Racism in Singapore should be openly discussed, locals say

December 10, 2020

In a utopian society, equality of all kinds would abound — be it gender, religion, or race. But such a society does not exist, even in a place like Singapore, where laws and measures are in place to ensure racial harmony and integration.

Though it is against the law to promote enmity among different racial groups in Singapore by words or acts of any kind, this does not necessarily mean that racial discrimination is non-existent in the country. In the past couple of years, race-related issues that fall into the grey area have made the news or gone viral on social media. Havas’ “brownface” ad for NETS featuring Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew; the backlash from Singaporeans against having foreign worker dormitories near residential areas; and the recent Essec Business School student Louise’s controversial Instagram post of herself in a cheongsam making a slit-eyes gesture are but a few of many examples.

In a recent opinion crowdsourcing campaign that the OPPi team conducted in collaboration with the Straits Times among 503 of their readers, 95% of them feel that racism exists in Singapore. More than 9 in 10 of these respondents also agree that we should have more open discussions on race and racism in the country.

But what’s the best way to go about discussions like these? Would social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook be ideal?

In response to the NETS “brownface” ad, local online personality Preetipls and her musician brother Subhas took to these social media platforms and released a music video that touches on the issues of racial stereotyping, discrimination, and representation. Though the intentions behind their video were valid, the excessive use of expletives and targeted insults were what “crossed the line”, according to local authorities and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

In another instance, when her private messages were met with defensiveness, Instagram user @beforeik.o called out Louise, the Essec Business School student, for being racist on her account and demanded an apology. The post soon went viral and has since garnered media coverage on news sites like The Independent, Mothership, and Mashable.

While a popular and effective outlet for starting public discourse, among OPPi’s respondents, most of whom are aged 25 to 44, social media is not the go-to for discussing race-related issues. 40% of participants revealed that they feel most comfortable speaking to their other half about such issues, as opposed to 17% of participants who would turn to social media or public forums. Furthermore, if they were to encounter racism firsthand, a significant number (22%) of respondents revealed that they would not do anything about it.

This reveals a troubling insight, as most instances of racism encountered by respondents happen in schools (25%) and workplaces (23%). If left unacknowledged, it might leave lasting impacts on the victims involved and might even lead people to think that racism is acceptable in Singapore, especially among the younger generations.


One way in which conversations about race are being brought up in schools is through the annual Racial Harmony Day celebration. However, former Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung feels that race-related discourse should happen more regularly as part of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) course in local institutions. The majority of our respondents agree with this — 67% feel that more can be done to instill the right values for the coming generations, both at home and in school.

Despite the younger generation’s openness to addressing race and racism, we should also spark such conversations among the older generation, though it might be more challenging. Ong acknowledged that the older generation, having experienced racial riots in the past, generally avoids broaching the topic. On the other hand, he added that while the people of his generation are accepting of other races and cultures, open conversations about race remain absent. This is reflected among OPPi’s participants as well — among respondents who revealed that they were not comfortable discussing race and racism, the majority of them are between the ages of 34 to 44 and 55 to 64.

Just last year, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat expressed a similar sentiment. Speaking from his experience with residents on the ground, Heng said that “the older generation of Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister”, which drew flak from the public. While there is a lack of concrete research done to prove or disprove this claim, the fact stands that the younger generation is dominating the race-related discourse locally, especially on social media and among their social circles, where the older generation is highly likely to be left out.

So how should we be more inclusive in conversations about race and racism? And how can we, as a nation, effectively move the needle forward on racial equality without increasing tensions? Based on our crowdsourcing reports, the Straits Times published an article with potential solutions to these questions. If you’ve read it, join our community group and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear what you have to say!

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