OP-ED: What Multi-Cultural Singapore Can Take Away From The Black Lives Matter Movement

By Jonathan Chew

The views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and are not representative of the views of U-Insight and NTUSU.

Reading about the numerous incidents of police brutality and systemic racism in the US has always been a strange and disconcerting landscape to navigate as a Singaporean, and the recent incidents involving George Floyd and Christian Cooper have only brought that closer to the forefront.

Photo Credits: Instagram @blackbanjoarts


George Floyd was a 46-year-old African American man who was killed during an arrest made by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the officers, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the road. Floyd repeatedly cried out for air saying: “I can’t breathe.” During the final three minutes, Floyd was motionless without a pulse. He was pronounced dead in the Hennepin County Medical Center emergency room. Throughout the entire 9 minutes, bystanders pleaded for the police to let up but their pleas were ignored.

Christian Cooper, an African American man who was bird-watching in Central Park one day, crossed paths with Amy Cooper, a White woman, who was walking her dog without a leash. He asked the latter to put her dog on a leash, as she was in a part of the park restricted for bird-watching. She responded defensively, however, and called the police on Christian, claiming that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” He pulled out his phone and recorded the entire encounter. In the video taken by Christian, it showed Amy feigning distress knowing full well that it would cause the police to think she was in danger.

Reading such incidents with regards to racism has since made me question my position as a Chinese male within Singaporean society, as well as what we, as Singaporeans, can learn from these incidents.

While the incidents of racism in Singapore are nowhere near as horrific as in the US, it still serves as a shocking reminder of what can happen when racism is left unchecked for decades.

Racism In Singapore

A survey conducted in 2019 by the Institute of Policy Studies and OnePeople.sg found that while relations between racial and religious groups in Singapore are still positive, the proportion of Malay and Indian respondents who felt discriminated against when applying for jobs has increased since 2013.

The survey found that a large proportion of minorities – 73 per cent of Malays, 68 per cent of Indians and about half of others races, felt that they had experienced discrimination when it came to applying for a job.

In 2018, a man named Tharenii Muriandy posted a video on Facebook exposing how he was discriminated against while looking for a job. According to Muriandy, the job interviewer required Chinese-speaking applicants, which Muriandy fulfilled since he could speak Chinese. However, after speaking with the interviewer for a while, Muriandy was asked if he was actually Chinese. When he revealed that he was not, the interviewer told him: “Sorry, we are looking for Chinese-speaking people”.

The infamous brownface incident just fresh from last year is another example of racial insensitivity. Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew was asked to dress up as different characters from Singapore’s main ethnic groups for an ad campaign. It saw him portraying a Malay woman in a tudung, and an Indian man named K Muthusamy – which for this his skin had been visibly darkened. This ad sparked public outcry for racial insensitivity and was taken down later.

More recently, when COVID-19 first hit the shores of Singapore, there was a significant number of comments online that were laced with anti-Chinese rhetoric. Even now as we are dealing with high COVID-19 numbers from the migrant workers dormitory, we see similar cases of racist comments displaying a ‘not in my back yard’ mentality.

The Question of Privilege

The word “privilege” comes up a lot in these sorts of discussions, and as Singaporeans we have ported over the term “White privilege” and adopted it as “Chinese privilege” instead. American activist Peggy McIntosh defines White privilege as an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. The subject, however, is a tricky one because it started out as a predominantly Anglo-centric term that has not really been entrenched into our social consciousness as Singaporeans.

Some in the older generation may not be familiar with the term, and may even feel that it does not exist. Tell a low-wage Chinese worker that he is privileged, and he will probably find it ridiculous. Thus, it might be helpful to examine the way we approach the question of “privilege” in Singapore.

In educating those not aware of the term “privilege” and what it could mean, a more patient approach may need to be taken. Explain to your family and friends that privilege is not narrowly defined as being well-off and more importantly, that it has gradations – some people might be more privileged and some slightly less. Essentially, privilege refers to how you, as part of a majority ethnic group, is in a position of power that easily allows you to certain advantages and benefits.

Understanding that there are some benefits that might not be easily recognisable can be the first step in helping to disseminate the idea of what privilege can look like in Singapore.

What We Can Do

Instagram: @sacree_frangine

1. Speak Up Against Casual Racism

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” This is a quote by South African cleric, Desmond Tutu.

The onus should be on everyone to speak up for the oppressed, especially when clear acts of racism are committed. It shows minorities that they have allies who will support them in their stand against injustice, and that when push comes to shove, they will not be left in the dust.

And this speaking up should not just be done on social media, but also in reality whenever you come across acts of racism or microaggression, which refers to thinly veiled, everyday instances of racism, homophobia, sexism towards members of marginalised groups.

Most of us have often seen incidents of casual racism being played out, where jokes and off-handed comments are made on the basis of race, colour and ethnicity. Such comments are often made off the perception of negative stereotypes and prejudices.

While seemingly “unintentional” or “mindless” in nature, letting slide such instances of casual racism can embolden and encourage more severe acts of racism. The minority groups who are on the receiving end of it may also feel humiliated and marginalised. By stamping down on incidents of casual racism in everyday behaviour, we can then take a step towards a society in which racism, casual or not, will cease to exist. So the next time you see a friend or family member engaging in casual racism, speak up and educate them about it.

2. Stop The Use Of Racial Slurs

Besides remarks, we should also stop the use of any racial slurs – which are derogatory and insulting terms made against a race or ethnic group. There are many different racial slurs, which are entrenched in American vernacular and evident from Western pop or hip hop culture. In Singapore’s context, a common example is the term apu neh neh, which is popularly used by some mothers in the sentence: “If you misbehave, the apu neh neh will come and catch you!”.

This, of course, insinuates that Indians are dangerous or intimidating by nature. The use of racial slurs can make minorities feel like an “other” and left out. It serves to deepen the divide by labelling ethnic groups and perceiving them only by their race. It also influences others to form negative perceptions against another race. The long-lasting impacts of being subject to racial slurs and bullying, especially from a young age, is detrimental to a cohesive society and something we should strive to weed out at every opportunity.

It also helps to start some change from within. If those from the majority are willing to look inward and call out acts of oppression, then there is hope. Because it is not easy for minorities to enact change in society solely by themselves, responsibility falls on all of us not to let ourselves rest on our laurels and let them fend for themselves.

3. Donating

We can also help out financially by supporting and donating to local causes and organisations that protect minority groups, especially foreign workers who have been hit hard by COVID-19. Examples of some organisations include:

Final Thoughts

The George Floyd incident, which led to the return and surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, has opened up the opportunity to reflect and educate ourselves about racism not only on a global level, but in our home country as well. More than ever, we need to be able to come together regardless of race, language and religion to speak up and act. While many of us are riled up on social media now, we should not let this incident pass as fleeting and transient news.

While I am not fully Chinese, I was brought up and raised as such, and I understand that I will never fully understand what it’s like to be a minority in my own country. But the position this affords me – and others in the majority group – means that we should recognise this privilege, this invisible weightless knapsack granted to us, and in turn use this to speak up for those who may not be able to effectively do so themselves, to ally with our fellow Singaporeans and advocate for change.

Racism is not something that can be changed overnight, but from small actions, like speaking up when a friend engages in casual racism, we can slowly change people’s attitude and hopefully one day, racism, casual or not, will be a thing of the past.

Educate and Re-educate




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