The Chinese Singaporean identity

Being Chinese in multiracial Singapore: A framework to check one's ignorance

They are millennials who grew up under Singapore's bilingual education system and graduated from Special Assistance Plan schools. Has their language background influenced their worldview? In the first collaboration of its kind, two reporters, one from The Straits Times and the other from Lianhe Zaobao, explore how the Chinese Singaporean identity has evolved in an exchange of views written in their preferred languages. In this final of a 3-parter, they look at the issues arising from being the majority race.

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One's a reporter from The Straits Times, one writes for Lianhe Zaobao. These two millennials face-off on their first impressions of each other, and how the English and Chinese languages condition one's worldview.

A framework to check one's ignorance

Dear Wai Mun,

It was only when a group of drunken men began shouting "chink" after me in the middle of a wintry English night that the idea of "Chinese privilege" acutely hit home. It hit home because in England, I no longer had it.

Growing up in Singapore, I navigated everyday life unmarked by my race. I never had to explain away how I looked, or ever felt alienated by a group because of my ethnicity. After all, the Chinese were the majority at home, and most of us never had to feel like outliers.

But in the English town of York, where I spent my university years, this sense of Chineseness was something I could not quite escape from. "Where are you really from?" people would enquire, sometimes curiously, sometimes patronisingly. Once, after a heavy snowstorm, children hurled snowballs at my Chinese Singaporean friend, whom I later found in our hostel, freezing and close to tears.

When a Dr Lee Siew Peng wrote to The Straits Times Forum last year questioning why racism had "suddenly become an issue in Singapore", it triggered a backlash. Many such as local novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal took umbrage at Dr Lee's remarks that she had thought of herself as "simply a Singaporean" and that she never had to deal with her "Chineseness" until she went to work in Europe.

"In Singapore, my 'Indian-ness' has always been an issue," pointed out Ms Jaswal. "Many minorities here are questioned when they say they are Singaporean," she added.

Ms Jaswal echoes points that independent scholar and activist Sangeetha Thanapal made when she coined the term "Chinese privilege" to refer to the behaviour of Chinese Singaporeans, akin to "white privilege" in the West - not being able to see things from the viewpoint of those who are not in the majority.

These sentiments speak to me. Though I had always been aware that racism existed in Singapore, it was only after being part of a minority while studying abroad that I made a conscious effort to "check my privilege".

The first thing I did was to be more aware of how simple words and actions in everyday life can be insensitive - or even insulting - to those who are in minority groups.

Classmates, for example, politely commented on how good my English was, not realising that it was precisely because their forefathers had colonised our country that had led us to learning English in school in the first place. Others often casually lapsed into obscure references about local shows or historical events in Europe that I had only the slightest inkling of in conversations.

Back home, whenever a group of people started speaking in Mandarin in the presence of someone who was not Chinese, I would try my best to steer the conversation back to English.

While I used to stay quiet if someone made an offensive remark about a person of another race, I am now bolder about calling it out, because I know how much it stings to be on the receiving end. Worrying issues remain, such as employers who discriminate against hiring minorities even for jobs where Mandarin is not required.

However, there are also times "Chinese privilege" feels like a blanket term, too broad and sweeping.

Many bandied the term "Chinese privilege" in protest in 2016, when Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said during a parliamentary debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency that the Chinese community had made compromises in the interests of Singapore society.

They had accepted English as the State's working language, for instance, and thus would understand the need to safeguard minority representation in the President's office, he said.

Perhaps it had been unwise for him to conflate this historical episode with the heated debate over the reserved election, as these are two separate topics.

But it was also not wrong for Mr Ong to acknowledge the sense of marginalisation that a generation of Chinese-educated Singaporeans felt when swept up by changes to the dominant language of instruction in schools to English in the 1970s.

My mother, for example, gave up on further education beyond secondary school after grappling with the new English syllabus. I am aware of the sense of disadvantage she must have felt when it came to getting a job due to her limited grasp of English - a predicament that likely extended to others in schools where Malay or Tamil had been the main language of instruction.

While some Chinese Singaporeans like Dr Lee could grow up here feeling unmarked and unattached to their ethnic Chinese identity, my mother's generation bore the brunt of trauma that came from the closure of vernacular schools and the demise of the Chinese-medium Nanyang University.

They still feel threatened by a growing tide of youth - including their own kids - who spurn speaking Mandarin for English, and listen to American pop songs in place of local xinyao tunes.

Like other minority groups here, they, too, fear that their sense of identity could be diluted by a majority with disproportionate amount of power in society, including English-speaking Chinese.

The term "Chinese privilege" provides a framework for us to start examining the myopia and ignorance that we may bear as members of the majority race.

However, rather than rounding on each other with scornful calls of "privilege", let's start addressing this by being empathetic towards the lived experience of those who feel marginalised - regardless of whether this is due to divisions along lines of race, class, or other identity markers.

Yuen Sin

Yuen Sin from The Straits Times (left) and Ng Wai Mun from Lianhe Zaobao. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Embracing our multiple identities

Dear Yuen Sin,

My family spoke only Mandarin and dialects when I was young. It took me a long while to overcome that sense of inferiority I felt whenever I was surrounded by people who were used to English as their first language.

To some extent, despite the fact that many would think that I am effectively bilingual, I now still vaguely feel that sense of unease when a conversation is conducted in English. I would even describe it as feeling as if I were in a state of exile - although I recognise that saying this reeks of self-victimisation. It is a dangerous position to take.

I agree with you that in a multiracial society like Singapore, as ethnic Chinese, we sometimes forget that we are the majority and as such, enjoy certain natural advantages compared to minorities. It also means that it is easy for us to have blind spots.

But I'd also like to point out that, to the Chinese-speaking community, the term "Chinese privilege", in the context of Singapore, is an extremely unfamiliar one.

You would hardly find any mention of the phrase in past commentaries published in the Chinese-language newspapers like Lianhe Zaobao.

It might be due to generational differences. Before writing this letter, I had mentioned the concept of Chinese privilege to my older colleagues in the newsroom. Some instantly adopted a defensive posture, retorting: "What privilege?"

But I can understand how they feel.

Setting aside how the merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore has left an indelible scar on the Nantah generation, one still cannot ignore the fact that there are also others in the Chinese-speaking community who have experienced setbacks due to educational policy changes.

Then there are those who rue the state of Chinese-language standards today. This common understanding that this tight-knit community has forged - to do all it can to defend what's left of Chinese language and culture - can distract from the serious discussion of Chinese privilege.

However, in the social media world that we're both familiar with, the situation seems completely different. I believe you would have noticed that for the past year, the issue of privilege has been much discussed. It could be that the election of American President Donald Trump has once again brought race to the forefront, or that in Singapore, a reserved presidential election has created more discussions and awareness about some of our differences.

Some of my Malay and Indian friends shared openly on Facebook about instances of casual racism. At the same time, whenever these issues were brought up, I saw how some Chinese reacted in an insensitive way, and was surprised by how they seem unaware that it was inappropriate.

It got me thinking about racial discrimination. I realised, too, that I have to be careful with my words and actions.

I am also reminded of something else I've read on Facebook. In 2016, the issues over the South China Sea arbitration case and the detention of Singapore's armoured vehicles in Hong Kong caused ties between Singapore and China to drop to a low point.

There were netizens who called for Singapore to take a more pro-China stance in its conduct of relations with the country, without realising that this could be a sensitive issue for racial minorities.

This prompted local playwright and poet Alfian Sa'at, in a Facebook post, to describe what he observed to be netizens siding with China, as a "comeback of a form of Chinese cultural and political identity that was suppressed". He questioned if some in the Chinese community should let their judgment be clouded by their bid to "reclaim overdue dignity".

Of course, Alfian's comment might not be representative of how most felt about the issue. Some people might also think that the accusation of "Chinese privilege" does not have sufficient basis, and that it might have been misused. But I think that this question that Alfian raises is worth thinking about: Will the rise of China affect social cohesion in Singapore or the exercise of our sovereignty?

It further exposes a problem that the Chinese community needs to address: How should we view our identity? Is the way we define "Chineseness" too exclusive?

I have noticed that this anxiety about the Chinese identity is felt among the younger Chinese-speaking crowd. Several of my younger colleagues said they find it hard to identify with what is commonly defined as "Chinese culture". One of them asked: "If the Chinese Singaporean identity is so vaguely defined, is it possible for me to feel a sense of belonging? Also, if there is no one 'Chineseness' we can speak of, can we look beyond race and language, when promoting Chinese culture?"

But if we look at the other side of the coin, such introspection may also mean that even if younger Chinese Singaporeans display a stronger sense of ethnic pride, they choose to adopt a more inclusive view in doing so. Some are starting to trace their identity, and adopt a more historical point of view.

The Singapore bicentennial commemoration next year would be a good time to take a closer look at this issue. Can we learn to embrace our multiple identities, as Chinese, as Singaporeans, and as South-east Asians, all at the same time, and accept such complexities and diversity?

Ng Wai Mun (Translated by Lim Ruey Yan)

Click here to read these columns in Chinese on Lianhe Zaobao.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline Being Chinese in multiracial Singapore: A framework to check one's ignorance. Subscribe