Are Race Relations in Singapore as Rosy as They Seem?

Over the past month, a controversy erupted when a Chinese woman criticised Malays and Malay weddings held at a void deck on a social media post she created. Yet it is instructive to note that derogatory remarks need not be overt. Even actions that might be perceived as "harmless" to one group can differ in meaning to another. The following case illustrates this point.

Earlier this year in February, several Chinese employees of United Overseas Bank (UOB) drew flak after posing for photographs in “blackface” at a Bollywood-themed staff dinner. Jennani Durai from the Straits Times reported:

Several Chinese employees of United Overseas Bank have raised eyebrows online after posting pictures of themselves in ‘blackface’ at a Bollywood-themed staff dinner. Pictures of last Friday’s event at the Fairmont Hotel were posted on social networking site Facebook yesterday. At least three men are pictured with their faces painted black, presumably because the event was Indian-themed and Indians have darker skin.

‘Blackface’ is widely seen as racially charged, especially in the United States. It originated as a form of theatrical make-up for performers to act out caricatures of dark-skinned people.

…A Chinese reader, who e-mailed the pictures to The Sunday Times, said she found them extremely offensive. ‘It’s one thing to wear a traditional costume to a Bollywood- themed dinner, but another thing altogether to paint your face black,’ said the reader, who wished to remain anonymous. She said the pictures were offensive because they were ‘appropriating someone else’s ethnicity and treating it like entertainment‘.

And she was shocked at the captions and comments on the pictures, in which friends of the men said their get-up was ‘hilarious’. ‘All these people wouldn’t like it if a bunch of American employees went to a Chinese-themed dinner and put double-sided tape on their eyelids to make them single-eyelids,’ the reader said.

…Counsellor P. Dinesh said painting their faces black was ‘no different from referring to someone of Indian descent as ‘black’ which is thoroughly unacceptable in any Singaporean context‘.

Still others acknowledged that there was nothing malicious in the intent of the men, but that it was a poor decision.

Ms R. Yasotha, who works in publishing, said her first reaction was that the men had ‘clearly never had any Indian friends’. ‘They just wanted to have fun, so I’m not going to be up in arms about it, but it’s idiotic and juvenile,’ said the 28-year-old.

In this short exposition, I shall critically analyse the incident and argue that even though the intent of these men was not malicious, their actions illuminate the state of race relations in Singapore.

Racial harmony is an important concept in Singapore society, and the government has consistently emphasised this by implementing policies to promote racial harmony (Quah 2010, 21). Yet the question remains: even after decades of exhorting and engineering citizens of different races to live and work harmoniously with one another, do Singaporeans really understand that the peaceful coexistence of different racial groups cannot be taken for granted?

I posit that these men did not appear in “blackface” out of malice. There is little reason to suspect them of such an intention, because they were merely trying to fit the Bollywood theme of the party by trying to appear Indian. In the words of one of the interviewees in the article: “They just wanted to have fun” (Durai 2012). However, I am convinced that their conduct immature and hurtful to the Indian community.

From a sociological perspective, it is instructive to note that the men who appeared in “blackface” at the dinner were members of the dominant majority Chinese ethnic group. As members of a social group that is numerically dominant and more influential on this small island state, it was easy for them to not realise their actions could hurt, alienate and offend the Indian community here. Because there is complacency when one is accustomed to being part of the majority, these UOB employees did not realise initially the impact of their actions. As a case in point, it is hard to imagine that a member of a minority group here, such as the Malays, would go to the extent of “appropriating” Chinese ethnicity in the name of entertainment. To borrow a phrase from the French political thinker de Tocqueville, the actions of these men can be said to display the “tyranny of the majority” (De Tocqueville and Arthur Goldhammer 2004, 295).

Furthermore, it is also telling that an interviewee suggested that these UOB employees did what they did, because they might “never had any Indian friends” (Durai 2012). The implication being: if these men had Indian friends, they would think twice of doing such an act, because they would be more attuned to the sensitivities of their Indian compatriot. While racial integration is not uncommon in Singapore — after all, the government has institutionalised racial bonding by dint of racial representation in politics, housing and national service — it is arguable that the higher the social ladder one climbs in Singapore, the more homogenous the ethnic, educational and socio-economic background of the individuals in such an echelon of society. Such an analysis is supported by data that depicts racial differences in socio-economic performance in Singapore (Thiam and Aljunied 2009, 179). Given the ostensible high socio-economic class these men belong to, this incident suggests that race relations in Singapore can still be further improved by ensuring that people of different races interact closely at all strata of society.

In conclusion, the actions of these UOB employees might be intended as a lark, but it is still important to realise that major structural factors in society could have caused them to behave the way they did: we can understand the actions of these men in the context of their being members of a dominant ethnic group, as well as them possibly not having the opportunity to interact with members of other races on a regular and sustained manner. On the surface, racial harmony exists in Singapore, but incidents like this provoke us into questioning if all is as rosy as it seems.

De Tocqueville, Alexis, and Arthur Goldhammer. 2004. Democracy in America. New York: Library of America.
Durai, Jennani. 2012. "Seeing Red Over ‘Blackface’ Photos," The Sunday Times, February 12.
Quah, Jon. Public Administration Singapore-Style. 2010. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing.
Thiam, Derek and Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied. 2009. Reframing Singapore: Memory, Identity, Trans-Regionalism. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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