Singapore has seen extensive discussion on racism of late. To be sure, non-polarizing conversations on race relations are essential for nation-building. But are unfamiliar ideas like Critical Race Theory (CRT) and their offshoots such as ‘anti-racism’ part of these constructive conversations, or do they divide more than they unite?
In Part 1 of this piece on Critical Race Theory, we attempted to give a fair introduction to the general ideas embedded within CRT, including the call to praxis – to effect or even agitate for social change based on the constrained understanding of what ‘race’ and ‘racism’ mean.
In part 2, we now contextualise to examine how nascent elements of this are manifesting in Singapore’s political discourse.
Race baiters tarring reasonable government policies as ‘racist’
Already, ‘anti-racist’ crusaders such as Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, have degraded the quality of public discourse on race with half-baked ideas and incendiary claims. In June, Sudhir penned an article lambasting the public housing system (HDB) as ‘institutionally racist’ for maintaining its Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP). He does this by invoking a definition of racism that is unfamiliar to most – that racial differences are ipso facto evidence of racism, and that intent to cause harm to a particular race is irrelevant.
Sadly, Sudhir forfeits facts for popular traction.
It is outrageous for Sudhir to label the HDB as inherently racist while willfully turning a blind eye to its widely known merits. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the policy deals with ubiquitous and now-intractable problems plaguing other societies globally.
The EIP sets a demographic quota for each flat to ensure interracial mingling and cohesion. No policy is perfect. Trade-offs are bound to be encountered every time a policy lever is pulled. Granted, such quotas can affect market forces of demand and supply. Moreover, some neighbourhoods are in higher demand by people with a higher income, who may come from a particular racial group. But, to argue that the EIP is racist is an ignorant assertion at best, and malevolent at worst. The point of having the EIP is exactly to preclude the formation of racial enclaves and ensure ethnic heterogeneity across neighbourhoods.
In other words, the EIP is a vaccine against the virus of segregation and racism.
While this episode reflects a wider trend of ideas plaguing Singapore’s activists, Sudhir’s proclamations are not unique.
Introducing Exhibit B. Twitter activists like Subhas who are renowned for their… interesting social commentaries.
Like many other cheerleaders of CRT, Subhas sees race relations in Singapore as a zero-sum game, ever-locked in the binarising presupposition that the majority race is motivated by subjugating the minority races. To them, every policy formulated by the government is borne of malice and hatred against Singapore’s coloured minorities while entrenching a form of Chinese supremacy.
These certainly sound like the seedbed of the talking points thrown up by supporters of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the US. Here is but a smattering of those presuppositions and assertions.
To be sure, CRT is an attractive map of meaning for minority race members seeking to make sense of their frustration when it portrays the majority race as oppressive to them by default. Unfortunately, the unthinking acceptance of CRT’s tropes by our local self-styled progressive circles only serves to strain race relations in Singapore.
Enter Exhibit C: The ‘Barisan Sosialis’ Twitter page.
Instead of engaging with the government or people who hold divergent views, ‘anti-racist’ activists and their progressive enablers ride the destructive wave of racial stratification and polarisation.
It is apparent that the unbounded cynicism manufactured by our local progressive circles should be arrested by civil discourse. However, whenever a person (especially one from “the wrong party”) steps forward to clarify, progressive activists commonly resort to ad hominem and straw-manning, entirely missing the point and shutting down the conversation.
If left uncontested by level-headed Singaporeans of all races, CRT’s component ideas will be the death of Singapore’s distinctive multiracialism which, according to a 2016 LKYSPP paper, enjoys 95% and 96% of Singaporeans affirming the equality, and equal treatment of all races respectively (for now).
The misfit of anti-racist activism in Singapore
Local ‘anti-racists’ delude themselves into thinking that Singapore is America. Despite vehemently denying it, they try very hard to draw parallels between the two countries, when it comes to racial relations. This is laughable because Singapore and America have very different historical archs.
In the US, the bedrock of CRT was shaped by the evils of slavery and segregation. Useful or otherwise, CRT was intended to operate within the historical confines of the US in an attempt to explain race relations between the White majority and the coloured minorities of America.
It is foolish to employ the CRT (which presupposes institutional racism), as a framework for addressing the problems of individual or casual racism given Singapore’s socio-historical differences with the US. No slavery. No segregation. No systematic socio-economic oppression.
Why CRT is ‘un-Singaporean’
CRT does more damage to race relations in Singapore than holding explanatory value for racial differentials.
For one, Singapore has been built on the foundational understanding that it is one people. CRT’s foundational approach on the other hand is undergirded by generalisations (see list of ideas in image above) that engender suspicion and perhaps even hatred against any person from the majority race.
Ironically, armed with CRT to battle racism, anti-racists become racists themselves.
For these racist ‘anti-racist’ activists, every Chinese person is stained by the original sin of being born into the majority race.
As a Singaporean Malay, it is clear to me that the application of CRT’s ideas to Singapore’s context is irresponsible, also because it offers many a convenient victimhood narrative and ossifies a siege mentality amongst minorities. There is nothing more disempowering than to sell the lie that a community is nothing but a plaything for majority interests.
Take the 2021 NDR as a case in point.
In his national address, the Prime Minister took the opportunity to calm anxieties surrounding racism and the notion of “Chinese privilege”. While it is perfectly fine to disagree with his pronouncements, it is quite something else to suggest that the Prime Minister was trying to “gaslight” the Malay community.
Outrage sells. Is it any surprise that we increasingly see tweets that paint the minority races as being oppressed by the Chinese majority going viral? (See the carousel here for another example of the CRT-esque claim that Singapore’s minority communities are “perpetually marginalised, plundered and profited off” by the Chinese majority.)
It is clear to see how ultimately, these ideas divide Singaporeans and pit them against each other by sowing the seeds of discord.
Putting the racist cart before the Singaporean horse
Anti-racist radicalism is akin to having only a hammer, and seeing every incident or evidence of racial inequality as a nail. Regardless of national initiatives to foster multiracial harmony, cheerleaders of CRT insist on Singapore being a racist country on the basis of isolated instances of racism. This approach is no antidote to an age-old social phenomenon that requires reasoned deliberation and calibrated messaging to inspire cultural change. Sadly, the Twitterati seem impermeable to this.
Surely, there will always be xenophobes, misanthropes, homophobes, and nasty people in every society. Encouragingly, if the tenor of public outcry to these incidents is anything to go by, it ought to be apparent that Singapore is anything but a majoritarian, racist state.
Regrettably, CRT advocates also fail to acknowledge that minorities in Singapore continue to progress tremendously in comparison to minority groups in other parts of the world. A recent IPS report confirmed that most Singaporeans, including those from minority communities, did not see the frequent occurrence of racism in their daily lives. The report also showed that there was “general support for and acceptance for multicultural living”.
With this in mind, local proponents of CRT conveniently bypass institutional measures such as the GRC system, which ensure minority representation in Singapore’s political milieu. Consider also, articles 152 and 153 of the Singapore constitution, or the myriad social assistance schemes offered by the state as an equaliser for the less-privileged. For a ‘racist and oppressive country’ like Singapore, overrepresentation of racial minorties in domestic politics, constitutionally enshrined privileges for racial minorities and a plethora of social assistance schemes seems to be counterproductive strategies.
CRT is a bad idea wherever it’s applied
The ideological assertions of CRT do not facilitate nuanced conversations on racism. Instead, it sows the seeds of distrust by fueling cynicism towards the majority race.
If unchecked, the simplistic ‘them vs. us’ worldview of CRT activists will place Singapore on the slippery slope towards heightened communal tension, polarisation and the destabilisation of the social compact as we know it.
Careful, open-hearted dialogue and consensus forging are paramount for version two of Singapore’s multiracial harmony. But if we do not pluck up the courage to challenge the purveyors of cynicism who preach from their social media echo chambers, despite their foreseeable vitriol, we will be worse for the wear.
And maybe, instead of breeding outrage with divisive rhetoric, the woke-brigade could consider rolling up their sleeves and undertaking the hard work of making peace instead.