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The Social Psychology of Racism in Singapore.

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

What are people's perceptions on this topic in Singapore, and how passivism is contributing to the ongoing dystopia.


I'm sure we are all aware - there have been a recent slew of public displays of racism infecting our country.


I watched the video of the red polo-shirted Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer in absolute disgust. As a country made up of people who mostly shy away from making a scene in public, I couldn't help but wonder what drove this guy to publicly proclaim his malformed beliefs to an unsuspecting inter-racial couple walking along the street.


Some commentators say that mental health might be a contributing factor. That's just speculation at this point. Making fore-drawn conclusions about people in the absence of more evidence isn't helping anyone, and it's not something I believe we should be doing.


What we certainly can conclude as of now is that his racist remarks, as well as those made by any other person in our little country, will negatively affect the mental health of the person targeted with racism.


It's traumatic, bullyish behaviour.


Yet, know this too, these are not just standalone attacks on a single individual. They are also attacks against the integrity of our entire community, fostering us-against-them patterns of thinking. It's not a good thing for the collective mental health of our society.


Are these cases seemingly unconnected? Or are they a result of what's silently breeding in the depths of our society? Here's the juice.



Research on Racism in Singapore.


Racism by definition refers to any prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity.


Leave no room for doubt, the adverse consequences of racism are well-documented.


At the individual human-being level, research has found a strong link between self-report of being targets of racism, and corresponding effects on both mental and physical health, such as stress and fear.


Beyond the individual, racism also clearly functions at the level of our society. Whether you want to believe or not, racially-based job discrimination is still very much alive in our country.


This was illustrated in an interesting recent research by Dr. Peter Chew at James Cook University (JCU) in Singapore.


He ran an experiment with 171 undergraduates in 2019, giving them the task of evaluating the resumes of various job applicants. Inherent in the resumes are, of course, qualities of academic qualifications, work experience, personality, as well as race.


The outcome? Chinese participants rated Malay applicants as less competent, less suitable for the job, and deserving of a lower salary than other equally-qualified Chinese applicants.


On the flip side, Dr. Chew found that these same participants discriminated in favour of White applicants, seeing them as more suitable for the job and deserving of a higher salary compared to equally qualified Chinese applicants.


Think racism is a thing of the past and only spoken amongst the older generations? No, they are very much apparent in our youths too my friend.


Half of Singaporeans do not believe that Racism is an important problem currently.


I chanced upon this survey conducted amongst 2,000 Singaporeans in 2016. It might be five years old, but five years is hardly enough to change pervasive beliefs at a community level.


The findings are good and bad - here's an infographic for you below.



I structured the sequence in hope that you can recognise inconsistencies between what people think and what they do.


For example, 90% of Singaporeans think multi-cultural values were important, but 26% are basically self-declared racists. Nearly half have negative opinions about other races when it comes to friendliness or violence. Another 50% say that racism is no longer a problem, but 60% say they've heard a racist comment recently.


You don't have to be a mathematician to see that the numbers don't work.


What's actually quite alarming is the last two research findings - 65% don't want to hear about racial issues in Singapore, they think it causes unnecessary disturbance and should be swept under the carpet and hidden out of sight.


On the other hand, even though 60% of Singaporeans have heard a racist comments, seven in ten people will simply ignore it, and not say anything back.



If I had to be perfectly transparent, I too have been guilty of quiet ignorance before.


We are not an outspoken country. Any public or one-to-one confrontation with a stranger is frowned upon and avoided if possible. When we meet people we don't know too well, as a population, we are much more likely to be agreeable.


Racism has different intensities. One way to distinguish them is by the intent of the racist comments we might hear. Some comments come from a friendly nature, where amongst a group of diverse friends, we make use of stereotypical differences to oddly bring about a sense of closeness.


Other comments are malicious in nature, like the ones made by the red-polo shirted guy. They are aimed to hurt, criticise, and breed more racism.

Just the other day, while I was volunteering as a befriender, I sat and listened to an uncle ranting on about how he hated individuals from another country. For some reason, I just listened. Not saying anything, not acknowledging, but not disagreeing either.


It was an odd situation, I was meant to be there as good company. I might have given him the company, but was I actually doing any good by silently validating his beliefs?


Even when faced with the such malicious racist comments, why do we so often not say anything? Is it the fear of confrontation? But if we don't make the effort to confront, then who will?


Well, I wonder if this is the collective thinking:


"I sure don't agree with you, that's racist. But it's not my problem to deal with. Someone else will".



Passivism - the factor contributing to racism in our Country.


A Stanford psychologist released a paper last year that identified seven factors contributing to racism in the states.


Some of the factors we are well aware of - including:

  • The fact humans split themselves in categories and factions.

  • That social hierarchy and power imbalances between majority and minor groups will spurn ill will.

  • That the representation of racial groups in the media, including youtube and social media, impacts public perceptions.


It's his last and final factor that I found most striking in the context of our country - Passivism.


Passivism is the overlooking of racism and the act of being passive about racial inequality. It's ignorance at scale, maintained by the false beliefs that racism is no longer an issue in our country.


This also includes continuing to be blind to the subtle discrimination, like those in the job application experiment above. It also involves seeing news reports of racist behaviour as the work of outlying individuals.


Yet just look at the statistics above again, and you will know racism persists beyond the isolated cases reported in our media. Beyond the sensational, there's a silent monster crawling and breeding underneath.



Closely linked to Passivism, is the social psychology phenomenon of the bystander effect.


Technically, the Bystander effect is the phenomenon where in a distress situation, the more people there are present, the less likely they are to help.


Just imagine a guy who decides to make a racist rant on our public transports. All of us sit there in our seats, thinking, someone should stop him, but yikes, not me. Let me take a video to upload on social media instead.


Sure the above scenario might be a little scary, as who knows if it might escalate to something violent. Yet the bystander effect also extends to what happens in our daily situations.


Faced with a racist remark made by an acquaintance, colleague or a random uncle or auntie, we choose to stand aside because it's not our problem to deal with.


Someone else will, or, aiya maybe it's just this person only.


We've all become bystanders in the topic of racism, leaving it to our government and its policies to deal with. We carry on our lives in willful ignorance, watching the video of the red polo-shirt guy in disgust, yet laugh it off when we hear a racist comment by a neighbour.


"Haha, yeah. I guess that's true lah", we might reply to avoid confrontation.


What's the outcome for us as we choose to ignore? Well, maybe nothing. But what do our actions breed - Validation of racist behaviour. And maybe one day you might be surprised to find that same person on the media, having their turn at being in the national spotlight.


All when you could have simply said something, especially if you truly believe in it.


"Hmm, I really don't agree with that. Do you mind if I shared my thoughts about it?"



Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. I hope you found this article helpful in our ongoing debate about racism. Be accepting. Be kind.

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