Why can't we seem to agree on whether there's 'Chinese privilege' in S'pore?

Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that racism still exists in Singapore. And that there will always be room for improvement.

Tanya Ong | September 01, 2021, 12:39 PM

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So there are some terms like "white privilege" or "Chinese privilege” that have been mentioned quite a bit lately. Any idea how it came about?

Whoa, big question right there.

The term “white privilege” originated in the U.S. and will need us to go back in time to the 1980s.

So bear with me a little here, I promise we’ll get to Singapore in a bit.

In 1988, scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper (super long title but here it is: “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”) containing a list of examples of white privilege.

46 to be exact.


“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.”

“I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race.”

“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

According to her, the advantages acquired by the whites are like an ‘invisible, weightless knapsack’.

What knapsack?

McIntosh came up with that, not me. But it basically refers to a package of invisible special provisions, resources and assurances that one has.

OK, so Chinese privilege was borrowed from white privilege in the U.S.? And found its way to Singapore how…?

White privilege has been used as a conceptual framework for local scholars to discuss Chinese privilege, although there are limitations due to the historical context (slavery, state-sponsored racial segregation) associated with the term “white privilege”.

A 2019 journal article titled “Chinese privilege in politics: a case study of Singapore’s ruling elites” by Singapore scholars Humairah Zainala and Walid Jumblatt Abdullah had brought up the origins of ethnic privilege from McIntosh’s essay, for instance.

Chinese privilege, to them, is a useful tool to theorise privilege in an Asian context.

But most Singaporeans probably encountered the term while outside of academic circles.

Humairah & Walid’s article stated that the term “Chinese privilege” was popularised by Singaporean activist Sangeetha Thanapal.

And according to Thanapal, being Chinese bestows upon Chinese Singaporeans unearned power regardless of other identities (think age, gender, class) they have.

Ahhh, hold on – so privilege is not the same as racism?

I guess it depends who you ask — Thanapal, for instance, tends to see racism and Chinese privilege as one and the same.

Personally, I think there should be a difference. Here’s what I found to be a useful differentiation:

Racism: Individual and group-level processes and structures that reproduce racial inequality

Privilege: A built-in advantage one has by virtue of their skin colour, separate from level of income or effort.

So technically, you can be racist without being part of a majority group.

But according to scholarly definition, for purposes of our discussion — Chinese privilege is separate from racism right?

For scholars like Humairah and Walid, yes, they have clarified this in their paper:

“Racism is an attitude involving discriminating against others from different races, and may or may not be institutionalized. On the other hand, privilege merely means unearned assets.”

Oh no, I sense this is a “but story”...

… But NUS Associate Provost and sociology professor Daniel Goh disagrees with the use of Chinese privilege as a term, which he believes is not helpful as a concept.

He was quoted saying that “the realities of racism and prejudice in Singapore are not simply equivalent to white privilege in America” because “America had a very different history when it comes to racial relations”.

Singapore, as a post-colonial country with racial categories and structures that came from the British, has a specific historical context of its own.

In addition to race, identity politics comprises language, ethnicity, and class, all of which have “deep historical specificity in postcolonial Singapore”, scholars Daniel Goh and Terence Chong argue in their 2020 journal article, titled "‘Chinese privilege’ as shortcut in Singapore: a rejoinder".

Goh and Chong concluded that the rejoinder "does not deny that racism exists in Singapore".

However, they argued that Chinese privilege has appeared as "an uncritically imported shortcut in Singapore, with little evidence to prove its existence other than the prescribed racial identities of those whose actions and articulations are being interpreted".

No matter what, the term "Chinese privilege" has gained popularity in our vocabulary, with several dialogue sessions on this issue. But what does it really refer to?

Examples cited often draw on the lived experiences of living as a minority in Singapore, where the Chinese constitute the majority race.

Once again, what it exactly refers to depends on who you ask, but I’ll try my best.

Some have brought up instances detailing how minorities have tried to rent residential units, only to be told by landlords that they do not wish to rent to people of a certain race.

Or how they are unable to apply for certain jobs because certain employers stated that only Mandarin speakers may apply, without it being entirely clear why that language proficiency is needed for the role.

Or how a minority might feel excluded from group conversations when it lapses into Mandarin, and nobody thinks to switch to English because, well, most people in the group can understand the language anyway.

Basically, experiences that the Chinese in Singapore are far less likely to have faced by virtue of their race.

Wait, wait, wait — aren’t some of these the exact examples raised by PM Lee during his NDR speech? The same speech in which he mentioned that it’s “baseless to claim that there is Chinese privilege in Singapore”?

Yes (damn, I can’t claim credit) actually, he acknowledged these incidents (rental and employment) as racial discrimination that minorities may face.

Referring to these incidents, PM Lee called racial harmony "a work in progress", but did not classify them as evidence of Chinese privilege.

When PM Lee talked about Chinese privilege, he said that “We treat all races equally, with no special privileges."

The speech, delivered in Chinese, uses the terms ‘特权’ (te quan), which can be translated to English as privilege or special rights.

A possible reading is that he’s understanding it in terms of special rights inbuilt into a system.

Think bumiputera policies in Malaysia, with affirmative action policies in education and employment, designed to favour a certain ethnic group — and we don’t have any of that here.

But the majority does still have some kind of advantages.

If I say no, are you going to cancel me? Just kidding — I definitely think that there are some advantages to be enjoyed by being in a majority group.

Growing up with others from a very similar cultural background, one might develop a narrower worldview, and hence, be more ignorant regarding others’ cultures — which may then be dismissed by the majority to be perfectly acceptable.

In fact, those from the majority group would not need to even think about many things that people from minority ethnic groups may have to worry about (like having fewer rental or employment options, for instance).

And when it comes to employment, the bias could also operate on a more subconscious level.

For instance, hiring managers tend to disproportionately employ people who appear similar to them — and in Singapore these people are likely to be Chinese.

Privilege and racism… This is getting confusing.

Like I said, I think one can be racist without being part of the majority group.

Likewise, having majority privilege does not automatically mean that one is being racist either (some may disagree here).

I want to return to something you mentioned previously on privilege referring to advantages because of skin colour. This means privilege is entirely based on ethnic group. I’m not sure a low-income, lowly educated Chinese person in Singapore is all that privileged.

Of course there are different aspects of being disadvantaged in life, as you have pointed out.

For instance, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee previously explained that with the adoption of English as the lingua franca, and the eventual merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore, put Chinese Singaporeans who spoke only Mandarin and dialects at a disadvantage.

This is why Chinese Singaporeans who cannot read or speak English, or who belong to low-income brackets and struggle to make ends meet, would likely find it hard to grasp the idea that they are privileged in Singapore.

People can be disadvantaged along the lines of age, income, sexual orientation, or gender, which may intersect one another or overlap, and people may experience unique forms of privilege or oppression simultaneously.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong also reminded us of this.

Ah! Intersectionality. That’s another term that has become quite popular lately.

Yeah! You are as cool as a Venn diagram!

If people are placing different emphases on different attributes, how can the term Chinese privilege ever be meaningful in a discussion?

Being part of the majority can lead to having blind spots.

So on the one hand, I can see how this term might be useful in raising awareness on the challenges that minorities in Singapore face, and hence, encourage Singaporeans to be more inclusive and mindful.

It could even lead to productive discussions on whether there can be room for improvement when it comes to policy safeguards against discrimination.

And on the other hand…?

Some fear that racialising terms can “allow individuals to feel righteous without nuance”, especially when race may not be the actual or most significant dividing factor. In this case, the author brings up class as a crucial point of division.

By labelling any and every racist incident as “Chinese privilege”, and viewing every event of injustice through the lens of race, the problem is constantly framed between the dominant group and the minority group(s), with blame being ascribed to the dominant group.

Lived experience is important. It offers valuable insights into the world that we live in and help us build empathy.

However, valorising one's lived experiences and examining a situation more from a wholly subjective standpoint rather than reason, is risky.

This is not to say that injustices have not occurred, or that one's emotions are invalid. But a preoccupation with viewing one's identity through this lens may lead to one prioritising opinions sincerely held over reasoned deliberation that may force one to abandon these opinions.

Tribalism and hostility between different groups could eventually be fuelled by this divisive, exclusive approach. Not great for multicultural Singapore.

We really can’t agree on anything, can we? Is there anything that all of us can agree on?

The fact that racism exists in Singapore, I guess.

And that Singaporean food > Malaysian food. But that would encourage tribalism.

Oh, and that we can always do better?

We can always do better.

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