#10: So. What Can We Do?


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


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