The Economic Roots of Racism in Singapore

The Economic Roots of Racism in Singapore
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What you need to know

Ethnic minorities have become scapegoated by rising economic inequality in Singapore.

Singapore’s government is grappling with a public conversation on race, sparked by an incident involving its law and home affairs minister earlier this month. Some conversations have focused on the systemic racism endemic in Singapore’s policy making sphere, but there is another conversation to be had — on how economic inequality in the country is also fueling the rise of racial discrimination.

In early June, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam shared a video posted by Dave Parkash on Facebook on the racism the latter faced from a man acknowledging himself as a “Chinese Singaporean,” who said, “I’ve got nothing against you personally, but I think it’s racist that the Indian prey on Chinese girl.”

When sharing the post, Shanmugam said, “I used to believe that Singapore was moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony. Based on recent events, I am not so sure anymore.”

A few days later, Shanmugam seemingly walked back on his comments, saying, “I won’t say we are at knife-edge. I think that will be over-dramatizing it.”

He added: “I’ve always said there is racism in Singapore, but we are a better society than most other multi-racial societies that I know of.”

The volte-face came about after Shanmugam’s initial comments drew attention to the racism in Singapore perpetuated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Two years ago, PAP deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat claimed that older generations of Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.

This led to backlash from critics, such as from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP)’s non-constituency member of parliament (NCMP) Hazel Poa, who pointed out matter-of-factly that, “the only reason we are not ready is [because] the PAP is not ready.”

But beyond the comments, racism takes a structural form in PAP policies. The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), which determines a fixed racial quota in public Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, is one example. Critics of the policy have pointed out that it has reduced the value of homes owned by ethnic minorities, by limiting the pool of potential buyers and depressing prices.

Economic insecurity, tribalism, and racism

A neglected component of this conversation is the economic inequality fueled by PAP’s neoliberal and unequal policies that have created rising social instability in Singapore.

Since the 1980s, Singapore has seen rising income inequality — which has grown to among the highest levels in the developed world. Singapore’s estimated poverty rate is also among the highest among high income countries. Wages have stagnated to the point that over the last two decades, the labor share of income today in Singapore is also among the lowest — meaning most economic growth in the country goes to corporate profits rather than to workers.

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People wear masks and observe social distancing while lining up to pay at a supermarket in Singapore, Friday, May 14, 2021.

A large part of why income inequality has risen so rapidly is due to the lack of minimum wage to protect workers at the bottom, as salaries at the top escalated rapidly — with the ministers paying themselves handsome rates pegged to the highest income earners. The government, too, is grabbing most of the social contributions from citizens for its own investments rather than returning them for social protection.

This has contributed to the sense among citizens in Singapore that they are not receiving a fair share of what they had helped to contribute to the economy.

A group of social psychologists and political scientists have explained that in a system widely believed to be “meritocratic” — such as Singapore’s — “rising inequality triggers psychological processes and motivations” resulting in a heightened need among people to “belong to a tribe,” producing a society with “rising intergroup animosity and mistrust, [and] more racial discrimination.”

But how does this work?

David Roberts explained that for “traditional white, Christian, small-town, patriarchal culture” in the United States, even though people in those towns are being sustained by high-paying jobs, their economic insecurity is leaving them feeling “assaulted, invaded, corrupted,” which they blame on “the rise of demographic groups that do not share its values.”

Like white America, Chinese Singaporeans, the majority ethnic group in Singapore, are on average wealthier than the other ethnic groups in the city state.

The case of Tan Beow Hiong, a Chinese woman who claims to be from Hwa Chong (considered to be an elite educational institution in Singapore) is illustrative. In April, she made racist remarks on Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train, where she said, “Malay touching a Chinese, what is this? [...] Did your religion teach you how to touch Chinese?...F***k you, man.”

Such behavior is not unlike that of the much-maligned “Karens” in the U.S., a term labeled on white women in America who consider themselves to be privileged and are oftentimes racist. It hasn’t escaped academic analysis. Clinical associate professor Terence Fitzgerald has written that “micro-aggressions” exhibited by Karens reflect a “cultural ‘redlining’ where white people attempt to preserve exclusive access to a public space.”

The role of economic inequality in Singapore may have some bearing, too, on the age-old question of why the working classes and poor vote against their economic interests. Some researchers have suggested that where there exists an ethnic minority group that is poor or perceived to be poorer relative to the “dominant majority,” the excessive inequality in a society might lead to people seeing “redistribution [...] as disproportionately benefiting minorities,” and thereby adopting the view that “the poor are lazy or undeserving of help.”

Ethnic minorities, therefore, become scapegoated by the rising economic inequality in Singapore.

But why would the relatively wealthy feel economically insecure?

Economic insecurity and xenophobia

The sudden rise in expressions of racism in Singapore is related to the PAP's faulty immigration policies.

The U.S. — also among the most unequal societies in the developed world — is a useful comparative example for how this works. In Roberts’s Vox article, he explained that for white Americans, “they don't mind government benefits as such,” but they mind losing some of their benefits to immigrants who they consider as “lazy minorities” who “haven't worked for them [and] who don't deserve them.”

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People wearing protective masks as a precaution against Covid-19 walk during lunch hour at the central business district in Singapore, December 14, 2020.

Indeed, a study of 23 European countries found that individuals who felt that their income situation had gotten worse were more likely to report “significantly higher levels of perceived threat” towards other groups, including ethnic minority groups as well as immigrant groups. A Pew Research study of Western European countries also found that people who are less positive about the economy tend to view immigrants as an economic burden.

In Singapore, scholars pointed to how the “large presence of migrant workers [...] has increased locals’ insecurities,” while concerns also exist as to how “migrants have increased housing costs, overwhelm public transport, and overcrowd an already congested city.” Data released by the Singapore government also found that permanent residents in Singapore earn higher salaries than Singaporeans.

Economic insecurity is therefore relative as well — Singaporeans feel that they are not reaping the benefits of the economy they think they should.

While Shanmugam acknowledged in parliament last month that “there are legitimate concerns about foreigners taking jobs from locals,” he chose instead to focus on “parties [who] have been deliberating stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia.”

Shanmugam then challenged Progress Singapore Party’s MP Leong Mun Wai to debate on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which has been perceived by a segment of Singaporeans as giving “preferential treatment to Indian nationals” and unfairly reducing the employment opportunities and wage growth of Singaporeans. At one time, India’s government protested to Singapore that more stringent labor laws would be a violation of the CECA agreement.

Leong has nevertheless taken up the challenge to debate Shanmugam on the CECA, and pointed the debate back to the “economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans” — precisely what the research above attests to as the fundamental issue behind the rising racism and xenophobia in Singapore.

The rise in racist sentiment, in frequency and in virulence, could therefore be in part due to the rising insecurities citizens are facing from the influx of foreign workers. According to the World Bank, migrants comprise 45.4% of the population in Singapore — placing Singapore among the top 15 countries with the highest migrant population.

However, other developed countries with high proportions of migrant workers in their population, like Luxembourg, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, and Ireland, also see among the highest proportion of migrant workers in their population, yet they also have one of the highest acceptance rates of migrant workers in the world, and among European countries. Part of the reason is that these countries have the highest wages in the world — and this is largely because the migrant workers employed in these countries are mostly higher-educated and higher-skilled, which did not lead to the depression of wages, like it did in Singapore. These countries in fact also have the highest-educated and highest-skilled migrant workers globally.

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Medical workers perform a nose swab on a migrant worker at a dormitory, amid Covid-19 in Singapore May 15, 2020.

As Hui Weng Tat and Dr. Ruby Toh similarly highlighted, “Switzerland, despite its relatively high share of foreigners, has an average wage which is more than twice that of Singapore and median wages of foreign workers are on average about 89 per cent of local Swiss.”

As such, they added, “This highlights the importance of transitioning away from growth that is dependent on continued use of cheap foreign labour which can have detrimental effect [sic] on productivity performance towards a system that can sustain increasing productivity through higher wages.”

Not only that, the migrants in these countries are also the best protected policy-wise, in access to jobs, skills improvement, education, healthcare, and political participation, and have among the strongest anti-discrimination policies in terms of race, religion, and nationality — which research shows is correlated with acceptance towards migrant workers and their happiness. The case for reducing inequality and uplifting the poor and working classes in Singapore could not be stated with more clarity.

Economic insecurity and increased vulnerabilities to falsehoods and conspiracies

But instead of addressing the economic roots of the problem, the Singapore government has instead threatened critics.

In his challenge to Leong, Shanmugam said, “You know that most of what is said about CECA is false.”

And in 2019, in response to questions about the CECA, then-Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said, “postings and messages are circulated to stoke the fears of Singaporeans in times of economic uncertainties. And some go even further to play the racial card to divide our society.” Instead of addressing the underlying economic insecurities triggered by such trade agreements, Chan instead focused on “online falsehoods.”

Research Associate Edward Knudsen pointed out however that “rather than monitoring or regulating the spread of conspiracies, we must view conspiracy theories as primarily a symptom, not a cause, of social decay.”

“In today’s era of rampant inequality,” Knudsen continued, “widespread governance failures, and open (and largely unpunished) corruption, people are rightly angry at elites and institutions. Deprived of feelings of political agency and looking for answers, they turn to conspiracies and spurious accusations.”

Indeed, social psychologists have found that “when one feels that society’s fundamental, defining values are under siege, it is a strong predictor of a general tendency toward conspiracy thinking and endorsement of [...] conspiracy theories.” They also point to how economic inequality therefore “heightens the inclination to uncritically accept ingroup views and to reject anything the opponent group prefers.”

As cultural historian Ainsley Hawthorn explained, “conspiracist thinking isn’t always a problem of individual judgment, [and that] people generally become believers because they feel insecure.”

Not surprisingly, countries with high income inequality have also been shown to exhibit high information inequality, meaning people are eventually drawn to a more limited set of news sites which align with their political ideology, which increases their vulnerability to news manipulation.

We therefore “need to understand the root causes of people's fears and to ensure their basic needs are met if we want to prevent people from latching onto conspiracy theories that provide comfort at the expense of common sense,” Hawthorn said.

All this goes to show the failure on its own terms of the PAP government’s use of legal mechanisms like the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to address falsehoods or conspiracy theories being spread.

In fact, Associate Professor Alton Chua pointed to a research conducted by his graduate student which found that, “POFMA did not emerge as a deterrent factor at all” in preventing people from falling for misinformation.

As Professor Seoyong Kim and Sunhee Kim explained in their study, if perceived risk and stigma would increase people’s vulnerabilities to false information, it would therefore require strengthening their social protections and social trust to prevent them from falling for falsehoods.

In other words, punitive measures like POFMA orders are not the answer. Enhancing people’s economic livelihoods is.

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Migrant workers rest at a swab isolation facility as they wait for their test results at a dormitory, amid Covid-19 in Singapore, May 15, 2020.

Economic insecurity and the rise of Chinese supremacy

Another aspect of income inequality and ingroup thinking is that it has given rise to populist leaders who adopt “protectionist and nationalist agendas,” Robert Gold has highlighted.

Research in the U.S. has found that economic insecurity among white Americans contributed to their voting for Donald Trump. A study among 16 European countries also found that people “barely coping” eventually develop “disgust with the political establishment” along with anti-immigrant sentiments — their economic insecurities therefore helped to increase the populist vote.

Psychologists Jolanda Jetten and Stefanie Sprong explained that higher levels of economic inequality not only “enhance the perception that society is breaking down,” it also results in perceptions that “a strong leader is needed to restore order (even when that leader is willing to challenge democratic values to achieve this goal).”

Indeed, a survey of 28 European countries found that in times of economic insecurities, voters, especially those among the lower and more vulnerable social strata, would turn toward “paternalistic” far-right parties.

A similar trend is happening among a segment of Singaporeans who are turning towards populist leaders. But what is also noteworthy is that a subset of Chinese Singaporeans, who feel that they have not economically benefited under the PAP (despite the PAP being Chinese dominated) and constrained by the one-party rule of more than 60 years in Singapore, have instead turned outwards to identify with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — by affiliation of their “ingroup” Chinese ethnicity — as the “strong leader” to restore their sense of order.

In my conversations with this subgroup of Chinese Singaporeans, alignment with the CCP has meant that while they advocate for democracy in Singapore, they have instead adopted CCP’s stance in relation to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, where democracy becomes less of an ideal because then, Chinese supremacy looms larger.

Social psychologists have an explanation for this contradiction: “Support for authoritarian leaders with disregard for democratic norms may [...] be responses to the perception that the system has failed the people.”

This cognitive dissonance has even resulted in individuals convincing themselves that “China is a democracy,” as former foreign minister George Yeo even said in an interview with China’s Global Times.

The economic inequality in Singapore has ironically resulted in pro-opposition and pro-PAP subsets of supporters having common alignment with Chinese supremacy even as their local politics differ.

One reason why pro-CCP rhetoric has taken root in Singapore is due to the Chinese propaganda campaigns that disinformation NGO Doublethink Lab found have been conducted in Singapore as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia.

They exist in both the national Chinese broadsheet Lianhe Zaobao which carries editorials aligned with CCP talking points, as well as the “50 Cent Army” (or wumao) who could be fake profiles or loyalist accounts who intermix pro-CCP rhetoric together with local issues to try to bring over believers. (I have witnessed such accounts comment on my posts on Facebook.)

In that sense, foreign governments like China’s try to exploit local economic fissures and insecurities to create social divisions, and the economic inequality in Singapore therefore present as vulnerabilities due to ingroup development along the lines of ethnicity.

Not only that, POFMA which was enacted on the claim of countering foreign interference has instead become ineffectual except as a tool largely for political persecution of local opposition and activists.

It should be noted that the economic insecurities and development of ingroup tribalism is also developing among the other ethnic groups in Singapore, as we have seen in other racist incidents involving other minority groups, which deserve broader attention.

The PAP is also a racist and Chinese supremacist party

Complicating the issue is that the ruling PAP party, on the other hand, is a Chinese supremacy party.

Historian Associate Professor Michael Barr explained that the “racial stereotypes contrasting hard-working Chinese and lazy Malays [have been] prejudices that were accepted at the highest levels of Singapore’s government.”

He explained that this is reflected in what Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in an interview in 1965. He pointed to the Chinese as “the product of a civilisation which has gone through all its ups and downs, of floods and famine and pestilence, breeding a people with very intense culture, with a belief in high performance, in sustained effort, in thrift and industry,” while the Malays “more fortunately endowed by nature, with warm sunshine and bananas and coconuts, and therefore not with the same need to strive so hard.”

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Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers a keynote address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2019.

But the characterization of laziness is disingenuous as this disregards the industriousness of the Temenggong Daing Ibrahim and Sultan Abu Bakar, two Malays whom Barr credited as playing important roles in “the economic and infrastructural development of Singapore” that “made the Singapore colonial enterprise a success.”

Lee Kuan Yew (and father of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong) also said previously, “We must remember that in Singapore, the Malays feel they are being asked to compete unfairly, that they are not ready for the competition against the Chinese and the Indians and the Eurasians. They will not admit or they cannot admit to themselves that, in fact, as a result of history, they are a different gene pool and they do not have these qualities that can enable them to enter the same race.”

Other PAP members expressed similarly racist views.

Former PAP member of parliament (MP) Choo Wee Khiang and uncle of current PAP MP Desmond Choo also said: “one evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around.”

A former PAP MP Seng Han Thong also said: “I noticed that the [public relations] mentioned that some of the staff because they are Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in English good, well enough, so that also deters them, from [sic] but I think we accept broken English.”

And when it was pointed out that what Seng said was racist, Shanmugam instead came out to defend him.

Seng “is not a racist,” Shanmugam said.

But this came back to haunt Shanmugam when he shared Parkash’s video and said that he wasn’t sure if Singapore was “moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony.”

The backlash that followed pointed to how the police under Shanmugam had also investigated ethnic minorities for speaking up on the racial discrimination they faced, including artiste Preeti Nair and her brother, musician Subhas Nair, and the Workers’ Party Raeesah Khan during last year’s general election.

When this was pointed out to him, Shanmugam had the audacity to say: “These sentiments are somewhat hypocritical... You don't respond to what you say is racism by your own racist remarks, by being racist yourself.”

However, the real hypocrisy is Shanmugam’s defense of racists within his own party, and his government’s inaction against PAP MPs who made racist remarks, even as the law is used without inhibition against ethnic minorities speaking up about their racism.

Last Friday, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, and one of the forerunners to be the PAP’s next designated prime minister, gave a talk at a forum on race and racism where he focused a large part of his speech on “multiculturalism” — but this misses the point. There has been no major disagreement among Singaporeans on the need to focus on multiculturalism, but using “multiculturalism” to paper over the discussion of racism whitewashes the feelings of racism being felt by ethnic minorities in Singapore — Wong used the words “racism” and “racist” only during the first parts of his speech to bring out the racist incidents that happened in recent years as an introduction to his speech, but not in the other parts. While he acknowledged that “racism still exists in Singapore,” and that “we must hold ourselves to higher standards, and tackle racism wherever it exists in our society,” he continues to say the PAP’s system “has worked.”

In contrast, when sharing Wong’s speech, the Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh pointed out the flaws in Singapore’s system that needs fixing, such as with how the “Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for public housing” has resulted in “minorities bear[ing] a direct and real financial burden,” and how “the reality of immigration to top up our population, amongst others – deserve a second look.” Singh also highlighted the need for anti-discrimination legislation.

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Photo Credit: AP/ TPG Images
Pritam Singh, Workers' Party (WP) secretary-general and candidate for Aljunied GRC, during an interview at a coffeeshop in Singapore on July 7 2020.

A silver lining: minority voices are being heard again

While the PAP’s ideology and policies have resulted in the institutionalization of the structural discrimination of ethnic minorities in Singapore, the income inequality as a result of PAP’s economic policies have also further exacerbated racial discrimination. It has caused economic insecurities fuelling tribal behavior along ethnic lines, preventing deeper understanding across groups from taking place.

This is not to say that racism does not exist on an individual level, but to emphasize how Singapore’s inequality has allowed it to proliferate.

The PAP clearly perpetuates racism in Singapore, which has allowed distrust and polarization to take root. In fact, it would seem the PAP is itself populist — its Chinese supremacist and protectionist policies (for itself) are not dissimilar to other populist leaders.

Additionally, the rise of Chinese supremacism both within the PAP and among a subset of non-PAP supporters further intensifies racism against the already vulnerable ethnic minorities. They face structural discrimination from the government and risk being persecuted for pointing out the racism they face.

As such, while Singapore has not faced apparent populist events like Brexit or the election of an outward populist leader like Trump, populist undercurrents do exist in the city state, propped up primarily by the PAP’s extremism (and the constant re-election of PAP’s style of populism) and a new breed of populist leaders.

It is only fortunate that existing social fissures and underlying discriminatory sentiments are finally being brought to the fore for discussion, though it is another question whether it will yield fruitful results under the current mood and polarization The vast economic inequality in Singapore further adds to to the challenge. Moreover, with print and broadcast media controlled by the PAP government, there is a risk that this conversation might be buried again.

Economic inequality is therefore one of the factors of Singapore’s growing racism and polarization. In addition to addressing it, the government also needs to remove the structural forms of institutional racism that exists in Singapore, as well as to stop the persecution of ethnic minorities who speak up when faced with discrimination.

However, where the PAP is the largest perpetrator, holding out hope is itself precarious. One worries that Singapore’s social instability under the PAP government might only continue to persist.

In the end, while Shanmugam accuses other parties of “deliberately stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia,” and while Chan accuses others of “play[ing] the racial card,” the truth is that it is the PAP which has been unabashedly doing so.

READ NEXT: Can We Expect More From Singapore’s PAP on Race?

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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