We talk about racial inclusivity and equality in Singapore, and how to raise awareness of these issues through literature and films.
Wow, 2020, what did we ever do to you? From the Australian bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic to global issues like racial inequality taking center stage, this year has become like a merry-go-round of terror without an exit. Racism has always been, and still is, a sensitive subject. But with racist undertones becoming louder everywhere (thanks to social media), there’s no time like the present to look at racial inclusivity in Singapore.
Especially with the spotlight on recent controversies like the Chinese-language children’s book that a library user complained was racist, the blackface photo by former Raffles Institution students (who subsequently apologised), and the Temasek Polytechnic student who went viral for his racist and misogynistic remarks on social media. Not to mention last year’s E-Pay brownface ad fiasco.
“Can we do better? Yes. Does racism still exist in Singapore? Yes. Whether it’s in a job advertisement or in a passing conversation, we can’t escape the whole racism bubble,” says Holly, 38-year-old Singaporean office manager. She is not alone in her opinion.
Aaron, a 31-year-old Singaporean in sales development, chimes in with his thoughts. “Declaring Singapore as a multi-racial society gives us this misplaced belief that there is little or no racism in this country. And so, there is no need for one to hold back their tongue when making a comment because, hey, we are a multiracial society.”
The government pushes for harmony between races (hello, racial harmony day!). We as individuals are tasked with treating our fellow humans with common courtesy and dignity. But does this discourage casual racism?
“Some people simply do not know that what they say might be racist, either because it was passed down to them from generation to generation, or because they’ve never interacted much outside of their own community and form prejudices. The only way forward is to educate people,” says Sean, a 25-year-old Singaporean in the restaurant industry.
Misconceptions are bound to happen without interaction between groups. The easiest way to get rid of your preconceived notions? Take a step out of your immediate circle and learn about other cultures and communities. Singapore’s diversity is a gift and an asset, and utilising it as such would be to our benefit. So to help you get started on your journey towards gaining a greater awareness of racial issues, we’ve put together a list of books and movies that tackle the subject.
Books to read
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Sugarbread centers around a girl named Pin who is told she shouldn’t be like her mother. But she doesn’t quite understand why. We follow Pin through her journey, which subtly touches upon themes such as racism and the minority experience.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Set in 1930s America, this Pulitzer Prize-winning story centres around Celie and the constant degradation she is subjected to as a young African American girl. The novel touches on domestic and sexual abuse as Celie lives through heartbreaking experiences, but in the end, she finds the life she was always meant to have.
Me Migrant by Md Mukul Hossine
Initially written in Bengali, this grouping of poems prompts you to listen and think. The works focus on dreams of inclusivity and are written in strokes of hope. Hossine gives us a glimpse into his heart with poems that reveal his truth and all the highs and lows of his journey working in the construction industry in Singapore.
Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at
Taking its name from a book of stories by a colonial governor who chronicles Malay life on the Peninsula, Malay Sketches gives these reimagined tales local flavour, focusing on the complexities of life in Singapore as an ethnic minority.
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Antiracism. What is your understanding of that? Kendi’s book details what it means to be an antiracist, showing that neutrality is not a viable path to take. Taking on myths and taboo topics, and showing how racism is linked to class, culture and geography, he takes you beyond an awareness of racism and leads you towards identifying it and doing something about it.
The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas
This is a critique of the colonial perspective of Malay, Filipino and Javanese natives from the 16th to the 20th century. It challenges the one-sided colonial viewpoint of the Asian native and his society.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn to live their version of an idyllic American life, only to find themselves in a world filled with danger and sadness. In exchange for arranging their new lives, Kimberly’s aunt tasks the duo to work long hours daily for over a decade with almost no pay. #SpoilerAlert: They find their version of a happy ending.
Movies to watch
First They Killed My Father
Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name about her experience as a child under the Khmer Rouge regime is the basis of this 2017 biographical historical film directed by Angelina Jolie. With a screenplay written by Jolie and Ung, the story is set in 1975 and follows five-year-old Ung through the terrors and atrocities she and her family went through during the Khmer Rouge rule.
Death by Hanging
Death by Hanging is a 1968 Japanese work that centres on the oppression of ethnic Koreans in Japan. A subversive film and political statement, the movie was praised for its groundbreaking look at remorse, justice and persecution.
Based on the 2009 novel of the same name, Mudbound is set in rural Mississippi and focuses on two young men, one black and one white, who both return from World War II as veterans dealing with racism and PSTD. As both men become friends, much to their families’ disapproval, the film touches on racial issues and injustice, challenging us about our own perceptions on race and gender.
The Book Thief
Liesel Meminger is the title character in this adaptation – narrated by Death, no less! – set during the Nazi regime. In the coming-of-age story, Liesel lives with her foster parents who are hiding a Jewish man in their basement. She befriends him and ‘borrows’ books from an affluent wife of a German soldier to read to him. Eventually, she picks up a love of words and writing from him, and that acts as her escape from the horrors that threaten her.
12 Years a Slave
The 1853 slave memoir is the basis of this movie, which chronicles the story of a free African American man. The compelling period drama takes you through his life journey as he is kidnapped in Washington D.C. by two conmen and sold into slavery, working in plantations for 12 years before he is finally released.
All that said, change comes from within. It starts with us. With education, awareness and open conversations. In the end, it only takes one person to create a movement of positivity. Is your day today?
Words by Melissa Fitzgerald
Melissa loves the forever summer weather in Singapore as well as the spicy food and learning about new cultures. She has skydived, swam with sharks, repelled down waterfalls and moved to a city where she didn’t know anyone. But relocating to Singapore has been the most enriching experience yet. She also writes at Melissa Ann Fitzgerald.
[Note: Names behind the quotes have been changed for privacy reasons.]