‘Singaporeans must push back anything that is testing our multicultural way of life, our cosmopolitan city’

On Sunday, the video of a man making allegedly racist remarks against an interracial couple went viral, evoking a strong critique from Singapore Home and Law Minister K Shanmugam. Earlier this year, in May, an Indian-origin woman was assaulted in an allegedly racially motivated incident.

In light of the two incidents, we caught up with Rajesh Rai, Associate Professor and Head of the South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore. A celebrated scholar in the field of Indian Diaspora and Heritage studies, Rai has authored and edited several major works including: Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City. He was also assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora, a highly acclaimed volume that has gained global recognition for its path-breaking contribution to Indian diaspora studies.

In an exclusive interview with Connected to India, Rai provides a big-picture historical and economic perspective to incidents of alleged racism in Singapore and why third-generation Singaporeans such as him are keen to push back against anything that is testing the multicultural way of life in the cosmopolitan city. Edited excerpts:

Connected to India (C to I): Do you think these two incidents are, in a way, a by-product of the accumulation of racial tensions building up over time?

Rajesh Rai: I do think that they are an accumulation. What's changed is perhaps what was relatively covert is now becoming quite overt. And so you're beginning to see incidents like this, more commonly in Singapore, which for long really seemed, at least in the eyes of the world, to relatively be a place where racism didn't weigh so strongly. That's not to suggest that there were no undercurrents. As a person who has grown up here, I think the longstanding undercurrents were there. But certain changes have taken place, perhaps from the 2000s onwards. Going into the contemporary times and then added by COVID, the situation has changed from a more introverted form of racism into a more extroverted variant of it.

C to I: Could you please give us a brief historical context to the evolution of tensions against the Indian Diaspora? Is it being exaggerated with social media amplification?

Rajesh Rai: At one level, xenophobia towards new migrants from India has increasingly become strident. The line between xenophobia and racism is a thin one. The growing racism is being represented on social media. The attack on the lady was one instance. This couple being singled out for the interracial connection is another.  We hear about people being told to get out of the country on buses, on the mass rapid transit system, and so on and so forth.

I mean, you just need to go onto a few sites, and you will see this being amplified. Perhaps in the past, those avenues were not available. People seem to be fundamentally far more irresponsible on social media, but that's the nature of the online medium.

C to I: The world has always perceived Singapore as a great melting pot of religions and faiths and races. And now that the government is also kind of out to protect that perception…

Rajesh Rai: Well, I think the government has this on their radar. They’ve also come out strongly against this issue before the Law Minister. When the issue was raised about banning all Indians from coming into Singapore in COVID times another minister took pains to emphasise that it was about a geographical location where there’s a spread of the virus and not about Indians per se. I think the government on its part is very concerned about race, as it always has been.

This is a country that has seen racist incidents historically. Early on in its birth, you will find racial riots that did take place, serious ones. For example, in 1964, riots occurred between Malays and Chinese just prior to Singapore’s independence in 1965.

But since our independence, we've generally kept the line that says that you are a Singaporean regardless of race, language or religion. It's really very in-built within our system. Since independence, we've not seen much in the way of racial riots or attacks and the state has been very strict about policing. This is something that they're keeping a watchful eye on.

A celebrated scholar in the field of Indian Diaspora and Heritage studies, Rai has authored and edited several major works including: Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City. He was also assistant editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora, a highly acclaimed volume that has gained global recognition for its path-breaking contribution to Indian diaspora studies.

C to I: Could you elaborate upon the evolution of these interracial tensions…?

Rajesh Rai: This needs a little bit of context. In Singapore when we became independent, Indians comprised about 8 to 9 per cent of the population. We were committed towards multiculturalism. In general, there was a very strong emphasis on merit. And this system was emphasised by the government. So, if you were entering government service you went in on the basis of merit. This principle was followed very strongly within the government. However, one could argue that the same kind of lack of importance of race didn't exist in the same way in the private industry.

So, in the private sector, you found that race still mattered to some extent. There were certain industries that one could say were dominated largely by the majority population. Now, as a Singaporean, when one got socialised, we went to national schools for different races. In some ways we were beginning to deal with our racial issues. So you'll find over time, more inter-marriages in the 70s, perhaps in the 80s. But that's not to suggest that there wasn't racism. This is something that perhaps I grew up with. So at a young age for example in primary school you will find racial remarks being made vis-à-vis Indians. But at the same time, you know, as we went into college, it became less. So in the coffee shop, a person would give it to you and we would give it back to them. And in this way, we managed to in some way sort out our issues and come to some kind of modicum.

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, and especially in the 2000s, you had a situation in which the number of Indian immigrants and expatriates increased. Now, this was for many reasons: The Singapore economy expanded. New MNCs emerged and they would bring in their own skilled personnel and many of them were Indians. It was also boosted to some degree, though not to a great degree, because of the special agreement between Singapore and India called the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.

And so this began to take the form in some ways of xenophobia towards new migrants. This extended towards the new Chinese immigrants as well. And as you know, the line between xenophobia and racism though is a very thin one.

C to I: How did economic reasons end up fuelling the sentiment?

Rajesh Rai: As I mentioned to you in the private sector, racism continued covertly. There were certain industries that were largely dominated by the Chinese. The financial sector, from the 60s onwards was a domain largely dominated by the Chinese. At many of the major banks, minus the government-connected banks and a few others, there were no Indians of any prominent position. Right, so the only Indian who would be in that sector would be the cleaner for example, or the person who's the watchman, or the guard. Few, if any, of the white-collar jobs were with Indians.

Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a slew of Indian immigrants came in with the new MNCs.  HSBC, Standard Chartered, all these new players came in and recruited large numbers of Indians in a sector that was dominated by the Chinese. They found that Indians, migrants mostly, but perhaps even some locals, were now taking their place. And so they were being shifted out of a sector which they didn't like and I think it took the form of xenophobia against migrants and began to centre on Indian migrants.

So we can call it majoritarian privilege that existed in Singapore. And then, in the 2000s, or in the 2010s the escalator began to slow down economically.  If you went to some of the rich neighbourhoods in Singapore, you would find many of the Indians occupying that space, and in a Chinese parent’s mind, his child should be having that house, or condominium or that bungalow. And now, it's occupied by this group which perhaps historically was connected to labour. It's not the Caucasian taking the bungalow. It's the Indian who's taking the bungalow.

The new-found economic status has fuelled the feelings of xenophobia, especially in the context of an economy that is perhaps not growing at the pace that it used to in the 70s and in the 80s.

C to I: But the sentiment against migrants is a global phenomenon that the likes of Donald Trump fanned… Europe has imposed many more curbs. Worldwide, since the world economy is not doing well. So, Singapore is not alone in that sense is it?

Rajesh Rai: Yes, it's not alone. The point is, there are some differences. Here, from the very outset, the so-called claimants of the land are in question. Who does the country belong to?  This was from its birth, a multicultural country. Nobody can say that this is mine and this is not yours. We were all outsiders until the British that created this outpost. If anything it is the Malay community that has some claim on this land of indigenity…So there was no such claim, which makes it different. And you know, although we are a very young nation, we are a very old multicultural society. People sometimes forget that we are a 200-year-old multicultural society. In that sense, perhaps, we were multicultural before Europe, or the Americas, or Australia became multicultural. So in that sense we are different.

C to I: The government has its concerns but I guess the civil society also realises the importance of the ethos of multiculturalism in Singapore. Are there people making efforts in this direction?

Rajesh Rai: In Singapore, we have traditionally dealt with our issues, one would say far less loudly than they usually do in India or in many other countries. In general, civil society in Singapore has not developed very much, in part because the government was often seen as the group that will do the little cleaning. Now, the point is though, the government was quiet and perhaps in the 60s, 70s, 80s, may have not taken action against the covert racism that may have existed.

And so it left it at that, so long as it didn't become overt. When it became overt, then the State would come in. Now the bad side of this was in general, although we have laws against racism in place, I'm hard-pressed to think of an NGO focused on the issue of race. We have organisations for gender equality. We have quite a lively Pink Dot movement that is concerned about LGBTQ rights. But we have hardly anything in the way of race. Perhaps they thought not talking too much about it will sustain it in a covert fashion and over time, Singapore will be able to solve the problem without shouting it out. I think people are recognising that perhaps this is not enough, that perhaps it doesn't go away. And one would argue that over the last five to 10 years, it has become worse.

C to I: So maybe it is time to kind of invoke the original vision of Lee Kuan Yew…

Rajesh Rai: This is not to suggest again that in Mr. Lee's time it did not exist. The government is still committed to that vision. The thing is, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew decided to do something it came down as a sledgehammer and so people would be too worried to be able to show that overtly. I am not sure our citizenry, as democracy have evolved and social media developed, has that kind of fear of the government, as it used to be. This is certainly not a negative development, but it can sometimes have negative consequences. 

C to I: So, is the discipline that was a trademark of Singaporean society a thing of the past? Hasn’t it helped you contain Corona so well…

Rajesh Rai: No, I think we still have a relatively disciplined population. You know we have, surprisingly perhaps, 35 deaths from Corona. I think part of this is about the government and its initiatives, but without a disciplined population, it wouldn’t have been possible. Still I sometimes think Singapore has taken in a lot of immigrants. Yes, they are from India, but they also come from China in larger numbers than Indians.  Now, I am wondering whether some of this is also about new migrants from China who perhaps, also carry racism with them in this new setting. I won't just blame the whole diaspora Singaporean Chinese born here for this. I think that there is a new Chinese migrant population as well. And I'm wondering whether they too are adding to the sentiments vis-a-vis Indians, because they are socialised within the Chinese context and not so clear about multiculturalism as we have been.

Thirdly,  I think it is something that requires a bit more work. Singapore generally tries to sustain the ethnic balance when it comes to taking in migrants. So if there's 70% Chinese, there should be eight to 10% Indians, and so on and so forth. The problem is this: local Chinese are not having many children nor are the local Indians. Now, if you want to maintain the ethnic balance you need to get migrants from China. But it's not easy to get top-skilled migrants from China anymore. Because they prefer to stay in China. They may not want to relocate. So you end up getting semi-skilled workers.  On the other hand, Singapore is still a top destination for very talented Indians with high incomes. So, this may irritate certain segments of the new Chinese diaspora as well. And so I think we might be seeing this play out a little as well.

C to I: Perhaps, we can end on that note with the hope that these incidents of overt racism, stay only aberrations …

Rajesh Rai: Definitely, we can hope for that and we can understand that. I would think that Singapore society is far more resilient and we are all people who feel deeply for these principles. People like me — third-generation Singaporeans with deep roots here – are very keen to push back against anything that is testing our multicultural way of life, our cosmopolitan city.