Sunday, March 18, 2007

Racism in Singapore

The Role of Dominant Ethnicity in Racism: Reportage on Chinese Rule in Multi-Racial Singapore

Linda K. Fuller, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Communications Department
Worcester State College

A version of this article was presented at the 14th Biannual Convention of the World Communication Association in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1997.


Beginning with a discussion on hegemonic racism, an analysis of how the Republic of Singapore tackled the problem of being a predominantly Chinese country in a Malay-dominated area when it became independent in 1965 is used as a case study of dominant ethnicity in terms of racism. The paper describes communications efforts on the parts of both Singaporean citizens and government to keep harmony--updated, and in many ways contradicted, with reportage on a survey of racism at their university in which 80 Singaporean students participated.

Urbanization, technological development, industrialization, rising mass literacy, and increased mass media consumption are expected to have a leveling effect on ethnic differences, thereby leading to an eventual decline in ethnic diversity.
Chew Sock Foon, Ethnicity and Nationality in Singapore (1987), p.9

Hegemonic racism

In his mapping of dominant racisms, David Theo Goldberg (1990, p.xii) points out that racism has usually been considered "an ahistorical, unchanging social condition always presupposing claims about biological nature and inherent superiority or ability." Teun A. van Dijk (1993, p.122) sees racism as a form of group dominance in terms of power abuse, or "self-interested control over and as a limitation of access to socially valued resources (residence, citizenship, housing, jobs, wealth, education, respect, etc.)" It manifests itself in a number of ways, typically based on long-standing patterns of inequality and discriminatory prejudices whose origins may not even be remembered. Racism's societal "expression, enactment, and legitimation" may take place, as Smitherman-Donaldson and van Dijk (1988, p.17) point out, at a symbolic level.

Sociologist Joseph F. Healey (1995, pp.277-8) has posited these themes for analyzing dominant-minority relations:

1.The present condition of a minority group reflects its contact situation, especially the nature of its competition with the dominant group and the differential in power resources between groups at the time of contact.

2.Minority groups created by colonization experience economic and political inequalities that tend to last longer and to be more severe than those experienced by minority groups created by immigration.

3.For all minority groups, both colonized and immigrant, power and economic differentials and barriers to upward mobility are especially pronounced for groups identified by racial or physical characteristics, as
opposed to cultural or linguistic traits.

4.Relationships between dominant and minority groups reflect the economic and political characteristics of the larger society and change as those characteristics change.

5.The development of group relations, both in the past and for the future, can be analyzed in terms of assimilation and pluralism.

6.The "mood" of the dominant group over the last 25 years combines a rejection of blatant racism with the belief that modern American society is nondiscriminatory and that further reforms or special programs or treatment for minority groups are unjustified.

7.Since World War II, minority groups have gained significantly more control over the direction of group relationships.

"Racism is maintained from generation to generation not simply because of economic gain and the reservation of white material privilege, but also by the necessity to maintain a belief in white racial superiority," Bowser, Auletta, and Jones (1993, p.17) point out in their reference to white dominance on American campuses. They add, "Racism is maintained from generation to generation not simply because of economic gain and the preservation of white material privilege, but also by the necessity to maintain a belief in white racial superiority. The maintenance of physical racial purity grows out of a social identity built around our peculiar physical definition of race. The necessity to maintain racism also grows out of the way in which this identity must be insulated in order to remain unchanged." Lucius Outlaw (1990, p.59), drawing on the works of Gramsci (e.g., 1971), questions the idea of race as, "An obvious, biologically or metaphysically given, thereby self-evident reality--to challenge the presumptions sedimented in the 'reference schemata' that, when socially shared, become common sense, whether through a group's construction of its life world and/or through hegemonic imposition."

Often associated with Marxist cultural theory, hegemony most often refers to domination or rule by a nation or state, a socio-political mix of culture and ideology. According to Celeste Michelle Condit (1994, p.205), " The use of hegemony has become primarily a popular substitute for the older buzzword, dominant ideology." For purposes here, the main point is this: overwhelmingly in Singapore, the Chinese prevail.

Background to the Singaporean case study

History, geography, politics, and social principles. It has been called the "Singapore Success Story." A brief outline of its historical, political-economic, and socio-cultural complexion might help explain why. Origins of the Southeast Asian island city-state can be traced to the 7th century AD, when it was known as Temasek ("Sea Town"), a trading center of Sumatra's ancient Srivijaya Empire. Over the next few centuries there were struggles for the country by Java and Siam, the Dutch, Portuguese, and British; but history was made in 1819 when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles selected Singapore as a British maritime base, developing it as a free port. It remained under British colonial rule for 110 years, until defeat in 1942 by Japanese forces. In 1946 the country demanded self-determination, and as of 1959 it became a self-governing state, joining with the Malaysian Federation in 1963. On August 9, 1965, the Republic of Singapore became an independent republic.

Its strategic location, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, about 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of the Equator, have helped make Singapore an important crossroads route for East-West trading. Having just recently achieved the distinction of being the world's busiest port,(1) Singapore's ideal situation also puts the small island (616 sq. km, or 235 sq miles) in a time zone which allows global telecommunications transactions from London to Tokyo in a working day. The economy can best be typed as one of free enterprise, with some 4,000 multinational corporations having operations there, and its massive banking system numbers among the world's key financial centers.

Politically, the avowedly anti-Communist People's Action Party (PAP) has been in control of the government since 1959, mainly associated with now Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Writing of the Lee legacy, Milne and Mauzy (1990, p.176) write: "A high degree of state control has been possible because the government knows what it wants and takes steps to get it, in conjunction with an efficient civil service, a tightly organized party, extensive grass-roots organizations, periodic 'campaigns' on particular issues, and control of the mass media."

Probably nowhere is the effect of the PAP government's success more noticeable, or more likely to help gain loyalty, than in its public housing policies. In an effort to mix various ethnic and religious groups together, as a means of preventing antagonisms among groups, it established a quota system of sorts that has become a model for other societies. The maintenance of racial harmony in Singapore can best be explained by shifting the emphasis from ethnic to national identity. W.E. Willmott (1989, p.589) cites how, while the purpose of integrating different ethnic groups in the high-rises may have been for integration, a more important result of the national housing policy has been the provision "for citizens of all income levels the opportunity of owning a flat and therefore of 'having a stake in the country.'"

Racial and religious principles

Singapore's three million people represent a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual mix (75% Chinese, 15% Malay, 10% Indian). Yet, most citizens think of themselves as Singaporeans first--a fact that is central here as the country's predominant external image is one of racial harmony and national unity. The Singaporean family system is strong, with cooperation, loyalty, respect for elders, and unity all highly valued concepts. Singaporeans enjoy freedom of worship, although some religions (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses) are prohibited; approximately 40% are Buddhist, 30% secular, 15% Muslim, 10% Christian, and 7% Hindu.

While Singapore-born citizens may now be the norm, it is important to recall that when the Republic was first developed in 1965 that most residents had immigrated from other homelands, and had other allegiances; hence, conceptions of nation-building and national identity had to be built from scratch. While ethnic residential concentration marked the island's initial statehood, later, as Chew Sock Foon (1989, p.30) has pointed out, "Ethnic enclavement had been made somewhat less obtrusive through the Singapore Housing Development Board (HDB)-implemented public housing program which allocated low cost government-built flats to economically eligible Singapore citizens on a 'first come, first served' basis without regard to ethnic group membership."

These are the country's stated "core values": 1.Nation before community and society before self; 2. Family as the basic unit of society; 3.Community support and respect for the individual; 4.Consensus, not conflict; and 5.Racial and religious harmony. This is its National Pledge:

We, the citizens of Singapore
Pledge ourselves, as one united people
Regardless of race, language, or religion
To build a democratic society
Based on justice and equality
So as to achieve happiness
Prosperity and progress for our nation.

To date, Singapore has spent a fair amount of time self-diagnosing its attitudes and actions regarding ethnic relations (e.g., Fung, 1996). While only a fraction of the population can recall its race riots in the early 1960s, the various Singaporean cultures witness daily instances of misunderstandings, both rhetorically and according to varying customs.

Increasingly, though, the government has increased the country's "Chineseness"; for example, Mutalib (1992, p.81) cites these cases: "the intensification of the annual 'Speak Mandarin Campaign", the repeated call for Chinese to have more babies, the big budget for Chinese drama serials on television, the insistence that the Chinese proportion of the population must stay and may reach a maximum of 76%, a liberal immigration policy designed to bring in some 100,000 Hongkong Chinese to Singapore, the official patronage for Confucian studies, and the building of Chinese theme parks and entertainment centres by Honkong tycoons." As Latif (1996) has pointed out, "It is important to continue not to be complacent about the ethnic peace which Singapore enjoys."

Depending on which history books you are reading, Singapore separated of its own accord from Malaysia on August 9, 1965 to become a sovereign, democratic, independent nation of its own accord, or it was evicted; by whatever means, that date marks the moment when its nationhood became a reality (Fuller, forthcoming).

Chinese relations with Malaysians

While notions of racial harmony exist outwardly for the public to think that Singapore is a model for race relations, more recently the notion of a multiracial melting pot has been replaced by an emphasis on strengthening and respecting ethnic and racial roots. "Singaporean officials now like to speak of the city-state as a mosaic of cultures, says Steven Erlanger (1990), "a successful amalgam of immigrant peoples who have made an implausible nation succeed through hard work, tough government, anti-Communism and free enterprise." The result for its minority populations: an enhanced feeling of distance, divisiveness, and alienation.

The dominant Chinese, Erlanger (1990) points out, "speak patronizingly of Malay Singaporeans as a backward underclass, progressing slowly but in fact falling farther behind." Perhaps fearing that the Malays, who have more children than they do and might outnumber them at some point, Chinese have taken measures such as relaxing immigration restrictions to fellow Chinese, especially trying to attract persons from Hong Kong. Another concern comes from Lee Kuan Yew's appeals for Singapore to not lose its "Asian-ness." Reciprocally, many Malays feel bitterness about the ruling Chinese, calling them clannish and arrogant. Try these facts: there are only a few token Malays serving as cabinet ministers; the country has taken on campaigns for Confucian ethics and learning Mandarin at the same time it has scrapped compulsory Islamic religious classes and decided to provide free higher education only for poorer Malays instead of for all; job advertisements still ask for racial and religious background; and to date the Singapore Air Force has yet to have any Malay fighter pilots. As in so many areas in Singapore, where something appears one way but is really another (e.g., camera-equipped elevators for the supposed purpose of making sure no one urinates in them, but really to monitor actions and conversations), the quota-regulated housing situation might seem admirable, but Malays consider it politically motivated to discourage concentrations for forging electoral majorities.

It is in education where the widest Singaporean racial rift is visible. While Chinese parents choose schools that teach in English, with Mandarin as a second language, Malay parents prefer ones that offer Malay. Yan and Thomas (1995) have studied Chinese and American parents in terms of interactions with their children's physical activities, finding socio-cultural environment and ethnicity play critical roles.

Genetically, Malays are naturally larger than the Chinese. Probably the most incredible discrimination against them, by default, is their size. A classic manifestation of this can be witnessed in Singapore's Education Ministry-directed "Trim and Fit Challenge" program. "4,000 overweight students join in mass exercise" was the front-page article in the government-owned newspaper(2) on May 28, 1996--accompanied by a photo of predominantly Malay students identified as part of the 10% target from the nation's 51 schools who were publicly encouraged to lose weight. Piling more guilt on the victims, the Straits Times also included an article claiming the parents of these "obese children" were typically "too busy" to help them (Leong, 1996).

More recently, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew apparently made some disparaging remarks about Johor Bahru, the Malaysian border town, calling it "notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings"; the remark was duly repeated in various media (e.g., McDermott, 1997), with his apologies for the slur.

Reciprocally, it is interesting to note a comment in a description of Malaysia in Conde Nast's Traveller (Torregrosa, 1997, p.150) about a "troubling underside":

Behind the harmonious overlay and progressive image of the country, the old racial and religious rifts simmer. With a multiracial population--60% Malay, 35% Chinese, 10% Indian-- Malaysia had endured ethnic strife in years past. Few talk openly about this, but in private, my Chinese and Indian acquaintances complain, sometimes bitterly, about the advantages that the Islamic government grants indigenous Malays, the Muslim majority whose origins are rooted in Malaysia.

Survey on Racial Attitudes in Singapore

In 1996, this author served as a Fulbright Senior Fellow at a Singaporean university, and amongst other assignments was teaching a course on Social Psychology. After receiving approval from several administrative layers, permission was granted for students to take a survey relative to their study of "Prejudice and Discrimination." What follows are the results of that survey, the instrument itself appearing in the Appendix.

First, some background demographics on the students. Numbering 80 in all, 54 (67%) were female, 26 (33%) male; most (67%) were nineteen years old, 14% twenty, 13% twenty-one, and 6% were over age twenty-two. Racially, by way of the educational tracking system in Singapore, where significantly more Chinese students place higher than others so that they far outnumber other races academically, 95% were Chinese, 4% Indian, and only 1% were Malay. In answer to the open-ended demographic descriptor of "race/ethnicity," not a single survey respondent indicated bi-racial designations.(3)

To the first question, asking for definitions of racism, these were the results:

Table 1:
Agreement on definitions of racism

In addition, some students took up the suggestion of including further comments, such as: "Racism stems from narrow-mindedness, fear and ignorance and results in stereotyping of ethnic groups"; "Racism is when one views another group of people as being superior or inferior, due to their racial/ethnic backgrounds, regardless of individual characteristics" (from a 19-year old Chinese woman); "Racism is when people hate/dislike another because of his race and not making an attempt to get to know him as an individual"; "Could even be exclusion (conscious or otherwise) of people not from the same racial group in, say, a group discussion. Not particularly obvious"; and "Racism is when people are excluded because of their colour, race, etc."

The pivotal question dealt with asking students whether they thought there was racism at their school. Well over half (55%) agreed, while 30% said no, 10% thought "maybe," and the remaining 5% minority left it blank, one student writing, "I won't go so far to say "racism" but rather discrimination." Examples of racism were listed in the following ways:

Table 2:
How racism is evident

"Other" examples mainly took the form of racist jokes. One Indian woman noted tokenism in the department of Communication Studies in terms of enrollment, citing too the university's celebrated Chinese Heritage Center, while another Indian student pointed out how the prior semester's exam had been scheduled on the day of an Indian holiday.

Regarding how the survey respondents had knowledge of racism at the school, the following represented some of their experiences:

Table 3:
Ways of knowing about racism

Racist jokes were also cited by several students, along with some other telling additions: "I can't put a finger on it, but sure can sense it"; "You observe what's happening around you"; "Observing various informal groups"; and "Offensive remarks are the norm (though not really incidents)!"

Asked to rank the seriousness of racism as a problem on a scale of 1 to 5, #1 signifying "serious" and #5 "not a problem," exactly half the respondents circled #4. Another 20% indicated #3, 17% #5, 10% #2, and only 1% #1--all quite telling responses.

When asked about the causes of racism amongst a long list that allowed for multiple choices, these were the responses:

Table 4:
What causes racism?

A 21-year old Chinese male added here: "I think there's a fear of causing racial stereotypes here. In fact, it's overhyped when a Chinese or Indian is depicted in a funny way on TV. Many consider it racism and create a
ruckus. Absolutely unnecessary."

After discussion in the tutorials(4) about meanings behind certain semantic depictions, responses to words or symbols students considered racist were interesting, as indicated:

Table 5:
Racist words/symbols

Quite a number of other terms were discussed in various tutorial classes, many of them unfamiliar to this author. Mainly, they were Muslim in origin (e.g., "mat" and "minah"). Chinese students were familiar with epithets like "slant-eye" and "slit-eye" for themselves, along with some others like "red-haired ghost" and "Indian ghost," explaining that the term "ghost" following a word refers to race. "Ang man," meaning a red-haired monster, refers to Caucasians. Other derogatory terms that were batted around included "Abos" (for the aboriginal people of Australia)(5), libbers, queer/lesbian/gay, and names ending in "-ette".

To the question of why some social groups might be racially segregated, several propositions were supported:

Table 6:
Why racial segregation?

"Certain racial groups may just want to keep in touch with their roots and culture, especially for migrant groups in a multicultural society," added one student. Here are some other extra comments: "The area may have traditionally/historically been associated with a particular racial/social group--e.g., in S'pore, Chinatown or 'Little India.' It all started off with our pioneers"; "You can chose to have racist feelings"; "If it is so, it may be that they segregate themselves instead of being segregated by others--i.e., self-inflicted"; "Racism is not so evident in Singapore as in some other countries where the situation may be even worse."

Students were asked specifically if they had witnessed racism in a variety of forms:

Table 7:
How racism had been witnessed

While racist jokes were added here as further comment by several students, one added "Verbal demeaning," and another reported, "I never actually saw it, but heard other people making fun of another race." And one brave soul revealed how it all began very early: "Back in my secondary school, no non-Chinese students are admitted."

In a twist, students were asked whether they thought minority students discriminated against the minority students. While one-third (34%) said no, only 8% agreed, and more than half (58%) circled "don't know." A 19-year-old female Indian student added, "Yes, but I don't think it matters as minorities don't have much of a voice."

Encouragingly, some 68% of the 80 respondents answered in the affirmative that they and their friends discussed racism, the remainder indicating that they didn't discuss this topic.

The loaded question "Do you hold racist feelings?" brought some intriguing responses. Just over half (53%) self-reported negatively to harboring racist feelings, while an amazing 29% replied in the affirmative, and the remaining 18% were unsure. A female Indian, aged 21, replied, "It's more a feeling of anger and intimidation than 'counter-attack racism.' In anger, I tend to say something racist without actually meaning it, just to get back at the other person who is being racist." Here are some other honest replies: "To a certain extent I guess I feel more comfortably with my Chinese friends"; "Sometimes I practice racism unknowingly"; and "Stereotyping is unavoidable but I wouldn't consider it outright racism."

Concluding comments

There have been surprisingly few studies of racial attitudes on college campuses. The few that have been done mostly focus on American institutions and on African-American issues (e.g., Asante and Al-Seen, 1984; Scott, 1992; Sidel, 1994; Buttny, 1997.) Increasingly, as communication scholars call for discursive diversity at all levels, along with "a much-needed dialogue in the press about our neglected racial and economic inequities" (Fuller, 1992, p.161), these issues demand attention. It is this author's hope that the racism survey presented here will be replicated for other student populations, so that open discussion on cross-cultural comparisons can begin.

Singapore as a country is first and foremost concerned about its image in the world market. In addition to positioning itself as one of the cleanest, safest places in Southeast Asia, it also prides itself on its dealings in business (e.g., McDermott et al., 1997) and in terms of racial harmony. Yet. beneath that claim, the cast study reported offers avenues for reconsideration and reconstruction.



1. Trade mostly consists of tin, rubber, coconut, oil, rice, timber, jute, spices, and coffee..

2. The Straits-Times, a 150+ year old newspaper, has a circulation of around 300,000. [Straits Times Interactive, link added by editor.]

3. See Orbe and Strother for an interesting definition and discussion of bi-ethnicity.

4. Classes were structured such that we met twice per week for two-hour lectures, along with smaller tutorial sessions that divided the class into four different sections that also met weekly.

5. Australia's aboriginal people prefer this designation, and do not like being called "Aboriginals"; the term "abo" is considered extremely denigrating.


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Questionnaire to be added at a later date, if interest arises.
Email us if you would like to see the questionnaire.

Linda K. Fuller, an associate professor in the Communications Department of Worcester State College, earned her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Massachusetts. Responsible for more than 200 professional publications and conference reports, she is the author/(co-)editor of more than 18 books -- including the five volume Beyond the Stars: Studies in American Popular Film series (Popular Press, 1990+) and The Cosby Show. Her next books are on the subjects of ethnic images in film and telecommunications in terms of multiculturalism. Dr. Fuller won a Fulbright to teach and do research at a university in Singapore for 1996. Her teaching interests: Mass Communication, Intercultural/International Communication, and Telecommunications

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