ADELINE KOH: People of Chinese descent make up 70% of the population of Singapore. Singapore Chinese, as they are termed, enjoy systemic, racialized and institutional privilege in the country as opposed to the countries’ minorities (primarily racialized as Indian and Malay).
“Chinese privilege”, as Sangeetha Thanapal has named it, functions very similarly to white privilege in the United States and Europe. To use Peggy McClintock’s notion of white privilege and the invisible knapsack, Chinese privilege functions like an “invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. [Chinese] privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” As a Singapore Chinese person, when I am in Singapore, I never need to think twice about whether my race/ethnicity is represented on mainstream media, whether my languages are spoken, whether my religions are allowed to exist, whether I can catch a taxi. All these things are little aspects of Chinese privilege which is very similar to how white privilege functions. You can find out more about the concept of white privilege here.
Despite Chinese privilege in Singapore being very real, there is little or no recognition of this concept within the national public sphere and discussions of race. Attempts by minorities such as Thanapal to name this privilege often receive hostile attack from Singapore Chinese, who employ defensive mechanisms similar to deniers of white privilege—to name privilege is divisive, to name privilege is not a solution, to name privilege is rude, to name privilege is racist. In a stroke of unfunny irony, what happens then is that minorities who call out Chinese racism are then termed racist by their aggressors.
This is very sad because Singapore Chinese themselves often complain how they are victims of racism themselves, particularly when they visit Western countries. They complain about being complimented on their command of English (don’t these people know we were colonized by the English?!), complain about being treated as second-class citizens while abroad. However, they are in complete denial of how they take on the very role of what they claim to be victim of at home. In other words, they complain about racist treatment while overseas while being racist towards minorities in Singapore.
So if you are a Singapore Chinese person—and I am a Singapore Chinese person myself—if someone who is not white or not Chinese starts talking about race, you should really think about doing the following things.
1. Shut up and listen. Because of your privilege, the speaker will be saying a lot of things that are foreign to your experience. But that you don’t think they are “true” doesn’t mean that they are untrue, it’s rather than your privilege shields you from seeing these things.
2. Stop asking them to justify their thoughts and for facts, statistics, data, argument. It’s not the job of marginalized people to educate you. Undertake your own education.
3. Your point of view is not important. If someone is speaking about race in Singapore who is neither white nor Chinese, their stories are not told as frequently as yours. So stop making their narratives about you and what you think. This is not your party.
4. It’s also not up for you to decide whether the person speaking is “right” or “wrong.” That you think your opinion is important is already indicative of how much privilege you have, and how ignorant you are of it.
5. Because you experience racism yourself in other locations, this should not inure you to your own racism at home, but rather, encourage you to have more *empathy* for those who are more marginalized than you are.
6. If you want to help, next time someone asks you for a perspective on race, ask a minority who studies racial dynamics. That means asking people like Thanapal to speak rather than a Singapore Chinese like me.
Adeline Koh is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature, and Director of DH@Stockton at Richard Stockton College.