Relook: The dangerous influence of Chinese privilege in Singapore

chinese privilege racism

My article “The Dangerous Influence of Chinese Privilege in Singapore” has gotten quite a bit of traction in the past week. I’ll leave some of the criticisms to my article here and here for the reader’s own judgment.

Although the majority of my article was dedicated to public policy, most of the criticism I’ve read by the social media mobs had very little interest in policy and far more on personal insults and attacks based on my race. (looking at you zoomers on Twitter)

Whatever. Here are some brief responses to the most common objections.

Objection 1: Racism exists in Singapore. Your statistics doesn’t mean anything.

Suppose you had one million dollars to donate. You want to create as much humanitarian impact as possible. People die everyday from all kinds of man-made and natural causes everyday. Where to donate? Maybe you think that global terrorism is a serious threat and that the money would be well-spent in counter-terrorism efforts.

But you do your research on the leading causes of death. You realise that deaths from terrorism makes up something like 21,000 deaths worldwide per year. In comparison, heart disease kills 647,000 a year — and that’s just in America alone. Although terrorism gets way more media attention, it’s hard to argue that terrorism is a weightier problem than heart disease based on fatality rates.

You realise it’s a better idea to ignore your initial intuitions and send your cheque to a heart disease research centre. Donating to heart disease doesn’t mean that terrorism is a problem we shouldn’t acknowledge or should ignore, but it does mean that our decision is guided by a comparative perspective on what the bigger problems are.

Now relate back to the issue of racial relations in Singapore. The statistic I cited was from the Legatum Prosperity Index of 2015:

In the Legatum Prosperity Index of 2015, Singapore ranks at number 1 (yes, one) in the category of “tolerance of ethnic minorities”, while Egypt comes out last.

The same graph embedded

I cited this statistic not to “prove” that racism doesn’t exist. I cited it to bring in perspective in order to assess the claims of local race activists who are loudly trumpeting Singapore as a “terribly racist country”.

What the statistic tells us is that the claims by these activists are probably trumped up. And that’s where I’m calling bullshit.

Many of the readers upset with my article misunderstand that when I cite international comparisons of racial discrimination, I’m making a relative, not absolute point. If your claim is that Singapore society is highly racist, then my question is: Relative to what?

I’m not making the claim that racial discrimination in Singapore is non-existent, just as donating the million dollars to heart disease research doesn’t mean that terrorism is a non-existent problem.

My point is that it’s a relatively less important issue, and that perspective is what’s necessary in assessing nonsensical claims that activists have enjoyed pushing for far too long.

Objection 2: Your arguments only address discrimination in laws, but ignores the kind that exists on the ground

Yes, the analysis of my article does leave out the types of discrimination that may go on in the workplace, or in civil society.

It’s not because I think it’s trivial but simply that the scope of my article was limited to discrimination that is institutionalised (by that I mean embedded in our formal laws and regulations). They are two separate spheres. When the average person on the Internet has the attention span for 10,000 word articles, then I’ll be able to address more in one piece.

As I’ve argued, institutionally formalised racial discrimination in Singapore is very minimal when you view it along with all the race policies and laws of the government (I previously listed them) that does provide redress or protection to racial minorities.

Singapore’s public policy on racial relations does not justify their grand theories of “institutional racism”, or silly rap songs of “Chinese people always fucking it up”.

Perhaps a useful way to illustrate how little Singapore’s laws discriminate on race, is to look at where its laws actually do discriminate. A good example is the government’s housing policy and how it applies to LGBT communities.

It’s very clear-cut that state policy discriminates against LGBT individuals when they cannot purchase the most readily affordable housing — government BTO flats —in their twenties because public housing is reserved for married couples (singles are also discriminated against). The problem lies in how the government-sanctioned institution of marriage entangles with state rules and regulations of the housing market.

Even when LGBT individuals can finally buy it at 35, choices are limited to smaller 2-room flats. All those years of waiting also means that they’ve suffered an indirect loss in capital investment. To make it worse, an LGBT couple’s combined earning power by the age of 35 might exceed the BTO flat price ceiling of $9,000 and disqualify them from the purchase entirely.

In the face of these laws, what is a gay person who wishes to own his own property to do? Unless they’re millionaires in their 20s, there is very little scope for alternatives. That is what it means for discrimination to be institutionalised.

On these grounds, institutional discrimination against LGBT+ communities does exist (the same might be said in how the state-controlled media defines “acceptable” lifestyles).

But the same cannot be said for racial discrimination where public policy at every step of the way in Singapore’s history has provided protection and alleviation to racial communities.

Objection 3: You’re too dismissive of anecdotal evidence of racism

No, I’m not.

I don’t think that anecdotal evidence of racism is necessarily useless, it’s just highly unreliable if you want to assess wild claims like “Singapore is a highly racist society” or “The government historically privileges Chinese majority groups”.

Alfian Sa’at can spin all the anecdotes of racism that he likes yet still come nowhere close to evaluating the veracity of such a broad-sweeping claim. At best, anecdotal evidence is useful as a theoretical hunch to guide the pursuit of an organised study.

You might hear multiple stories of minorities facing racial discrimination in the workplace or labour market. The conveniently easy takeaway from that is, “Wow, I’ve heard these stories from ten different people, we must really live in an overwhelmingly racist society.” This basically sums up the narrow worldview of many proponents of the Chinese Privilege ideology.

The much harder and correct takeaway should be, “Okay, if a bunch of people are raising issues of racism, there might be some plausible cause for concern. But let me hold my horses and look at what research has been done before I jump to far-flung conclusions about society that are extrapolated from stray anecdotes.”

Objection 4: You’re blinded by your majority racial privilege and cannot truly understand the lived experiences of minorities

This is easily the most common non-argument.

If you’re willing to reject the arguments of a person on the grounds that they are Chinese because you possess an exclusive view on what it’s like to be a racial minority, then so too can a Chinese person reject your views because they possess an exclusive view on what it’s like to be Chinese. These non-arguments go both ways, they’re mostly made in bad faith and people interested in serious discourse should be above these types of cheap rhetorical tactics.

Some food for thought in an intelligent Facebook post:

Objection 5: Even if the majority does not behave in explicitly racist ways, it just means they are exercising tolerance, not acceptance

This is the only objection I find myself in some agreement with, although I think it understates the value of tolerance in the world of politics today.

Is acceptance preferable to tolerance? Absolutely. But as a classical liberal, I find little sympathy in forcing people to accept views they disagree with, especially when the idea is to enforce it by coercive state regulations.

Racist attitudes cannot be legislated away by law.

Racism erodes slowly and improve overtime upon social contact and exposure.

As the economist Herbert Gintis finds, progressive attitudes are most apparent in countries with freer market economies:

Movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else. My colleagues and I found dramatic evidence of this positive relationship between markets and morality in our study of fairness in simple societies — hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic herders, and small-scale sedentary farmers — in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Twelve professional anthropologists and economists visited these societies and played standard ultimatum, public goods, and trust games with the locals. As in advanced industrial societies, members of all of these societies exhibited a considerable degree of moral motivation and a willingness to sacrifice monetary gain to achieve fairness and reciprocity, even in anonymous one-shot situations. More interesting for our purposes, we measured the degree of market exposure and cooperation in production for each society, and we found that the ones that regularly engage in market exchange with larger surrounding groups have more pronounced fairness motivations. The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious.

Although tolerance is less ideal than acceptance, I see toleration as an ever-growing snowball towards acceptance. In contrast, broad-sweeping and loaded labels like “Chinese Privilege” threatens to polarise relations between different racial communities even more.

The best book that I know of on the value of tolerance and how it promotes coexistence within ethnically diverse modern societies is the Singapore Management University philosopher Chandran Kukathas’ The Liberal Archipelago. As he puts it, the good society:

… is best understood not as a single body, or an ideal realm of the just, or a ship piloted by a skilful seaman,or even as a single island rightly ordered. It should be understood, instead, as something altogether less clearly bounded, marked by movement within those bounds, and movement across fuzzy boundaries. The good society… is best understood as an archipelago of societies… which is neither the creation nor the object of control of any single authority. It is a society in which authorities function under laws which are themselves beyond the reach of any singular power… The value which is fundamental to liberalism is toleration. A society or community is a liberal one if, or to the extent that, it is tolerant.

The snowball of tolerance grows into acceptance, but only if we let it.

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