Over the past week Singaporeans have been debating the definition of racism. Many within the establishment appear eager to define it narrowly: only crude, interpersonal racism qualifies.
So, if somebody professes the inherent superiority of one race over another, or uses a racial slur—“Kiling Kia”, “Cina Babi”, etc.—that’s racist. Anything less obvious, so it goes, does not deserve the racist label.
The desire not to call something racist has sparked a cottage industry of euphemisms: “racial preferences”, “cultural insensitivity”, “racially problematic” and so on. Racism is Singapore’s Voldemort.
In particular, there is an unwillingness among conservatives to address structural and institutional racism in Singapore. Part of the reason is that their negative effects have not been adequately studied.
Another is anti-Western bias. Structural and institutional racism are often examined in the West using Critical Race Theory (CRT), a relatively new and still evolving field. CRT has, both in the West and in Asia, been lampooned as leftism—or “woke-ism”—gone mad.
A recent editorial in Lianhe Zaobao, the main Chinese newspaper, blamed recent racist incidents in Singapore partly on the importation of “foreign ideas (外来思潮)” such as CRT.
Of course racism differs from one country to the next. It’s important for us to identify and understand the impact of structural and institutional racism here, in our Singaporean context.
I want to illustrate this with a few examples, including something that hurts minorities financially: the fact that the HDB resale market offers ethnic Chinese sellers a potentially bigger payday.
First, some definitions. Scholars sub-divide racism in different ways. I quite like this simple four-way model: interpersonal racism; internalised racism; institutional racism; and structural racism.
Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. This is what most people understand as racism. It encompasses lots of things, including slurs and jokes about “Malay lazy; Indian dirty; Chinese money minded”.
Internalised racism exists within individuals. If the Chinese teacher keeps deliberately mangling your Indian last name in order to draw laughs from the Chinese-majority class, how does that affect your sense of self confidence and worth?
(True story involving one of my primary school classmates, who has a six-syllable family name. I was saved from this kind of torment by my Anglo middle name, which teachers defaulted to.)
“Internalised racism is usually where a minority or minoritised person not only accepts the negative stereotypes society has of their community, but also embraces the majority’s world view of its own superiority and minority inferiority,” says Kenneth Paul Tan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “To gain the acceptance of the majority who disparage them, internalised racists will want to become like the majority, and will challenge fellow minority people who stand up against racism.”
Eurasians, Indians and Malays in Singapore have long wondered why some minority politicians are ever vigilant to shut down cries of racism from people of their own race. I think it is due to a combination of internalised racism and survivorship bias: I made it, which proves that the system works well; all you other fools are lazy snowflakes.
Institutional racism is the blocking of minorities from accessing the goods, services, and opportunities of society (to tweak a definition from Alyasah Sewell, an associate professor of sociology at Emory University).
In Singapore, there are a few clear examples. First, giving preferences to ethnic Chinese in terms of immigration. Whatever the reasons for this—LKY believed that Chinese are genetically and culturally superior; others claim that multicultural “stability” is dependent on maintaining a Chinese supermajority—this policy is the very definition of racism.
Second, banning Muslims from serving in certain positions in the Singapore Armed Forces, including Armour (where I served). The historical reason for this is that if Singapore ever went to war with a Muslim-majority country such as Malaysia and Indonesia, Muslims here may be conflicted. It is a nonsensical notion that I deal with in greater depth in this podcast.
The third revolves around SAP schools, which offer greater educational resources to the ethnic Chinese majority.
Structural racism occurs when a combination of structural, institutional and policy factors produce racialised outcomes, even without racist intent.
Unlike institutional racism, structural racism happens somewhat accidentally. This trips up people who think that intention is a prerequisite for racism.
It’s not. Just like one can sexually harass a woman without intending to, one can also commit a racist act without wanting to.
Focus on the outcomes; intentions are secondary.
Structural racism may lead, for instance, to minorities being excluded from particular jobs because of unnecessary Chinese language requirements, and to minorities being blocked from the rental market.
Just last week I heard about an Indian investment banker who was prevented from renting a multi-million dollar apartment because of race. Many assume such discrimination occurs only at the lower-to-middle end of the housing market. It’s actually everywhere.
There was no racist intent in Singapore’s desire to allow employers and landlords free rein over their activities. Even the individuals involved may not think that they are being racist. I don’t rent to Indians because they cook curry and my house smells. After they leave I’ll have to spend money getting rid of the smell. Many see this as a justifiable preference or a “rational decision”.
So even without racist intent, this freedom to choose has led to racist outcomes. We need to study and address these, including through anti-discrimination laws.
Housing & Development Board (HDB)
The best example of structural discrimination in Singapore concerns HDB apartments. Because of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) introduced in 1989, ethnic quotas exist both within individual blocks but also in neighbourhoods.
The government sells new units to all Singaporeans, bearing in mind the quotas. But when owners later want to resell their units, the EIP restrictions have an impact on housing prices in the resale market, say scholars. The impact varies by ethnicity, with minority sellers more affected. The minority seller’s unit also on average takes longer to sell.
Why? Because there are situations in which minority sellers will only be able to sell to other minorities. If the Chinese quota for the block has been met, a Malay seller can only sell to another minority. They cannot sell to a Chinese because there are already too many Chinese in the block. A Chinese seller, by contrast, can sell to anybody.
The demand for the Malay seller’s unit on the resale market will plummet, through no fault of theirs. Chinese do not face such terrible constraints because their demographic is much bigger. For instance, even if the Malay quota has been met, a Chinese can still sell their unit to other Chinese and Indians/Others.
In short, in the HDB resale market, there is less liquidity for minorities than there is for the majority ethnic Chinese. This results in lower resale prices.
“These dynamics may drive resale prices up by as much as 8 per cent for Chinese-constrained units and down by as much as 4 per cent for Malay- or Indian-constrained units,” write Leong Chan-Hoong and Yvonne Yap from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
As a thought experiment, let’s use the maximum difference of 12% for a $400,000 resale flat.
So, a Chinese seller in a Chinese-constrained block sells for $400,000.
A Malay seller in a nearby Malay-constrained block sells for $352,000.
That’s a $48,000 difference to the minority family’s nest egg.
This is tragic. Remember that in Singapore home ownership (and HDB asset appreciation) is a key tenet of our social welfare model. If those hypothetical units are not sold but inherited by their kids, there is a clear advantage to the Chinese family over the Malay in terms of intergenerational wealth transfers.
This is a racist outcome. It financially benefits one family over another purely on the basis of race.
For sure, there was no racist intent, no desire to financially penalise ethnic minorities through the EIP—unlike, say, redlining in the US, where there was clear racist intent to ostracise blacks. Moreover, the EIP probably penalises only a small group of minority sellers.
One counter-argument is that the situation benefits ethnic minority buyers on the resale market. “In my interactions with home buyers, the fact that a Chinese seller is constrained and can only sell to a minority group, thereby bringing the price down, is a benefit for certain lower-income-minority buyers,” says Ku Swee Yong, the CEO of International Property Advisor. “As for a Chinese buyer who is unable to buy a minority-seller’s flat, we can also say that he is suckered into having to pay $48,000 higher, which translates to higher stamp duties, higher interest expenses and lower CPF earnings in future.”
Ultimately, though, the central economic dynamic is unchanged: the Chinese unit has greater potential for asset appreciation than the Malay one, all else being equal. The Chinese investment has a greater rate of return than the Malay. This is true both for the original buyer and for the buyer on the resale market.
Surely the best way to raise the socio-economic status of lower-income groups is by giving them the same wealth generating opportunities—not by keeping them cooped up in less liquid markets.
This is what structural racism is all about. Even in the absence of racist intent, a combination of factors has led to racist outcomes.
Singapore must acknowledge the unintended racism of the EIP. Let’s study it, understand it, and address these negative outcomes.
We should analyse structural racism not just at the HDB, but at the People’s Association and any other body that may warrant an investigation.
As multicultural societies around the world grow and evolve, so does their understanding of racism.
It is time for Singapore to move past simplistic definitions of racism.
Edit note: An earlier version of this piece had the counter-argument featuring the quote from Ku in the post-script below. I have moved it up into the main body.
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– The research cited by Leong and Yap from IPS is “Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore”, a 2013 paper by Maisy Wong, an associate professor at Wharton (and a good friend: we studied together at Berkeley).
In her research Maisy, bless her soul, assembled a data set by matching more than 500,000 names in the phonebook to ethnicities. She combined this with data on housing transaction prices, neighborhood choices of movers from different ethnic groups (calculated by matching names between two sequential phonebooks) and attributes of neighborhoods, such as school quality and the age of buildings.
The key findings of the research are as follows: on average, transaction prices of Chinese- constrained units are 5% higher than observably comparable unconstrained blocks. The average prices are 3% lower for Malay- and Indian-constrained blocks. Additionally, units in constrained blocks tend to be harder to sell, translating into units being on the market 1 to 1.4 months longer.
Given the nature of the research, and the varied nature of HDB units, it is impossible to quantify exactly what the cost to minorities has been of the EIP. We don’t know, among other things, what percentage of blocks are “constrained”, i.e. those that have hit one or more ethnic quotas.
When I read about Maisy’s 2013 painstaking research being quoted by two IPS researchers in 2020, the obvious question I had was: why doesn’t HDB just share the transaction data so we can analyse it? Why do researchers have to go to such lengths to compile a database?
Well, I guess we all know why. File this under “Another data set that Singapore would rather hide from you”.
In happier news, Maisy just told me that she’s hoping to spend part of her sabbatical in Singapore next year, and might be living in Pasir Ris. Hooray! #pasirrispassion
– An analysis of Critical Race Theory is beyond the scope of this article. The concept and applicability is being debated heavily now in the US. I like these two comments, the first from a piece in The Economist, the second in The Wall Street Journal.
“CRT thus seeks to explain the fact of persistent racial injustice by analysing the practices of American institutions. Such practices are racist because they perpetuate racial inequality, not because people within them seek deliberately to oppress individual and specific black people. Mortgage lending, for instance, can function in a racist way, even if the lenders themselves harbour no personal bigotry against non-whites.”
“Critical race theory argues that individuals aren’t bad because they’re white,” said Eric Ward, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit. “What it argues is that there are systems that have evolved over time that create disparity based off of race.”
– Some Singaporeans engage in semantics when it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment in the army and elsewhere. “That’s not racism, because Islam is not a race but a religion!” Religious bigotry must be included in any discussion of racism, especially when the impact falls disproportionately on a particular race—in this case, Malays.
– The best exploration of internalised racism I’ve seen recently is in “Brown is Haram”, a theatrical performance cum lecture at the Substation. In the show, Mysara Aljaru and Kristian-Marc James Paul narrate their own experiences of internalising racist views, whether in the dating game or while at work.
I watched a recording, and I hope it becomes required viewing for all Singaporeans (and people everywhere, really). Mysara has told me that they are in the process of making it available, the M18 rating being one stumbling block.
– 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.