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  • Race and Racism in Singapore
  • Terence Chong (bio) and Khairulanwar Zaini (bio)

Singapore's home affairs and law minister, K. Shanmugam, is generally an unflappable man. Yet, twice in 2021, his composure appeared to be affected by a series of racially inflected incidents that captured the public's attention. The first was on 6 June when he expressed that he was "not so sure anymore" that Singapore was "moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony".1 His remarks were triggered by a viral Facebook video of a Chinese Singaporean man berating a young couple for their interracial relationship. In the clip, the man—later identified as a sixty-year-old local polytechnic lecturer—told them that that it was "racist that an Indian prey on Chinese girl", while insisting that people should only date within their own race. (Shanmugam sounded more optimistic four days later, however, when he asserted in an interview that Singapore has made "tremendous progress" as a multiracial country.2) Just over a month later, the minister conveyed that he was "quite sad" to hear a particular question raised during a forum co-organized by the government's feedback unit and Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore's main Chinese language broadsheet. An attendee had asked why the Chinese community—the country's largest ethnic group—"shouldn't have the right to decide on Singapore's direction, such as education, [and] language", instead of having to defer to ethnic minorities.3

These events were not isolated. Accounts circulated in social media through the year about racial incidents. An ethnic Chinese lady was filmed repeatedly hitting a gong in front of her Hindu neighbour's door while the latter was conducting his "five-minute, twice-a-week" ritual prayers (which involved ringing a small bell).4 There were two separate racist incidents against ethnic Indians in the first week of May alone: the first involved a man making offensive remarks at an Indian family after confronting one of them for not wearing a mask, while the second [End Page 324] involved an assault against a fifty-five-year-old Singaporean Indian lady who had worn her mask below her nose while brisk walking.5

These incidents arose despite the country's heavy emphasis on the ethos of multiculturalism and the numerous laws regulating racial harmony. The Singapore government has certainly not been shy in resorting to legal sanction when necessary to penalize offensive speech, including relying on the colonial-era Sedition Act (originally introduced to safeguard British rule from local anti-imperial resistance) in the 2000s and early 2010s. Since then, the government has gradually turned towards using Section 298 and 298A of the Penal Code (the latter was introduced in 2007) to prosecute racist and religious hate speech and actions.6 The Sedition Act was repealed in October 2021, as the government streamlined the Penal Code and the Criminal Code to cover the relevant aspects of the now-defunct act "in a more targeted and calibrated manner", including making certain offences arrestable.7

An omnibus Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act is also in the works, which would consolidate the various existing legislations related to racial issues and serve as an analogue to the country's Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act enacted in 1990. A significant thrust of this proposed act would be the inclusion of "softer and gentler touches" to persuade offenders to "make amends", in the hopes that such an approach would "heal hurt and mend ties between races, rather than leaving resentment" in the wake of such transgressions.8

Nevertheless, the sharp public outcry in response to these incidents suggests that tolerance for racism and racial discrimination is decreasing, especially amongst younger Singaporeans. It also demonstrates that Singaporeans are more willing to act on what they perceive as acts of racism. While these are positive developments, matters are complicated when anti-racist whistle-blowers themselves indulge in racially charged language. For instance, the sibling duo of Preeti and Subhas Nair were investigated in 2019 for their parody rap video decrying the use of "brownface" in a local advertisement campaign. The ad in question had featured a Chinese actor portraying characters from Singapore's major ethnic...