I’d been planning a detailed newsletter about the election which would have covered everything from the lack of Indian politicians in this election’s slate of candidates to proposed anti-discrimination legislation by the Workers’ Party and Singapore Democratic Party to the refreshing way Workers’ Party candidate Fadli Fawzi has been challenging racialised framing of complex social issues.
All of that has been eclipsed by the latest news about the Workers’ Party’s Raeesah Khan being investigated by the police for "alleged online comments promoting “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race”". This is the state of discourse in Singapore – ethnic minorities are unable to even question the existence of racial discrimination without having the police called on them.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. This is extremely bad for the Workers’ Party’s chances this election, especially because multiracialism premised on racial tolerance is one of the key myths that the modern Singaporean state has been built on. It undergirds so many aspects of public life in Singapore, from the Ethnic Integration Policy (that both the Workers’ Party and the Singapore People’s Party have called to see abolished in their manifestos) to the Reserved Presidential Election. Singaporeans must embrace policies that are designed to facilitate multiracialism because the alternative would be worse. The alternative looks like ethnic enclaves and minorities being shut out of government and racial riots. This is because the prevailing logic is that the different ethnic groups in this country are prone to intergroup strife without active management from the state. Put simply – racism will take over Singapore unless the government constantly intervenes. We should be insulted by this insinuation.
The investigation of Raeesah Khan’s social media statements is part of a longer history in Singapore where talking about racism often gets confused (rarely innocuously) with participating in racism. Our anti-racist actions cannot be limited to “checking privilege” and “refraining from slurs”. If there are structural issues, the only way we will dismantle unfair structures is by questioning their very existence. Read carefully. I am not saying that Raeesah was claiming there was unfair treatment. She was asking if unfair treatment existed. She was far from the only person who asked these questions but seems to be the only one who is under police investigation for it. Parliament would benefit from elected officials who are brave enough to raise questions about discrimination. We stand no chance against the Big Bad Racism Monster if we are unable to even talk about its existence. Sometimes, I wonder if Singapore’s fragile multiracialism is built on ignoring racism instead of eradicating it.
My Big Announcement
This will be the last issue of this newsletter for the foreseeable future. I don’t take this decision lightly. I can say, from my experiences, that there are consequences for speaking up about race and racism in Singapore. These consequences affect everybody from opposition political candidates (a poisoned chalice, tbh. Anyone who runs for office with the opposition has nerves of steel) to absolute nobodies (like me). I have attempted to stave off the severity of these consequences for months but I no longer have the ability or resources to do so.
This is a decision I wish I did not have to make and I promise you I have shed many many tears over this. You may think this is dramatic because they’re just emails. Firstly, I am an emotional maelstrom so this is really par for the course for me. But, more importantly, to me this signals a narrowing of the public space for essential conversations that are integral to making Singapore a better place for everyone who lives here. As long as I’ve been running this newsletter, I’ve received messages from readers telling me that they’ve learned how to put words to their thoughts about racism or that my writing has helped them broach difficult topics with their friends and family. I am infinitely grateful to everyone who’s ever expressed support or donated to my Ko-Fi. That support has gone a long way towards helping me do this work. I don’t take this lightly at all. I still have heaps of drafts that cover topics from privilege to passing to gatekeeping to skin colour. I am willing to put in the work but I no longer have the resources to do so.
The major failing of electoral politics is that voters are forced to collapse their opinions on a myriad of issues into a single vote. No party or candidate’s stance will map onto yours perfectly and sometimes the choice is difficult to make. You could decide to vote for something – a specific policy stance from a party or a candidate’s credentials or personality. Or you could decide to vote against similar things. What you vote for will differ based on the constituency you’re in and who you are given the chance to choose between. I am personally choosing to vote against this culture of fear and intimidation. I don’t expect politicians to perfectly represent my interests in parliament. That’s why civil society is important. Interest groups, activists, and community organisations often know a lot about their areas of work and should be given the space in the public discourse to write/speak/act to influence politicians and policy. We don’t have enough of that space in Singapore. It is not normal or healthy for citizens to be this afraid of their own voices.
I held out for as long as I could. A lot of that is a function of my privilege. I wonder how many other people have been run off the road because the current system actively punishes those who ask the wrong questions.
Voting is one of the only political acts you can make in Singapore with absolutely no personal consequences. Your vote is secret.
Racism is a real and virulent problem in Singapore. There are some parties who recognise and would like to change that. And there is one that would rather people talked about it in hushed tones because they fear that a genuine conversation will “foster enmity”. I can only urge you to use your vote wisely.
Class dismissed, for now. I hope to be back one day.