What’s for dinner? A conversation on race

Mar 31, 2017 12.00PM |

by Suhaile Md

This is the first of  three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of  dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations.

“I WAS the only Malay in the section, the rest of them (Chinese) refused to speak in English,” said a 34-year old, recounting his National Service training days. “For the first month every day,” he reminded them, so that he could fulfil his duties, be part of the team, but eventually he gave up. “I realised they were purposely not including me in.”

He was one of 25 participants who had turned up for the first of a series of three closed door dinner sessions, on Mar 17, to talk about race and racism. The aim of the series is to explore what race and racism means in Singapore and what can be done to move to an ideal state. This first dinner focused on the level of racism experienced here.

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Rate the racism

Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 what their experience of racism was in Singapore. One meant no racism and 10 meant racism is everywhere.

Responses varied from as low as two to as high as nine. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the lowest score came from a Chinese participant. As another Chinese participant put it, racism in reality is “not like the racial harmony (lessons) taught in schools. The picture of racial and religious harmony presented in school is vastly different outside of class… so the Chinese majority don’t feel it. (racism)”

“The picture of racial and religious harmony presented in school is vastly different outside of class… so the Chinese majority don’t feel it (racism)”

This point was underscored by a group facilitator during a post-dinner debrief. The 31-year old Chinese lady said that the Chinese participants in her group were appalled when they heard the stories of racism faced by the minorities. The minorities on the other hand seemed nonchalant, even resigned, about racism in Singapore.

In other words, the Chinese don’t recognise that racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it.

The highest score of nine was rated by a Eurasian participant in his 40s. But with a twist: Even if a race based policy is positive, he still considered it as racism. To him for example, the racial reservation of the Elected Presidency is a racist policy. Yes, it pushes for minority representation every five terms at the least. But still racist.

At least one participant found it hard to quantify. The 23 year-old Southeast Asian Chinese lady has been in Singapore for a few years. She said she was aware that racism existed but had no overt experience of it. Interestingly, when she was asked to state her race when she first arrived in Singapore, she did not know what to say. “I never really viewed myself according to my race,” she said.

Most other participants, regardless of race, placed a score between four and seven. In general, everyone acknowledged that racial tensions hardly ever turn violent here. Rather, most of the racism permeates through other means like employment opportunities – or the lack thereof – and standards of beauty. This brought the conversation forward to the next topic of discussion, how does racism affect me?

The impact of racism

Most of the impact was felt in working life. The job requirement to “speak mandarin” is often just “code” for Chinese-employees-wanted, said some. Even though the job itself may not require a mandarin speaker.

A 28-year old Chinese lady who works in the private sector spoke of how she realised, her Malay Muslim colleague, was asked out for group lunch less frequently due to dietary restrictions. There was no malicious intent to exclude. But somehow it just played out that way over time. Even if the intent was not there, could the outcome be considered racist?

Even if the intent was not there, could the outcome be considered racist?


A 32-year old Malay lady spoke of how she found it harder to find jobs here than she did overseas in United States and New Zealand. She suspected race played a role and sent in the same resume with two different names – her own Malay name, and another anglicised. Invariably, she said, her Malay-named resume was rejected but the other accepted even though it was the same job.

Another 28-year old male participant said that because he was considered neither Indian, Malay, nor Chinese, he would be bullied by kids from all the races in Primary School. Sometimes, it got violent.

Despite the heavy topic, the atmosphere was light, jovial, and at times thoughtful, with some instances of intense sharing. But over all, it was carefree. And many stories were shared. Here are some snippets of conversations overheard that night:

On why they turned up for the event:

“I want to just talk about it (racism), rather than sweeping it under the rug, pretending it doesn’t exist… if we are able to talk about it… then comes the solutions.” Said a Malay man in his mid-30s.

“Catharsis,” said many of the minority races.

“To understand, and be aware”, said many of the majority race.

On what counts as racism:

“Often, people like those of my parents generation, don’t know some terms are racist” and have no malicious intent, said a 23-year old Chinese lady. This was a sentiment echoed by other minority participants as well.

“I think sometimes we can be a bit more gracious when others make comments that seem racist,” said a member of the minority race.

“Maybe intent of our words don’t matter as much as the impact,” said a Chinese lady.

“Context matters… I crack racist jokes all the time with friends from other races, but I would never say them on stage,” said an Indian man.


“How do we talk about problems facing certain races without being racist about it?” asked an Indian man.

“Is it a race or class issue?” asked a Malay man.

“It’s weird, in a multi-racial society, where does racism come from?”, asked a Eurasian man. He added later: “At what point do kids develop racism?”


TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

The dinner series is full, but there are still some slots left for a stand-alone session on April 7. Sign up here.

Join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.


Featured image from TMG file.

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