Friday, October 12, 2007

Asian Racism in Singapore

This article is one i read in a taxi on a weekend visit to Singapore - and strangely enough it is actually written by a Singaporean. The article encompasses many of the points i have been trying to illuminate through the collection of articles that comprises this blog - that racism is alive and kicking in Asia and is conveniently ignored or dismissed as being a problem belonging to other countries. Enjoy.

Racism within Asia
AsiaViews, Edition: 30/IV/August/2007

In recent months, there has been much discussion in the media here about how Singapore could cope with a large migrant population from other parts of Asia if the country is going to aim for a population of 6.5 million within the next decade.

Though the question of race relations has not overtly being discussed, yet, it is what we are referring to when we talk about integration, etc. Asians seem to be very reluctant to talk about race relations or racism within their societies, but are quick to point fingers at the West. A couple of months ago, there was ample coverage given, especially in Singapore, to an episode of ‘Big Brother’ TV program in Britain in which Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was the butt of racist comments.

Reading these reports, particularly in the Singaporean press, I could not resist the thought, “what’s the big deal, is it not present here?” This is particularly after some experience I’ve had here around the same time when I was looking to rent a condo apartment and was told not once but five times by housing agents that the owner “did not want to rent to Indians”. Some letters to the editor written by Indian expatriates published in ‘Today’ newspaper about 2 months later indicated that this is a widespread practice here.

I have raised this issue with Singaporeans recently and the usual response with the shrug of the shoulders is “well, racism exists everywhere” so what can we do about it?

In one of the popular expat forums on the Internet here, when I raised this point there was a heated debate which developed that reflected this attitude. One typical comment by a Singaporean professional woman in her 30s was: “No, housing agents are not racists, but local house owners may have pre-stated their preference to the agents representing them of not renting to Indians on account of Indian cooking involving very pungent spices that makes the house smell”.

When I responded: “This is what I said, it is a racist attitude to think that anyone of color cooks spicy food at home and smells”. Her reply was: “It is not my intention to make excuses, I’m merely stating the facts…”

Singapore has often boasted about the harmonious multicultural society they have created where Chinese, Indians, Malays, Eurasians, Filipinos, etc, live in harmony. But, what has transpired in the ‘blogsphere’ in recent years indicates that not everything is rosy under the surface.

Coming back to my experience, when I questioned the housing agents for the reasons for refusing to rent to Indians I was told that because they cook with such aroma, it leaves a “bad smell” in the house long after they have left. I pointed out that (a) I’m not an Indian, but a Sri Lankan-born Australian (b) I don’t usually cook at home because I live on my own. One agent told me “that doesn’t matter, you look Indian, all the same”.

This is exactly what is called “stereo-typing” a process which is described in any cross-cultural communication textbooks as “those overgeneralized and over simplified beliefs we use to categorize a group of people (which) have a tendency to make a claim that often goes beyond the facts, with no valid basis.”

At a time when Singapore is looking towards India—an emerging world power—to develop closer economic ties, and with increasing number of “Indian” professionals coming here to work and many even taking up PR here, it is an opportune time for Singaporean educational authorities to take a closer look at how the educational system could be utilized to address this problem of stereo-typing and racism. It does not apply only to Indians, I have noted that Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais to name a few, are also effected by such racial stereotyping.

I must also add that racist attitudes towards other Asians are not peculiar to Singaporeans. Even Malaysia’s recent treatment of its migrant laborers from Indonesia and Bangladesh in particular has been described by some observers as racist. A few years ago, when I arrived in Hong Kong for the first time I noticed that their customs checked the bags of all the people of color arriving there and not the Chinese nor the Caucasians. This was before the 9/11 event. After that I have observed that they do the same at Bangkok airport.

Over the past 25 years I have been to Bangkok over 30 times. Since the 9/11 event I have been there about 6 times and each time they have called me up and checked my bags, even though I was passing through the “green” line and I’ve noticed that they only check the bags of colored people, especially with South Asian appearance. Obviously they suspect us as possible “Pakistani Muslim terrorist”, even though I’m Buddhist and for 20 years living in Sydney, it was Thai monks who performed our family religious ceremonies including my father’s last rites in 2001.

Though many of us, especially professionals of South Asian background, find this attitude offensive, perhaps many of these officials behave in such fashion because they lack cross-cultural communication training. In many Western countries when they have such security concerns they usually do it more subtly where a few Whites will also be checked along with the non-Whites.

Today, in this globalizing world, not only Singapore, but many other Asian countries are facing an influx of people of different ethnic backgrounds, either coming as tourists, convention delegates or to work or invest in their countries. So, knowledge of cross-cultural communications should be an essential ingredient in these countries.

I lived in Australia for 20 years—throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s—at a time when Australia had to address a similar problem in their society, because they were experiencing an immigration boom from Asia, after the ‘White Australia” policy was abolished in the mid-1970s. Australia was also trying to link up economically with a booming Asia, whose people were historically seen by most Australians as of “lower status” or what was called the “yellow peril”. This was tackled through the educational system with new Asian Studies and Cross-Cultural Communication courses introduced in high schools and tertiary institutions. Today most young Australians are less racist towards Asians and are more comfortable dealing and living with them—even marrying Asians in increasing numbers.

Two years ago, I taught an inter-semester course at a leading university in Singapore on Cross-Cultural Communications during which I covered many theories on stereotyping and racism. When I set assignments for students and asked them to apply these theories to practical situations, all of them took examples from the Western textbooks we were using because no Asians texts were available on the topic. They were happy talking about the Caucasians, Hispanics, Blacks or Australian Aborigines rather than applying these theories to their own environment and talk about relationships between the Chinese, Malays, Filipinos and the Indians for example.

There seems to be this perception in Asia that racism is a problem of the West, a problem of the “White” people. But, ‘Whites’ now understand the problem—thanks to many Indians, Africans and Arabs like Edward Said who pointed this out to them more than 30 years ago—and the West has taken remedial action via the education system. The fact that the Britons were able to acknowledge that there was racism involved in the ‘Big Brother’ episode and Shilpa Shetty was voted overwhelmingly as the winner of the show is reflective of such enlightenment.

In Asia, people are still in self-denial mood. Singapore, with its multiracial population mix and its ambition to become an educational hub and a bridge between South and East Asia, is in an ideal position to address this issue. A good start would be to introduce cross-cultural communication courses and textbooks with Asian examples which could be a benchmark for Asia.

By Kalinga Seneviratne, Singapore-based journalist, media analyst and international communications lecturer.
Asiaviews, August-September 2007


Anonymous said...

Being a former Singaporean and now resident of Sydney for the last 20years, I have to admit that Singapore is a incredibly racist place. Not in the black and white way, but in other more subtle and not so subtle ways.
For one, socio-biology is still very much alive there. There appears to be a rampant believe in racial stereotypes like the lazy Malay and the entrepreneul Chinese. Also concepts of beauty are still based on colour very much with the Caucasian image as the ideal. All these ideas come from 19th century 'scientific racism' popular in the West and the weird public proclaimations of their 90 year old Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
While I can say Sydney has a long way to go before it can rid itself of racism, some of the things said as a matter of fact in Singapore would raise many eyebrows here in Sydney.

AsianRacism said...

Agreed that Sydney has a way to go, it appears to have gotten worse over the last 10 or so years when I visit, maybe a result of poor migration settlement programs?

As for scientific racism, it was not a 'western' invention, it existed in various forms around the world, the difference is that the 'west' colonised most of the world at the dawn of easy mass communication and information retention methods and mass media marketing, hence easier to remember and influence others thinking instead of staying a localised traditions etc