues of immigration and integration. 

This is why (in my mind) we are unlikely to hear any loud rants by the WP against the much maligned India–Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). But what we will see are more thoughtful efforts to address ethnic tensions, such as the call for an employment discrimination law, something in the WP’s 2020 manifesto.

The WP wants Singapore to legislate against discrimination for gender, race and age. When I first heard this I was a bit shocked. “You mean we don’t already have a law that penalises employers who discriminate?” 

No, we don’t. 

And I’m glad to see the WP fighting for this. These are the small and important steps needed to boost harmony. Partly because a lot of the racism that we see is a reaction to perceptions of employment discrimination. (“Indians get favours; Indians are stealing our jobs.”)

The second example concerns a now-defunct party called Singaporeans First, headed by Tan Jee Say. It burst onto the scene in 2015, performed dismally at the election, and was disbanded last year. Tan moved on to join the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which has an exemplary record, as far as I can tell, in terms of issues around race and immigrant integration.

The failure of Singaporeans First, the closest thing Singapore ever had to a far-right party, is some evidence that Singaporeans will reject any hard nativist platform. While there is bigotry to contend with—like in many countries—Singaporeans are generally welcoming and tolerant, a symptom of us having been an open multicultural city for at least two hundred years. (Sorry folks: “multiculturalism” and “tolerance” are not creations of the Class of ’65.)

The ironic thing, when it comes to tolerance, is that while I have observed progress in Singapore’s opposition, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has stagnated.

If Shanmugam is serious about addressing racism in Singapore, it must start with an admission about the PAP’s own culpability in the current state of affairs.

Here are my suggestions:

– Initiate an open dialogue on Lee Kuan Yew’s racist comments and policies.

This includes the most racist immigration policy in the developed world: importing ethnic Chinese in order to maintain a Chinese supermajority. Singaporeans are mature enough to handle a proper comprehensive debate about the man. Let’s do it. (See post-script below for sources.)

– Publicly condemn the racist words and behaviours of high-profile PAP supporters. 

In his statement this week (video below), it is funny to hear Shanmugam pinning the blame on unnamed, supposed opposition supporters apparently making vile anti-Indian comments. 

Who exactly are these people and how do you know they are opposition supporters? I’ve met many PAP supporters who are anti-CECA. Surely anti-CECA vitriol is not the preserve of the opposition. 

This is a genuine question. In Singapore now there is a lot of conflation of “anti-CECA” and “anti-Indian” and “anti-PAP”. We need to untangle all this.

If there is evidence that connects vile, racist commentaries directly to the opposition, and concurrently exonerates the PAP, please send it to me. I will share it here. (Please see post-script below for a conversation I had this morning with a friend who analyses hate speech in SG.)

So on the one hand Shanmugam seeks to blame the opposition’s supporters for this anti-Indian racism. On the other the PAP has a history of ignoring grotesque racist and xenophobic comments from its own supporters.

The most famous of these is Xiaxue, one of Singapore’s most famous influencers who in 2010 said this about migrant workers: “Coz they molest people and fuck our maids and leer at girls and flood little India!! Yeah I’m stereotyping, but fuck u if u say its not true.”

The PAP has never condemned Xiaxue’s tweet. It is straight from the playbook of far-right xenophobes in the US: incite outrage, draw eyeballs, build your profile. She has grown into one of the PAP’s most visible supporters. She deleted the tweet only in 2020, following police reports made by netizens, and has never apologised for it.

(Another example concerns PAP youth member Jason Neo.)

– Initiate an open dialogue and introspection on government actions, words and behaviours that may be (unintentionally) racially offensive, problematic or dangerous. 

There is a lot of government-authorised commentary that is potentially problematic. The 2019 brown face ad is just one.

One of the main purveyors is Michelle Chong, who has built a career out of lampooning ethnic stereotypes. The government sponsors her work.

Let me give you an example. 

The Ministry of Manpower commissioned Michelle to do something to help domestic workers with money management and financial planning.

What Michelle did, playing Filipino character Nina Medina, is caricature Filipinos as sugar addicts (through their love of Bubble Tea) and horribly wasteful with their money.

There are larger conversations around ethnic stereotypes and popular imagery and representation that are beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice to say that Michelle, however well-intentioned she is, appears oblivious to them. Hopefully Shan can discuss all this with her the next time they blow out birthday candles together. 

– Provide public access to all granular immigration and population data, and include Singaporeans on conversations about our country’s demographic future. 

This includes granular details on CECA. The information is often missing or misleading.

Let me give you an example.

Late last year, in response to media queries on CECA, Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said that Inter-Corporate Transferees (ICTs) make up less than 5% of all Employment Pass (EP) holders.

ICTs are a particular source of concern because it is thought that this is the mechanism through which many Indians have come to Singapore without having to jump through the usual employment and immigration hoops. Just get your firm to send you over.

Moreover, there is also a suggestion that ICTs, once their EP has been secured, then proceed to bring in their extended families through a Dependant’s Pass (DP) and a Long Term Visit Pass (LTVP). (A privilege, of course, that Singapore should offer.)

So, let’s think about the larger question: what impact has CECA had on Singapore’s immigration through the ICT scheme?

The answer to this, as per MTI’s response, is that ICTs make up less than 5% of all EP holders—or about 9,500 people.

That, however, is a woefully inadequate answer, since it provides only a static data point.

Because CECA was signed in 2005, the real answer must include the following:

– Over the years, how many ICTs went on to become permanent residents and citizens? (And thus are no longer included in the 5%.)

– How many DPs and LTVPs came in on the back of ICTs?

– How many ICTs moved from an EP status to some other immigration status, like Entrepreneur Pass? (This is probably small.) 

With the above data, we will better be able to answer the question about the impact of CECA on Singapore’s immigration.

Perhaps then Singaporeans will realise that it’s not that much at all! Or if the numbers are high, and we as a society deem that the ICT scheme is being somehow abused, then we can have a conversation about how to fix it.

I hope the PAP can see the value of this. As long as it does not make available all relevant data, there will always be the perception that it is hiding something. (Please see post-script for my fuller thoughts on immigration, CECA and anti-Indian sentiment.)

These are some things the PAP can do to show that it wants to deal with racism and xenophobia in good faith.

I agree with Shanmugam that we should never use broader external factors to justify racism or xenophobia.

But we must try to understand their roots so that we can address them.

If, however, Shanmugam just keeps asking the opposition to do more, without enough examination of the PAP’s own racist strands and policies, then Singaporeans will get the impression that his party is just playing politics.

And that would be to the detriment of us all.


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Post-script

I have included just a few examples of ways the PAP can improve its record on racism and xenophobia. There are other things that I’ve written about elsewhere, for example the party’s penchant for weaponising race for political purposes: see Tharman, Halimah, etc.

An interesting conversation this morning with a friend who analyses hate speech in SG:

Me: quick qn: Shan’s recent speech made it seem like many of the anti-Indian sites are vile commentaries are the work of Opposition supporters. is that true?

Friend: I would say there’s a good degree of overlap. The anti ceca FB group was a clear-cut example. And from what Ive seen on places like hardwarezone, the xenophobia also overlaps with being anti-PAP

That said, it’s not as if opposition supporters are homogeneous. Plus, I’m confident there would be a chunk of people who don’t identify with either side who are xenophobic.

The challenge is percentages right. Like what proportion of opp supporters are like that.

Me: And surely there are PAP supporters who are also anti CECA and/or anti Indian. Where are their voices?

Friend: Yeah lol. Just that I’ve not really seen anything indicative of this. Cuz don’t know where to look

On Lee Kuan Yew’s racist views and policies

“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.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, in a meeting at the University of Singapore on 27 December 1967, as recorded by Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist

Meanwhile, in a speech to parliament in 1985, he said,
“We have a practical people whose culture tells them that contention for the sake of contention leads to disaster. I have said this on many a previous occasion; that had the mix in Singapore been different, had it been 75 per cent Indians, 15 per cent Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked. Because they believe in the politics of contention, of opposition. But because the culture was such that the populace sought a practical way out of their difficulties, therefore it has worked.”

In 1989, Lee 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.”

In 2013 Grace Fu confirmed in parliament that Singapore gives preferences to ethnic Chinese immigrants.

Why are Singaporeans irritated with Indian migrants? (excerpt from a 2 May 2021 Facebook post)

Why are some Singaporeans dancing on the graves of Indians?

Over the past few days, as I’ve been nervously watching WhatsApp for updates from friends and family in India, I’ve also had to listen to horrendous comments, some downright racist and xenophobic, from different people.

I’ll reproduce a few at the bottom because I think it’s important to call out these people.

But first, why are many Singaporeans irritated with Indians?

This has been building for many years and has to do primarily with our extremely high immigration rate coupled with a lack of proper integration and a shortage of public discourse and engagement around the kind of Singapore that we want.

Citizens of any democracy must have the right to collectively decide whom they want to welcome. This often happens in some way at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, Singaporeans have never been given much of a say by a political leadership that, egged on by large corporate interests, has for decades suggested that growth-at-all-costs is the only way that this “small, vulnerable” country can survive.

Singaporeans must be given full access to immigration and population data (who, from where, how many, etc.); and more of a voice in decisions around population growth.

This is necessary to help ease tensions between groups. There is really a quite toxic environment in Singapore today, with prejudices and discrimination against almost every group, depending on your own position and lived experiences.

But why Indians in particular?

Of course there are many racist, illegitimate reasons why anti-Indian sentiment has risen. But there are also legitimate complaints that need to be explored (and dealt with, or debunked).

The main legitimate complaints have to do with immigration preferences, caste prejudices and employment discrimination.

With immigration—whether work permits, residencies or new citizens—there is a suggestion that over the past few decades, preference has been given to Indians, as opposed to being just purely meritocratic. And some blame a trade agreement, CECA, for it.

I am not sure how true this is, especially given Singapore’s historic Chinese majoritarianism policies. Nevertheless, with better data, we can test it. (Related: with immigration, Singapore should really consider implementing some transparent points system thingy, which many countries are doing.)

Meanwhile, there is anecdotal evidence that some new Indian migrants—some, not all, of course— have brought to Singapore casteist attitudes. To a society that is, for all intents and purposes, post caste. There are also North vs South; Hindi vs Tamil lines.

“What do you expect? These people [Singapore Indians] are descendants of convicts and prisoners,” a new migrant told the team of sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu, as highlighted in her article, “ ‘What kind of Indian are you?’ Frictions and Fractures between Singaporean Indians and Foreign-Born NRIs”.

(To be sure, there is also discrimination from Singaporean Indians towards NRIs, as she highlights. Read her piece in this book.)

And finally, anecdotal evidence that in the workplace Indian migrants have been giving preferences to fellow Indian migrants.

Casteism and employment discrimination can make for a potent mix—see what’s happening with Cisco in the US now.

Racist, illegitimate anti-Indian sentiment should be ignored or called out.

But legitimate complaints need to be explored and dealt with.

From my Facebook post titled “Why are some Singaporeans dancing on the graves of Indians?”


Watch Shanmugam’s speech

top image credit: The Straits Times YouTube channel

7 thoughts on “Should the opposition be speaking out more against racism in Singapore?

  1. As we all knew, Malays were deliberately excluded from NS enlistment into the SAF for a long time under a misconceived perception that Malays as a community could not be trusted with the view that they would “naturally” align with their ethnic and religious brethren in Malaysia and Indonesia or experience a conflict of interest. So, whilst the post-independence rhetoric called for a united and multicultural Singapore, the government found it apt to exclude Malay Singaporeans from the SAF for more than a decade or so. The then Second Minister for Defence BG Lee Hsien Loong rationalised the foregoing policy (of intentionally excluding Malays from the SAF) on 17 March 1087 in Parliament saying:
    “We live-in South-East Asia. If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called upon to defend our homeland, we don’t want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may come in conflict with his emotions for his religion, because these are two very strong fundamentals, and if they are not compatible, then they will be two very strong destructive forces in opposite directions. Soldiers in combat must have no qualms about what they are fighting for. And we don’t want to put anybody in that position where he feels he is not fighting a just cause, and perhaps worse, maybe his side is not the right side. That would be an intolerable position for the person and an unworkable position for the armed forces. It’s a reality of life and it is something we cannot dodge, but which, gradually, as a national identity develops, will grow to be less of a problem.”

    Mr Lee Kuan Yew reinforced similar doubts about the loyalty of Malays in September 1999 when he said:
    “If for instance, you put a Malay officer, who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business”
    Section 298A of the Penal Code states:
    Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony
    298A. Whoever —
    (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, knowingly promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion or race, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups; or
    (b) commits any act which he knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both.

    Any reasonable person can construe the above words spoken by BG Lee and Mr Lee as promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will” between Malays and other races by alluding to their perceived disloyalty to Singapore, somewhat implying that Malays were/are potential traitors to the country and cannot be trusted?

  2. Correction in Line 10 above to date:”The then Second Minister for Defence…..17 March 1987…….

  3. A mentality that was built in from 1965
    Even after 55 years of single party rule, nothing changed
    Not during GCT era where SM still held the power
    By 3G time one would expect a little morphing to changing times but no, status quo
    And so stagnation kicked it
    Only advantage stayed carried over with neighboring countries hardly gain any economic progress

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