#11: GE Edition

Plus, a big announcement

Hello.

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.

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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.

#10: So. What Can We Do?

Hello,

A lot of you are new subscribers. Thank you for joining RTC. I started this newsletter as an educational resource about race and racism in Singapore. With this new wave of subscribers, I’ve had a lot of emails and comments essentially asking what can be done about racism in Singapore. Before we get into it, I want to caution you against believing that there’s one right answer to any of these questions.

To say that racism is a massive problem is a gross understatement. If I knew definitively how to fix it, I promise you I would not be squirrelling those solutions away in an email newsletter. I can tell you what I think as someone who’s a minority in Singapore and as someone who’s been studying and writing about race for a while now. I occasionally disagree with other Singaporean minorities who also study and write about race. It happens. This newsletter is facetiously called Race Tuition Centre but there will be no model answers for you to copy here. Even though our educational system is heavily reliant on private tutoring, you’ll notice that it’s comparatively rare to see humanities or literature tuition. Those subjects resist easy interpretation and answer keys. Sometimes, you have to sit with the ambiguity and try to make meaning from it. If you’ve subscribed to this newsletter hoping for clear and easy answers, you will be disappointed. There are plenty of accounts on Instagram dedicated to producing simple infographics with bullet points and flowcharts. That isn’t my work. 

Back to the question. What should we do about racism? There are people in the comments of the last post asking if we can have a “peaceful protest” for BLM in Singapore. I’m sorry but no. CAPE has put together this resource on the laws around public assemblies in Singapore. Even if we weren’t in pandemic times, a non-violent protest would be very unlikely in Singapore. You’d have to apply for a Public Assembly Permit for any sort of procession “comprising of one or more persons” (you do the math here). You might be able to give a speech at Speakers’ Corner without a permit but in both cases you’d have to avoid any content that “may cause feelings of hostility between racial groups”. In my experience, most discussions about racism veer into that zone – especially because some groups of people don’t believe that structural racism exists and cry hurt feelings whenever anyone suggests that it does.

One reader posed me this question: “I’d also love to hear your opinions on what Singaporeans can do in their daily lives to tackle racism. By this I mean things we can do in our daily lives (as opposed to organising / activism). Especially as a Chinese – what can I do about my privilege?”

I don’t share this to criticise this particular reader because I’m sure many other people have wondered the same thing. But the answer is in the question. Organising and activism are the two most effective things you could do to dismantle racism, both in Singapore and globally. They are the clearest ways forward. Other people might tell you to do things like “speak up” or “check your privilege” or “read books by minorities” or “amplify minority voices”. All of these are good steps but I’m unconvinced on their ability to dismantle racism. These are the easy things. I’ve noticed that a lot of well-meaning liberals would rather focus on “casual racism” (this will be a topic of a future newsletter) or “microaggressions”. If you truly believe that racism is systemic, none of these band-aid gestures will make it go away. Yes, it hurts when Indians are called smelly. But it wouldn’t hurt as much if landlords didn’t regularly refuse to rent property to Indians because of a perceived lack of cleanliness.

You might have noticed by now that I don’t sign off on these emails with my name. I intentionally keep these newsletters unattributed because I have gotten in trouble for writing about race. (I won’t go into the details because it would probably get me into more trouble and my friends are concerned about my recklessness.) I continue to write because I believe I have important things to say and I want to be involved in the work of anti-racism. I don’t bring this up to paint myself as a figure of selflessness or altruism. I want to make the point that all activism, whether it’s anti-racist or feminist or pro-LGBTQ, comes with risk attached.

None of history’s great activists made change happen without getting into trouble, by the way. The giants of the Civil Rights Movement either got assassinated or detained or arrested or – at the very least – hate mail. If you believe that a system is unjust, any attempts to change that system will naturally face resistance from the establishment. I can’t give you a roadmap to dismantling racism (or “using your Chinese privilege”) that is comfortable. Anti-racist work is uncomfortable. You will be inconvenienced and will possibly get in trouble. Trouble might take the form of a reprimand from your company’s HR department or a bad reference or a tense relationship with a racist family member or a ruined friendship with an unrepentant friend. Racism is the status quo. Disrupting the status quo is not easy, by definition.

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This is the part of the newsletter where I lay out in very clear terms that I am not advocating that you go out and protest, take a photograph in front of a police station, hold a vigil, make a music video, hold a mirror outside Parliament House, or wear a t-shirt. (One of you commented asking if wearing a t-shirt that said “Black Lives Matter” would be allowed. Maybe? I hope that answers your question.) I could get into a lot more trouble if someone misinterpreted my words to imply that I was advocating for civil disobedience. So here: I, Tuition Teacher, am not suggesting that anyone who reads this email should engage in any acts of civil disobedience. Ok.

By now, I hope you can see that the avenues for political expression in Singapore are narrow. I cannot imagine a Singapore where concerned citizens would be allowed to march down the street or gather in public in support of Black Lives Matter or any other anti-racist cause. We are so far away from being able to demand change in the same way that Black activists are currently doing in the US. We don’t even have a culture of supporting local activists whenever they do push the envelope. Instead, we have a “who ask you” attitude to anyone who gets in trouble for advocacy. Who ask you to hold a cardboard sign? Who ask you to write that article? Who ask you to paste that sticker?

Sorry, I’ve made a large detour around the actionable items that I was supposed to produce. These are my suggestions.

Decide what your appetite for risk and discomfort is.

This newsletter is my line. Maybe yours is potentially being arrested. Maybe it’s getting into a heated argument with your family. Maybe it’s demanding that your company hire more diversely even if that means widening the talent pool and potentially hurting your chances of climbing to the top. If you have solid job security, maybe you can be more vocal about advocacy than your peers who are on shakier ground. You could sacrifice your time on the weekends to volunteer with migrant worker aid organisations. You could forego a fun purchase and donate that money to mutual aid funds instead. Part of anti-racist work is actively undoing the harm that racist structures have inflicted on people. Generally speaking, the greater your privilege, the greater your appetite for risk should be. Sharing things to your Instagram story is easy and presents no risk. I’m sorry but ruining your aesthetic is not a real concern.

Continually reassess your appetite for discomfort.

One day, when I’m in a more stable financial situation, my risk threshold will change. The amount that I currently give to fundraisers is uncomfortable but it won’t be forever. Then I’ll give more money. This isn’t masochism. It’s recognising that racism is a global structure with deep historical roots and it’s going to take all of us stepping outside of our comfort zone to make a dent in it.

Stand in solidarity with activists.

I believe that more avenues for political expression is ultimately a good thing. I don’t have the ability to do the things that Jolovan or Kirsten are doing right now. But I will back them 100%. You might have heard of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. She was arrested for disorderly conduct and the Black community of Montgomery collectively boycotted the bus system until the city changed its racist policies. One person stuck their neck out and an entire community rallied behind them. That’s what solidarity looks like. Mavericks can’t change the world, but communities can.

If you believe that racism is a serious problem that significantly impacts the quality of life of ethnic minorities, it can’t be a cause that you pick up and put down when convenient. If you truly believe in racism’s harm, you have to back your beliefs up with action. If you’ve gotten this far in the newsletter and decided that this sounds really hard and you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. You probably don’t think racism is that big a deal.

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You can still be a good non-racist person and never utter a slur or wear blackface. You might even listen to music from minorities, share educational infographics, and give money to minority-owned businesses. You can believe all the right things and still only be a neutral force in the world. If you’re not uncomfortable, you probably won’t change anything. And if you are alright with that, you don’t think anti-racism is a moral imperative.

Our Lady of Abolition speaking truth to power as always. ✊🏿✊🏻✊🏾.
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February 3, 2018

Post-script

If you’re uncomfortable with the way I phrased some of these things, I want to encourage you to sit with your discomfort for a while. Where is the discomfort coming from? The next issue of the newsletter will attempt to address that feeling. See you then!

Further Reading

I already linked to this resource on organising public events but I really want to stress its importance. Anybody living in Singapore should have access to this information. CAPE does really good work and frequently creates easily understandable resources on civil society and civic issues. You can find the rest of their resources here.

This statement from Jolovan about activism. If you’re not familiar with his work, you might’ve heard of him as a “troublemaker” or “instigator”. Read this then ask yourself if these are fair characterisations. You can stand with Jolovan by using the hashtag #smileinsolidarity. If we don’t support our activists, nobody will!

You can donate to bail funds across the US using this link. Deal with your protest FOMO by helping the people who are putting their bodies on the line.

I really appreciate everybody’s generous support on Ko-Fi. I’ve sent some of it forward to bail funds and I’ve also ordered some books from Pluto Press. They’re currently having a sale on titles by BAME authors (that’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, a term commonly used in the UK). They publish bell hooks!

(You are absolutely not obliged to give me any money. The best way you can support me is by sharing the newsletter and engaging earnestly with what I’ve written. If you are going to screenshot the newsletter and post it on socials, don’t tag my accounts if you know them. Do me a favour and be careful with how you truncate the screenshots? A bunch of people shared only the post-script from the last post and I got accused of being an All Lives Matter writer because people took me out of context. Me!!!! hahahahhaahahaha)

Best of ONTD 2018 Nominations Post!!: ohnotheydidnt — LiveJournal

#9: Black Lives Matter in Singapore Too

Hi everyone.

Quarantine is getting a little lonely. For this issue, I’ve built my own strawman and I’m going to talk to him for a little bit.

All the Singaporeans on Instagram are sharing posts about Black Lives Matter. Why should I care if I don’t know Black people? There aren’t any Black people in Singapore!

Even if this were true – it’s not, Sharon Frese, Ng Yi-Sheng and Irfan Kasban have done a lot of work to uncover the Black history of Singapore through their performance Ayer Hitam – racism against Black people is still commonplace in Singapore. I see the N-word thrown about on social media all the time as some sort of punchline. I once matched with a guy on Tinder who told me he watched Vines of black people for fun because “fucking black people hahaha”. (If you’re reading this, you’re still trash.) People share memes about Black men where the joke is that they’re uneducated or hypersexual or dangerous. If there is no Black presence in our society – again, not true – then why is Blackness a source of comedy for so many Singaporeans?

The political position of this newsletter remains the same. Don’t be a shitty person, regardless of the context. Even if nobody’s watching you. Framing anti-Black racism as a non-issue in Singapore is a) lazy and b) proof that some people don’t care about not being racist, they just care about getting in trouble for it.

Also, if you’re a Singaporean who loves rap and hip hop, you have an obligation to respect Black lives.

We’re so far away from America, why should we care about their problems?

Racism is a global structure. It’s the logic that enabled the inhumane exploitation of Black people through the slave trade. It’s also the logic that currently enables the exploitation of South Asian migrant labour globally. I’m not saying that they’re the same system. I am saying that the same logic underpins them both. Be consistently anti-racist. The oppression of Black people in the US is to be condemned just like the oppression of the Palestinian people and the oppression of the Rohingya. I’ve seen a lot of Singaporeans post about how scary anti-Asian racism due to the coronavirus is. Don’t you realise that all of these things are interconnected? Don’t cede any ground to a system that lulls us into believing that some people deserve life more than others.

Just as racism is a global structure, anti-racism is a global movement. I’ve learned so much from Black intellectuals writing about race. I’ve also learned from anti-racist activists writing and working in other parts of the world. We’re fighting the same structures, we need to share our knowledge. Solidarity is the only thing that will enable us to change the world.

I agree that police brutality is bad but burning down your city is even worse. These people are violent and dangerous.

Singaporean history books warn students about the dangers of “racial riots”. They tell us that racial harmony must be preserved lest the natural order of racial tension boils over. Beware of people pointing to Minnesota (or Hong Kong, or anywhere in the world where people are taking to the streets with their demands) and saying “that’s what we don’t want Singapore to be”. They’re looking at the effect, not the cause.

Protests that take over cities are what people turn to after all other avenues of being heard have been exhausted. People in the US have been politely using hashtags and taking knees during national anthems but that hasn’t changed enough. You don’t get rights by politely asking your oppressors for them.

Before you forward this email to the police, I’m not at all advocating for protests in Singapore. The point I’m making is that people who say “we can’t talk about race because it causes riots” are getting it completely backwards. The continual subjugation of a group of people is what underpins unrest and hostility. Pointing it out is the first step to ending that dynamic.

Anti-racist activism isn’t a form of troublemaking. It is a moral imperative!!

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Post-script

If you’re a Chinese Singaporean who shares posts about BLM but stays silent about racism in Singapore, I don’t believe you genuinely care about anti-racism. It’s so much easier to point at white supremacy in the US and condemn it for its ugliness than to look inward and confront your own complicity in racist structures. Too often, Chinese Singaporeans point at the US as a racist state to affirm their beliefs that Singapore is better and that our brand of multiracialism is perfect.

I don’t judge someone’s activism by their social media presence. That’s the easy stuff. Speak up when people around you make racist comments. If your friend uses the N-word, call them out and tell them why it’s racist. If you see racism in your workplace or school, make a complaint. Tell your bosses why it’s racist to only hire Chinese people. Tell your classmates why it’s racist to joke about the Indian student “smelling funny”.

Housekeeping

I got in trouble with important people for writing about race and thought about going on a long hiatus. Sike! I don’t care about trouble. Keep making noise.

I am very grateful to everyone who’s told me that they appreciate my writing. I’m also incredibly grateful to everyone who’s given to my Ko-fi. Thank you for your support. It is demoralising to face material penalties for your activism but I’m reminding myself that all the best people have too. Your readership and support is proof that the work is important and the sacrifices are worth it.

I’m sorry this sounds so dramatic! I will write a scorching tell-all one day when I’m out of the weeds…

Further Reading

This Twitter thread on the history of minstrelsy and blackface in Singapore. Making Black people the butt of jokes is a Singaporean tradition. I think this generation should put an end to it:

This article about a restaurant that burned down in the protests might help you clarify your thinking about property destruction in a time like this. A quote from the owner: “Let the buildings burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

One of the sharpest voices on race and Blackness, James Baldwin. If you can, try to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro which is where this clip is from. (cw: short scenes of violence):

People Can Only Bear So Much Injustice Before Lashing Out from The Nation

Finally, if you want to donate money to people on the ground, here’s a thread with some options:

#8: In Defence of Killjoys (thank you Sara Ahmed)

Once again, I make the case for being angry.

When I was a younger adult, I had the reputation of being the buzzkill in my friend group. I was the person you couldn’t make jokes about race in front of. I’d call out sexist comments. You get where I’m going with this. My opinions haven’t changed over the years – if anything, they’ve gotten more radical – but I no longer keep those friends. Yes, I have no problem with comfortably residing in my echo chamber. It’s fine! It actually does me no good to surround myself with people who don’t share the same fundamental values as me. I obviously still believe in the merits of discussion and education (I wouldn’t write this newsletter otherwise) but I have no qualms with keeping my social circle the way it is. 

I didn’t cut anybody out of my life. There weren’t any large confrontations. The most dramatic response I had was a series of text messages where I expressed my disappointment in a friend’s opinions. I simply stopped showing up for social events where I knew I’d meet abrasive people and stopped trying to shrink myself in order to better fit in. The theorist Sara Ahmed writes about the figure of the “feminist killjoy” a lot in her work and it’s been very helpful for me in understanding this experience. 

I’m quoting from “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness” here – 

Say I am happy about your happiness, and your happiness is with x. If I share x, then your happiness and my happiness are not only shared but can accumulate through being returned. Or I can simply disregard x: if my happiness is directed just toward your happiness, and you are happy about x, the exteriority of x can disappear or cease to matter (although it can reappear). In cases where I am also affected by x and I do not share your happiness with x, I might become uneasy and ambivalent, since I am made happy by your happiness but I am not made happy by what makes you happy. The exteriority of x would then announce itself as a point of crisis: I want your happiness to be what makes me happy, but I am reminded that even if my happiness is conditional on yours, your happiness is conditional on x and I am not happy with x. In order to preserve the happiness of all, we might even conceal from ourselves our unhappiness with x or try to persuade ourselves that x matters less than the happiness of the other who is made happy by x. 

It’s a pretty wordy paragraph so this is how Ahmed sums it up in a later section –

 We become alienated when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.

One of the sources of happiness in Singapore is the fiction of racial harmony. Once you trouble that belief, you are “destroying something that is thought of by others not as only being good but as the cause of happiness”. In general Singaporean society, the opposite of “racial harmony” is thought to be “racial strife”. Don’t misunderstand me. When I call racial harmony a “fiction”, I’m not saying that the actual situation is one of unrest. I do think, however, that the state-sanctioned image of racial harmony is one that assumes each ethnic group is treated fairly and has equal access to opportunities. I don’t believe that is true. I think that ethnic minorities in Singapore face both structural and individual discrimination. The narrative of racial harmony attempts to paper over that reality and that’s why I’ve called it fictitious. 

If you belong to a minority group in Singapore or you’re just generally aware of the ways in which ethnic minorities are disadvantaged here, you probably won’t experience pleasure from conversations about national unity or racial harmony that don’t acknowledge the structural reality here. These are all just a lot of words to say that it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to not be nice to racists or (if you’re hedging here) people who say racist things. 

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a local media outlet about anti-racist activism and got into a very frustrating conversation with a Chinese journalist. They were well-meaning but had come at the conversation from a perspective I couldn’t agree with. The story they were chasing was about activists and whether or not knowing how to “speak social justice” is a “form of privilege in itself”. (I am quoting directly.) The line of questioning that I received was all about my family, my education, my class background and I got the distinct sense that they were trying to find proof that I was lucky to be able to articulate myself publicly about social justice issues. My parents didn’t go to university nor are they activists and my “social justice awakening” was through Tumblr (like many other people who were teens in the aughts) so I wouldn’t attribute it to the schools I went to or having “woke” parents. I will say, for the sake of being transparent, that having access to certain spaces like universities helped me learn vocabulary and sharpen my views with like-minded peers. However, the conversation that I was having with the journalist centred around the idea that only the privileged dare to speak up. This notion is not only untrue but is also insulting to the scores of activists who do incredible work with limited access to resources. 

The journalist kept asking me how activists could make it easier for people who are “scared” (another direct quote) to participate in conversations about social justice. They were speaking for people who, in their estimation, did not feel they had a space where they could “comfortably ask questions or disagree without feeling penalised for their ignorance”. Again, I think the journalist meant well. However, it was hard for me to interpret the conversation as anything but “how do anti-racist activists make it easier for Chinese people to join the conversation?”. 

An op-ed of a similar slant was recently published in Rice. The writer had translated a letter from Chinese-language newspaper Zaobao and posted it on Facebook. If you haven’t seen the letter, it is plainly racist. It ascribes the high rate of coronavirus infection among the migrant worker population to their personal hygiene practices instead of structural issues like the overcrowding of dormitories. In her op-ed, the writer recounts how her Chinese parents were initially in agreement with the Zaobao letter until she had a conversation with them about why it perpetuated racist rhetoric. The writer then goes on to fret about “echo chambers” and to suggest that the “mob of social justice” should put down its “pitchforks” and instead approach the act of education with “love”. 

Well-meaning Chinese liberals are quick to respond to so-called “angry activists” with “yes well how do we change people’s minds? You can’t be angry at them, it won’t work.” But I can’t help but wonder why people’s minds were made up on the wrong side of racism in the first place. I suspect that a culture of tolerance is the reason why these beliefs are able to proliferate. Your average Malay or Indian Singaporean understands the stakes of racism intuitively whether or not they’ve ever heard the term “Chinese privilege”. That understanding comes from existing in Singapore as an ethnic minority and just being observant. Saying that “we”, the non-racist, need to slowly coax the racists out of their comfort zone is tacitly accepting that our society is a comfortable one for racist opinions. I’m not okay with that.  

We have a public press that feels justified in publishing a racist letter in the name of free speech. (I shouldn’t have to point out why Singapore’s press being a champion of free speech is ironic…) Why did Zaobao even publish the letter? It is true that there will always be racists among us but there are some things we don’t say in polite company. Why is racism something that exists within the grey area of permission? It is, I think, because we don’t have public conversations about what constitutes racism and why it is so harmful. Any prodding to the status quo is marked dangerous. Just look at the sort of backlash that Preeti and Subhas Nair have faced for their speech and contrast it with the consequences that actual racists have faced.

Joy and love are often used as smokescreens for issues that people should be paying attention to. I suspect it will happen a lot more during this crisis. It’s okay if you don’t want to participate in mass singalongs or fly the flag or other demonstrations of patriotism right now. You’re not disrupting any peace by redirecting attention to the human rights crisis that’s happening in the dormitories. If you’re angry, stay angry. Righteous anger gets stuff done! Keep speaking out. We are all ostensibly fighting for the same things – a society free of racism. I have no issues with people who’ve decided that they’d like to achieve that through pleases and thank yous. That’s their prerogative. But I think we’ve had enough of Chinese people in Singapore asking activists and minorities to be nicer to racists. If someone is only going to change their (racist) point of view because of the tone of the message and not its content… then I don’t think they actually get it. There is a lot to be said for tolerance as a virtue but I’m not interested in tolerating racism. 

A Short Note

There’s actually quite a lot of race-related news in Singapore at the moment. The pandemic has not stopped racism. 😿 I have a couple of other pieces in draft form that should be published when I’ve cleared some deadlines from my actual jobs. Some people have sent me racist posts/articles that they’d like to see me respond to. I really appreciate your interest in my writing! I can’t respond to all of these requests because people produce stupid takes faster than I can write. If you like my work and would like to help free up some of my time so I can focus on the newsletter more, here’s my ko-fi page. Thank you!

Further Reading

Sara Ahmed’s article is here. If you are a National Library member (anyone with a Singaporean IC is), you have access to JSTOR for free.

A longread from Kirsten Han about the coronavirus outbreak in the migrant worker population. A translation can be found here if you’d like to share it with friends and family who feel more comfortable reading in Chinese.

You can continue to donate to aid organisations doing important work for migrant workers here and here.

Preeti (who I will always be a fan of) has done a topical cover of that singalong song.

And, if you’re trying to get the National Day song out of your head, this is what I’ve been putting on recently to destress.

#7: If You're Not Angry, You're Not Paying Attention

Mask off!! But actually please keep your masks on.

The person behind this newsletter believes that everybody deserves food, housing, and healthcare. I think most people would say that they believe the same. Let’s go a step further. The person behind this newsletter believes that everybody deserves food, housing, and healthcare regardless of their citizenship and ability to pay. I think this is challenging for some people. 

This is a great time to test your beliefs. If you haven’t already heard, Singapore’s sizeable foreign worker population is facing an unprecedented health and safety crisis. It’s been no secret that the living conditions in the dormitories have been unacceptable for a long time. All the pandemic is doing is accelerating the pace at which these conditions cause harm to those living in the dormitories. Transient Workers Count Too, one of the NGOs working with the foreign worker population in Singapore, wrote this op-ed in the Straits Times in March, just a few days before infections started spreading through said dormitories. Many, many people have written about the migrant population and the risks they face due to COVID-19. I’ll put links to these articles in the Further Reading section. 

This is absolutely a race issue. Work visas for the jobs that these migrant workers do are only issued to citizens of certain countries. The laws governing their employment are different from the ones that apply to citizens. And the men housed in these dormitories have been painted as threats to public safety before. MP Denise Phua famously referred to the crowds in Little India as “walking time bombs” and “public disorder incidents waiting to happen” after the riot in Little India. The area has seen a six-fold increase in surveillance cameras since 2016, a move which suggests that authorities might be bracing themselves for further “public disorder incidents”. Singaporeans, even the “well-meaning” ones, regularly admit to thinking poorly of migrant workers. (Incidentally, the term “migrant worker” tends to only be used for lowly paid blue collar workers from countries like Bangladesh and India and does not get applied to white collar immigrants from Europe, for example.) A Straits Times piece from January interviewed a member of Migrant x Me, an initiative that connects Singaporeans with migrant workers, where he admits to having believed that migrant workers were “all criminals” up until his days as a university student. There is something clearly rotten in the state of Singapore society if someone at the big age of 23 believed that migrant workers were criminals sent to do poorly paid jobs as punishment. Seriously? I’m furious, not sure if you can tell.

Just this week, the MP for Jalan Besar GRC Yaacob Ibrahim made a Facebook post that was in incredibly poor taste and revealed some abhorrent views about foreign workers.

He has, of course, since apologised for the statement.

I can’t even begin to go into all the details about how this group of people has been mistreated. Some reports from dormitories indicate that the food that workers have been given under quarantine is dreadfully inadequate. There’s a video currently circulating (my apologies if the link has been taken down by the time you read this post) that shows migrant workers being crowded into a carpark for temporary accommodation as part of social distancing measures. The Ministry of Manpower has posted an update indicating that more is being done to improve the conditions of quarantine but activists have been sounding the alarm about inhumane living conditions for years.

The coronavirus is not a “great equaliser”. While anybody can be infected, some people are less able to shelter in place. Some people are less able to access healthcare, less able to practice social distancing, less important in the eyes of the state. Foreign workers deserve humane living conditions. And not just because they “build our city” and “clean our roads”. Fuck that. They deserve to be treated with dignity because they are human beings. We will not attach conditions to rights.

Singaporean civil society has really stepped up. There are fundraisers and volunteer drives to ensure that the migrant workers stuck in quarantine have their needs met. This is a spreadsheet consolidating some of the needs of the migrant worker community. Here’s the largest fundraising effort I’ve seen. It helps channel funds to HealthServe and TWC2. It’s coordinated by Preeti Nair, I recommend watching her explainer video for more information on the current situation. Donate if you can. We are learning that we’ve always had the resources to address these issues. We also seem to have the collective will to do so. Civil society, however, does not have the ability to plug all the gaps. It cannot circumvent or write new legislation. It cannot force errant employers to comply with existing laws. It cannot redistribute resources with the same efficiency as the state.

I’ve been seeing a lot of celebrities. Mostly @milano_alyssa being a full jackass online. White feminism and selective activism is not something new to liberalism but seeing people saying they’re getting bullied by people when all I see in the comment section is people pointing out the hypocrisy of these fake activists that only want to help those with money and power, but also bringing up a government officials record and homophobic racist past is not bullying. They answer to us. THE PEOPLE. We are the boss not the other way around. This is our government.
April 8, 2020

One-sixth of all residents in Singapore are low wage migrant workers. Our economy is literally carried on the backs of these labourers. The high turnover of fancy buildings here wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t a large pool of construction workers to draw upon. Singapore’s reputation as a Clean and Green City wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for underpaid janitorial staff. The Singaporean status quo would not be possible if this group of people was paid fairly and housed safely. These are the choices we made to have the economy that we have.

Today, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who is the politician spearheading the government’s response to COVID-19, described the situation as “two separate infections”.

It’s too late for us to pretend that this is true. The migrant worker population got infected because of the virus’s spread through the country. It is possible to separate the migrant workers from the rest of the Singaporean population, yes. That is exactly what many dormitories were built for. But the number of infections will increase if the migrant worker population doesn’t have access to the same sort of social distancing measures as the rest of the Singaporean population. We will have to treat the sick. If numbers continue to rise rapidly – we hit a new record for COVID-19 cases today, most of the infected are migrant workers unsurprisingly – will we have to decide who to allocate healthcare resources to? Will we decide to deport workers to fend for themselves, potentially causing them to spread the disease to vulnerable populations in their own countries? Will we decide to adopt social distancing as the official policy for one population and herd immunity for another?

Keep making noise. Countries with electoral systems tend not to consider the needs of non-voting populations. Let’s make the health and safety of our non-citizen population our concern then.

Further Reading

I’m just including a bunch of links from a spread of news outlets. A lot of people are writing about the migrant worker situation. Good.

We shouldn’t need COVID-19 to see migrant workers’ humanity

Migrant workers fear massive Singapore dormitory lockdown is coronavirus time bomb

Singapore: Let’s not ignore the downtrodden; nor those who speak up for them (teacher recommended)

Singapore’s cramped migrant worker dorms a ‘perfect storm’ for rising coronavirus infections

Singapore's migrant workers on front line of coronavirus shutdown

Kirsten Han’s Twitter thread on migrant workers in Singapore during the pandemic

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