Racism in Singapore

Significance, Origin, Responses.

Impacts and Significance

Singaporeans strongly support multiracialism, with almost all saying that they respect people from all races and that all races should be treated equally, according to a survey. In the same survey, almost half of them recognise that racism can be a problem and are aware that racism does exist. Racism can be defined as the discrimination of others from a different race based on the notion that one’s own race is superior or that other races are inferior. Racism is a prevalent and pressing issue in the context of today’s society, as we can see many instances wherein Singaporeans have displayed outright racism, whether it be as simple as insulting and degrading someone just because that person is from a particular race, or even not accepting one for a job simply because of unfair racial stereotypes. For instance, we can see a clear example of racial discrimination in the workforce from the PrimaDeli incident, wherein a staff member made discriminatory remarks against a potential candidate in a job interview. The staff member held unfair and disparaging racial stereotypes against the candidate, making disparaging remarks on her race and not taking the interview seriously simply because she was Malay. This example of racism shows how real racial discrimination is in the workforce and how the unfair treatment of certain individuals due to racial stereotypes can not only make them feel unnecessary emotional hurt and anger, but also make them disadvantaged as compared to others. Racism, on the personal level, can make individuals feel ostracized and ashamed of their own race, making them have low self-esteem and lose their sense of identity and belonging within society. On the other hand, it can also create tension within the relationships of those individuals affected by racism and their friends from the different races. Racism indeed does adversely affect individuals adversely on a personal level. 

Also, another more recent incident involving a “Brownface” advertisement, sparked much controversy when one actor portrayed a Malay woman by wearing a tudung and an Indian man by simply painting his face brown.

Advertisement by Nets, featuring Mediacorp Actor Dennis Chew

Some felt that it was a trivial matter while many took offence as they felt that such racially insensitive depictions of other races reduced minority groups to simply their skin tones. The matter further worsened when a rap video scolding ethnic Chinese with vulgarities was released in response to the advertisement. This shows how one seemingly trivial racially insensitive advertisement can lead to social unrest and break the thin fabric of racial harmony within our society. On the societal level, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, mentioned that “racism corrodes and deepens the fault lines in society”. Racism indeed does put the social cohesion and unity we have in our Singaporean society at stake, as it can create social divide amongst the four races and make our Singaporean society a toxic, unsafe and less united one. 


An origin of racism is the formation and subconscious usage of stereotypes. Many stereotypes were originally popularized by the British to justify the British colonial rule and their exploitation of the resources. The British wanted to be the greatest benefactor out of controlling the region so there had to be excuses to justify their superiority. The stereotypes they invented described the other races as either incompetent or unfit to have power, so that the collective conscious simply accepts that the British were superior and deserves to have control over the rest of the population. For example, one of the stereotypes popularized so much that it still exists currently, is the notion that ‘Malays are lazy’. For example, rather than hiring natives to work in the tin mines and plantation agriculture in Malaya, the British created labour policies that attracted migration from China and India and simply left the Malays to what they originally did before colonization. The indirect barring of Malays from working in such harsh conditions further perpetuated the stereotype of the lazy Malay, as the British could only see migrants doing hard work, creating a vicious cycle where Malays would be discriminated against in job seeking such as the police and military force because of the stereotype and further prove the stereotype. This stereotype with time became the assumed truth and part of the collective consciousness, leading to this idea persisting to our current generation. 

Another reason why racism exists is because we are a multiracial society. The Singapore government has grouped certain people together under 4 racial groups, Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Others. 76.2% of the population is classified Chinese, 15.0% as Malays, 7.4% as ethnic Indians, and the rest as ‘others’. The problem with grouping races is that society is split into these 4 groups, fracturing the whole Singaporean identity and sparking tension between the groups. This tension is manifested in the interactions between the groups, where each racial group has now the opportunity to use the stereotypes they believe in to discriminate the other racial groups. For example, if a racist Chinese employer meets only Chinese people, he cannot discriminate other races because he cannot even interact with them in the first place. Conversely, if this employer works in multiracial Singapore and meets applicants from different races, his racist beliefs will have an actual impact on other races as he will favor Chinese applicants compared to others. While having no interaction does not solve the problem of stereotyping, as Singapore is so multiracial and physically racially mixed, racism will be very widespread for as long as society is either racially mixed or the stereotypes have not been eroded yet. 

Strategies to Deal with Racism

The problem of racism stems from people’s naive preconceived notions of a particular race. People who are racist are not born with such impressions of other races which are usually flawed and naive, but rather, such impressions are developed and ingrained into them under the influence of external sources, such as other racist people and the media, over a period of time. Thus, to ensure that people will not be influenced negatively, they have to be taught the importance of racial harmony and mutual respect since young. Thus, we are proposing that there be twelve hours worth of compulsory lessons per year on racial harmony for all primary school students. These lessons can be conducted during character and leadership education classes, or conducted in a mass lecture format as long as the minimum quota of twelve hours in total is reached by the end of the year.

Such lessons can help to inculcate the value of mutual respect within the students and teach them how to be sensitive towards other peoples’ races, thus allowing them to be more embracing and understanding towards the racial diversity we have in Singapore. Such students will be more inclined to adopt a more “colour-blind” attitude towards others when interacting with them, and they will more likely continue to have such an attitude towards others when they grow up, allowing for a more racially inclusive society. Also, these lessons give them the necessary awareness and equip them with the ability to deal with racism. With this greater understanding, this enables them to more easily identify instances of racism, allowing them to either stop the perpetrator or reach out to those affected by it. One strength of this strategy is that the learning outcomes are very malleable and allows students to directly learn whatever is needed to combat racism. However, one limitation of this strategy is that students may not take such lessons seriously as they are not graded, thus limiting the effectiveness of the lessons. 

Another solution the society can adopt is to deracialise itself. The root of racism, be it overt, or covert, is the awareness of race. We propose to distance Singapore away from current racial frameworks such as the rigid structure of the CMIO and instead emphasise our overarching Singaporean identity. For example, instead of calling a current Singapore Indian an Indian, we will simply call him a Singaporean. Besides this cultural advancement, the government should also not introduce policies that differentiate people based on race. This can possibly include the removal of the race section in the NRIC, or the prevention of employers from insisting on potential employees to provide their race. By playing down racial identities and emphasising on a national identity that all races identify with, race will no longer be such a defining characteristic so much so that others’ attitudes and opinions of a person is shaped simply by his race. Society can no longer judge a person by his race and will become essentially ‘race blind’. The strengths of being in such a society is that only other fairer factors will be considered when evaluating a person’s worth or characterising his personality, or at least ensuring that all races will be treated exactly because society no longer recognises racial differences. Despite all the benefits, however, we can never truly become a race blind society because there are still obvious physical differences between races, such as Indians generally being born with a darker skin than Chinese. 


  1. Lee, L. (2017, June 04). The colonial origins of racism towards Malays in Singapore. Retrieved from https://consensusg.com/2017/06/02/the-colonial-origins-of-racism-towards-malays-in-singapore/
  2. Choo, C.  (2019, August 04). Nair siblings ‘had every right to raise issue of racism’, but did it the wrong way: Shanmugam. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/siblings-rap-video-would-only-cause-more-racism-not-less-shanmugam
  3. Atalas, S.H. (2010). The myth of the lazy native. Retrieved from http://www.citizens-international.org/ci2012/http:/www.citizens-international.org/ci2012/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/the-myth-of-lazy-native.pdf
  4. Yong, C. (2016, August 20). Singaporeans respect all races but racism still an issue: survey. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singaporeans-respect-all-races-but-racism-still-an-issue-survey
  5. Tan, E.L., Lim, A. (2019, August 25). Age-old issue of racism resurfaces in multiracial Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/age-old-issue-resurfaces-in-multiracial-singapore

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