On Racism and Chinese Privilege

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Soh Ying Qi (18A01C)

It’s safe to say that this is not a safe topic.

(The preceding sentence, ironically, may be the only one in this article that’s truly uncontroversial.)

It’s nebulous and complicated and resistant to simplification. It’s hard to discuss sensitively, and even harder to discuss meaningfully. Basically: the odds were stacked against it from the beginning.

So this article won’t change the world. It might not even change your mind. But at the very least, it’ll probably change the way you view “race”, for better or for worse.

What is “race”, anyway?

First, it’s important to define—and distinguish—two key terms which are often conflated: racism and Chinese privilege. Most of us agree that both are undesirable, but few can pinpoint the complex relationship between them, much less the nuanced differences in meaning.

It’s near-impossible to define racism without referring to “race”; yet the latter is often described as a problematic concept. Its scientific basis is often questionable; though we may assume that it stems from biological differences between different groups, evidence shows that this is not the case, even on a genetic level.

As expressed by a quote from RI’s own S. Rajaratnam block:


Racism, however, is something deeper. In a survey conducted for this article, when asked to define racism, 54% (of 50 respondents) cited “discrimination” as an key factor. Hence, we can define it as discrimination based on the social construct of “race”, resulting in unequal treatment that is concrete, unlike the concept from which it stems.

Chinese privilege is slightly more straightforward. “I define Chinese privilege similarly as White privilege, [by] analogy,” said Singaporean independent scholar and activist Sangeetha Thanapal, who coined the term. “It goes beyond advantages people enjoy because of their race. It is also the unearned power the system confers by virtue of your race alone. It is a set of institutional benefits, with greater access to power and resources and opportunity, that are closed off to those who do not have it.”

What makes Chinese privilege so insidious is the fact that it is largely invisible to Chinese Singaporeans, as writer Yuen Sin describes: “Growing up in Singapore, I navigated everyday life unmarked by my race. I never had to explain away how I looked, or ever felt alienated by a group because of my ethnicity.” It becomes problematic when those who have it are unaware of its existence, and therefore unable—or unwilling—to tackle it.

Defining these terms in this way comes with its own set of implications: principally, the considerable nuance embedded in them affects our perception of problems that arise in relation. As our understanding of these complex issues evolves, it therefore alters our approach to the discourse surrounding them, including this very article.

How does Chinese privilege come about?

In the 2010 census, 74% of Singapore’s population identified as Chinese. In view of this, it is undeniable that society—and its institutions, norms and structure—are shaped, to some extent, by this overwhelming demographic majority.

When majority considerations heavily dictate the way society is organised, issues arise that may negatively affect ethnic minorities (albeit in different ways and to differing degrees). In this way, unequal treatment manifests on a societal level. This includes, but is not limited to, differences in education, housing and career opportunities.

Results from the survey indicated students’ clear belief in the existence and problematic nature of Chinese privilege. It is worth noting that the data is subject to some bias: participants tend to self-select for this topic, hence the percentage of respondents who identified as ethnic minorities was 38%, as compared to the national average of 26%. Furthermore, the sample size of 50 students may not be representative of the views of the student body as a whole.

For example, in education, initiatives like the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) and Bicultural Studies Programme Scholarship are designed specifically to serve the Chinese community. While some programmes like the Elective Programme for Malay Language in Secondary Schools (EMAS) are essentially equivalent to the SAP, their comparatively smaller scale—EMAS is offered in only three secondary schools, versus the SAP’s 11 secondary schools and 15 primary schools—may reduce their accessibility to all members of a community.

On paper, this clear disparity certainly shows unequal distribution of resources. However, it is worth noting that “unequal” does not always mean “unfair”. Given that Chinese students make up the majority of any cohort, one could plausibly argue that it is justified in view of demographics. In absolute terms, demand for Chinese-language programmes is higher; hence, in absolute terms, more Chinese-language programmes will be provided.

In this way, one begins to understand the pitfalls of over-simplifying the complex issue of “race”. “Minorities just have fewer numbers, and economies of scale means that it’s hard to pass similar policies,” one student asserted. Another respondent agreed, saying that “certain things that may be construed as racism in institutional settings could be a result of structural limitations.”

If that’s the case, how do we know racism and Chinese privilege exist?

In a 2016 survey conducted by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies, a majority of non-Chinese respondents agreed that being of the majority race is an advantage in Singapore. In addition, “Two-thirds of Malay and Indian respondents who had experienced such differential treatment claimed that race was the basis of such treatment”.

Besides taking place on an institutional level, such problems are also evident in the microaggressions perpetuated against ethnic minorities, along with the clear structural advantages afforded to Chinese Singaporeans. One of the most high-profile examples in recent memory involved actor Shrey Bhargava—himself an RI alumnus—being told to act like a “full-blown Indian man” at an audition.

His experience is not without precedent. In a study on Ethnic Representation on Singapore Film and Television, researcher Kenneth Paul Tan identifies two distinct categories and three subcategories of depictions of Chinese Singaporeans, varying according to factors like educational background and spoken language. However, ethnic minorities are not afforded the same diversity in representation: “Malays”, “Indians” and “Eurasians” are all-encompassing categories that seem to treat ethnic minorities in film as monoliths. The fact that the cultural and linguistic differences within the Chinese community are acknowledged while minorities in media are considered representative of their own (diverse) ethnic groups is a cause for concern.

Given this evidence, it becomes clear that racism and Chinese privilege are present in many different aspects of society. The fact that 60% of respondents said they had heard racist comments shows that such incidents are not isolated, but rather occur frequently on a societal level.

Within the smaller community of RI, many respondents described their experiences of “race”-based insensitivity, attributing them to racist stereotypes, alienation from Chinese-majority environments and plain ignorance.


One student (who identifies as Indian) said, “I don’t think people in general, especially my fellow students, do these things with ill intentions… I just wish they’d try to see things with a wider perspective.”

Why, then, might this perspective be lacking? For one, Chinese privilege as a “race”-based concept, ironically, means rarely ever having to think about “race”. It means being considered the societal norm, the standard to which “everyone else” is compared, the “default” idea of what it means to be Singaporean.

In theory, some inequality is inevitable in any society that is not perfectly homogeneous. But Chinese privilege is more than that: it is a system of individually small but collectively significant concessions afforded to the Chinese community. Over time, their systemic nature creates the illusion of normalcy: as a society, we refrain from questioning them and start to believe that this is simply the way things are.

For example: how often do we in the Chinese community break into Mandarin among ourselves, even when non-Mandarin-speaking minority friends are present? (Of course, it is worth remembering that not every Chinese person speaks Mandarin or has a desire to.) While we may argue that lapses like these are largely unintentional, the alienation that ethnic minorities feel as a result is very real.

This is in line with the linguistic theory of accommodation espoused by Giles and Wiemann (1987), wherein the choice to use a different dialect or language helps such speakers express their non-conformity, and distinguish themselves from “mainstream” society. The effect is an assertion of identity to increase in-group solidarity while excluding those who—quite literally—do not speak the language of the group.

In a study on the school lives of female Normal stream students, researcher Trivina Kang found that “For the Chinese respondents, speaking in Mandarin demonstrates to the other ethnic groups that they are the dominant group in school and there is no real need for them to mix with those from other ethnic backgrounds if they choose not to.” Given the heterogeneity and size of the Chinese community in Singapore, it would be impossible to generalise about all Chinese people based on this finding. Yet it indicates the considerable social power wielded by the community as a whole, illustrating how privilege can be used to intentionally exclude those who are deemed different.

What is currently being done?

In the survey disseminated to students in RI, perceptions of the school’s efforts at handling “race” relations were varied:


Among interviewees, the general consensus was that RI’s initiatives, while commendable, leave some room for improvement. For example, annual Lunar New Year events are organised for Chinese students to celebrate, but other cultural festivals such as Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali largely do not receive the same treatment.

However, they agreed that it has not barred students from forging friendships themselves, nor condoned open discrimination. Some attempts at promoting cultural understanding were noted, such as last year’s sharing on Deepavali during hall assembly.

On a national level, efforts to inculcate racial harmony as a shared value beginning in childhood are evident in the Civics and Moral Education (CME) programme and subjects like Social Studies and History, according to the Ministry of Education. Other measures, such as organised dialogues and creating more opportunities for inter-ethnic interaction, are also in the pipeline at the Public Service Division (PSD).

Are current measures effective? How can we improve them?

However, the continued presence of these problems despite such measures may indicate that their effectiveness is somewhat limited.

For instance, the PSD asserts that “Despite guidelines from the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) that job candidates be selected based on criteria necessary for the role, incidents of discriminatory hiring still occur.” In one of the best-known examples of such practices, a Malay job applicant was told by a hiring manager at PrimaDeli that she was not suitable for the job based on her ethnicity.

In the area of housing, ethnic quotas for HDB flats help to ensure diversity within neighbourhoods. However, there is evidence that Singapore’s rental market continues to discriminate against non-Chinese applicants; for instance, a survey by rental site 99.co found that users experienced racial discrimination 20% of the time.

Some of these persistent discriminatory practices may be attributed to internal issues that are difficult to rectify with top-down methods. Racism and Chinese privilege are systemic issues, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect any single measure or set of measures to completely eradicate problems that are so deeply ingrained in the fabric of society.

However, it is worth noting that a majority of Singaporeans support current policies aimed at fostering multiculturalism; in the CNA-IPS survey, 70% indicated that they “view[ed] various policies meant to safeguard racial and religious harmony positively.” This has encouraging implications on our willingness to participate in them and hence boost their effectiveness.

What else can we do?

Several interviewees asserted that bottom-up approaches, such as engaging in dialogues with friends of other ethnicities, were essential to complementing the government’s top-down strategies. “Conversations are a bit overdone… But I do think that in this case they are warranted,” argued Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A), citing the relative lack of discussion currently surrounding the issue vis-à-vis larger-scale topics like gender equality. “It would be good to create an avenue where such conversations exist, like Civics lessons.”

However, society should keep in mind that such discussions must be handled with tact and sensitivity. In the CNA-IPS survey, “two-thirds of respondents find it hard to talk about race issues and think such dialogue can cause tension”, as reported by The Straits Times. For example, the divisiveness of the Shrey Bhargava case and society’s inability to reach a consensus on it indicate that we have a long way to go towards constructive and productive discussion.

“What I would like to see is my peers sharing their experience with their own culture, because I think the experience of being a minority changes with each generation,” Natasha Rae Zuzarte (18A01B) suggested. “I think the most important thing is understanding and respect. It’s fine not to know everything about other races (as a majority or minority), but the underlying attitude should be one of acceptance.”

There is indeed much to be learnt about the different ethnic communities in Singapore, in view of the considerable diversity within each one. (Ironically, given how often I’ve used the phrase “Chinese people” in this article, it’s worth noting that even the Chinese community is itself not homogeneous or monolithic, and it is impossible to generalise the experiences of everyone included in it.)

Of Singaporeans who do not interact with people of other ethnicities, IPS researcher Mathew Mathews said, “Their apathy will hinder cohesion in Singapore’s multiracial society in the long run.” To truly move forward on the issues of racism and Chinese privilege, we as a society must first enrich our understanding of each other’s’ cultures, languages, traditions and more. This will prevent harmful stereotypes from taking root and hindering social progress.


In the process of writing this article, people have sometimes asked why I’m doing this. After all, I’ll never be able to provide the nuanced viewpoint that comes with personally experiencing racism, and I’m not really saying anything that hasn’t already been said by minorities themselves.

But in those times, I think about this quote by former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh that’s stuck with me:

“If I sit silently, I have sinned.”

Sure, I’m not hurling racial slurs at people on the street. I could easily convince myself that I’m “not racist”. It’s nice to live life believing you’re “not racist”, that you treat everyone “equally”, that you just “don’t see race”. But unless we all commit to examining our biases, it’s just not the truth.

If I choose to keep quiet and condone them, then I think that makes me part of the problem. When we, the Chinese community, fail to stand up against injustice out of fear or self-preservation, we allow it to continue hurting others—people for whom “racism” is not just a buzzword but a daily reality.

If we truly want to make Singapore a better place for all, we need to act on it instead of standing by and professing our innocence. As Thanapal powerfully points out, “whatever repercussions you may face, you will never be on the receiving end of as much hatred and ignorance as those talking about this without the safety of their privilege.”

I’ll close with this quote from the Raja block:


This is bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us. But that just means it’ll take every last one of us working together to make a positive change.

Views expressed here are those of the writer and the students quoted, and are not endorsed by Raffles Press or the Institution. To respond to this article, please leave a comment below or contact Raffles Press at this page.

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