Singapore, a country that prides itself as a model of “racial harmony,” has a racism problem.

Of course, many minorities in Singapore will say that racism has always been a problem. But listening to those with less power is not one of Singapore’s strong suits.

Recent events, though, have made the issue of racism difficult to ignore. An Indian lady was kicked in the chest by a Chinese man while out exercising. A middle-aged Chinese man decided to branch out from his day (now former) job as a polytechnic lecturer to harangue a young couple about interracial dating, characterizing Indian men as “preying” on Chinese women. A Hindu family’s prayer ritual was disrupted by their Chinese neighbor, who made a point of dashing out of her home to bang a gong. These incidents went viral on social media, muscling their way into the Singaporean consciousness and demanding attention.

On June 25, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong called out these incidents during his keynote speech at the IPS-RSIS Forum on Race and Racism. He made it clear that such behavior was unacceptable, and called on Chinese Singaporeans to be more sensitive to the needs and experiences of our minority compatriots.

The speech has since been praised for acknowledging some of the challenges and microaggressions that minorities face, advocating for calm, sensible conversations, and stating that the ruling People’s Action Party is open to reviewing policies that touch on race. It’s worth noting that, since Wong’s predecessor, Heng Swee Keat, stepped back from his position as the earmarked future prime minister, Wong has emerged as one of the top contenders for the premiership. Judging from some of the online sentiment, Friday’s speech presented him as an even-handed, empathetic leader, giving his profile yet another boost.

In the context of a country with a history of shutting down discussions of racism, where high-ranking politicians openly say that Singapore isn’t “ready” for a prime minister who isn’t Chinese, and where the establishment Chinese-language broadsheet recently adopted American right-wing talking points to blame racism on Critical Race Theory, Wong’s speech can be seen as an improvement. At least he didn’t say we can’t talk about racism, Singaporeans tell ourselves. At least he recognized that it’s more difficult to be a minority in Singapore. At least he mentioned that it’s problematic for minorities to be encountering racist landlords, or be excluded from group conversations that suddenly switch from English to Mandarin. At least he didn’t deploy an alt-right conspiracy theory to cry reverse racism!

The Singaporean pragmatism kicks in. After all, can we realistically expect more from the PAP? All things considered, this is already pretty good.

But citizens shouldn’t be measuring our political leaders against the lowered standards that they’ve set for themselves. We should be holding them to the standards of justice and equality.

This is not to say that we refuse to recognize incremental change. Human rights struggles and movements rarely achieve all their goals overnight; experienced organizers and activists all know it’s usually a slog that takes years, even generations. But the point is that we should never let those in power lose sight of where we should be, even if it’s unlikely that we’ll get there right away.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People wearing face masks cross a road amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, May 14, 2021.

This is especially the case when lawmakers clearly can do more than they are doing. Wong’s speech might be appreciated for recognizing some minority experiences and leaving the door open for dialogue, but it still stops at imploring Chinese Singaporeans to be nicer and more understanding towards our minority neighbors and friends. It’s a laudable call-to-action if you’re a student-run campaign, but Cabinet ministers can and should go much further. It’s one thing to sympathize with minorities who have to deal with racist landlords and estate agents in the rental market, but as part of the government, it’s within Wong’s power to introduce policies or laws, such as anti-discrimination legislation, that can help address the issue without waiting for racist landlords to shed their racism.

Statements about how the PAP is willing to review their own laws and policies should also not be taken at face value. Such remarks are akin to New Year resolutions; anyone can say anything about what they intend to do, but none of it matters unless it actually gets done.

In his speech, Wong raised some points of contention, such as the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, which requires candidates to stand in teams including at least one minority candidate to contest mega-constituencies during elections, and Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, former Chinese-medium schools that are now given government support to encourage bilingualism and “preserve Chinese culture.”

Both of these PAP-introduced policies have since been criticized as perpetuating unfairness and inequality: as Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh has pointed out, the GRC system has been “routinely abused at the altar of politics,” with minority representation used as “a Trojan Horse for the PAP’s political objectives.” Meanwhile, SAP schools have been pointed out to be not only exclusively Chinese spaces, but elitist and classist ones too, granting their (usually) Chinese students social, cultural, and even political capital that their Malay and Indian counterparts have less access to. While not (yet) particularly loud or overwhelming, there have long been calls for both the GRC and SAP systems to be abolished.

These are PAP-introduced policies that Lawrence Wong said aren’t “cast in stone”... but not before he’d spent time defending their continued presence. The PAP might be willing to “review” and “update” such policies, but that might not equate to a willingness to engage in more substantive reforms to tackle systemic and institutionalized racism.

Wong’s speech, less disappointing than previous PAP and establishment utterances, offers some cause for optimism. But Singaporeans need to be careful not to let the optimism tip over into naivete, or worse, apologism. Politicians shouldn’t be handed cookies — even figurative ones — for being a bit less terrible on the subject of race (or anything else) than what came before.

The relief and appreciation that Wong’s speech has received shows how much more work there is to do in multiracial, multicultural Singapore. Despite years spent reciting the mantra “regardless of race, language, or religion,” the bar is still low, and we have a long way to go in developing a movement for significant change, as opposed to window dressing.

READ NEXT: Don’t Scold Tea-Leaves Readers. Singapore’s Government is the Problem.

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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