story | Kan Ren Jie, Staff Writer

photo | Rachel Juay

My first encounter with the privileges I enjoyed as a Chinese Singaporean was when I was about to enter Primary School. There were two schools within walking distance of my house, but my parents chose one over the other simply because: “This school seems more Chinese.”

I must quickly clarify that my parents are not racists; over the years, it was my parents who taught me to respect people of different ethnicities. Yet as I consider the concept of Chinese Privilege today, my parents’ offhanded remark stands out as a striking example of privilege: the privilege of choosing a school by virtue of it being a comfortable environment, where I was supposedly part of a “majority” within it. I could only vaguely remember my parents’ words: what other instances of privilege have I ignored?

Thankfully, a few other instances of privilege stand out in my mind. I remember complaining about how “sian” I was of the food from the six stalls in my Junior College school canteen, and then feeling that subtle pang of shame when I saw my Muslim friends queue up at the single halal food stall. And more recently, I found myself talking to the Chinese colleagues in my previous workplace in Mandarin, oblivious to the fact that I was excluding my Malay colleague who was sitting nearby. What other instances of Chinese Privilege have I been painfully unaware of?

Desiring to understand more about my own privilege, I attended a talk by Sangeetha Thanapal, an activist and writer, at the Cendana Rector’s Commons on Jan. 18. Thanapal is known for coining and popularizing the term “Chinese Privilege”, and is planning to write a book on this subject. At the talk, Thanapal explained that she was initially inspired by Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness” among non-white Americans. She found that non-Chinese Singaporeans also struggle with a similar “double-consciousness”: the struggle to maintain a non-Chinese racial identity in a society of “Chinese supremacy.” A society that celebrated Confucian ‘Asian’ values and gave a special place for the teaching of Chinese culture in certain schools, all at the expense of other cultures.

As such, Thanapal highlighted the daily struggle of non-Chinese Singaporeans in her blog, which collects stories of microaggressions in daily life. Reading through those stories of exclusion, discrimination, and sometimes outright racism made me realize how the notion of privilege has been normalized in our society. I see these stories about Chinese privilege echoed in my Chinese friend complaining about being one of the few Chinese in the Singapore Civil Defense Force during his National Service, itself symptomatic of a larger pattern of systemic discrimination. And above all, I see privilege in how I came to believe that I am entitled to such privileges; that such privileges are normal and right. To me, that is truly frightening.

Because of my privilege, I viewed my Malay neighbors with suspicion; as we grew up together on the same floor, I always felt that the gap of ethnicity was too wide to cross, regardless of whatever ethnic integration policies the government threw at us. And because of my privilege, I grew ever so enchanted and convinced by the dominant narrative that my academic achievements were solely my own, without realizing that the deck was stacked in my favor to begin with.

Indeed, the concept of Chinese Privilege strikes at the core of Singaporean society, complicating our utopian belief that this is a land of meritocracy and multiracialism. It is thus fitting for the tentative title of her forthcoming book to be: “Chinese Privilege: Dismantling the Myth of the Singaporean Post-Racial Utopia.” Understanding my own personal privileges has led me to realize that I cannot truly claim that my successes are entirely from my effort. They arise from that unfair contribution of larger, inexplicable forces, like being part of a majority racial group. And so, the iron-clad narrative of meritocracy falls apart.

There is a still lingering suspicion of “counter-narratives” in Singapore, with attempts to challenge or refine the “Singapore Story” still viewed with hostility to this day. Thanapal experienced much vitriol for her remarks; Law Minister K Shammanugam threatened to lodge a police report against her, and fearing incarceration, is now based in Melbourne, Australia. Yet her writings still serve as excellent testimony to how the well-protected “Singaporean Story” cannot carry us any further. We cannot stop at stating that Singaporeans in minority groups are “insecure” and “naturally sensitive” (as former Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo has written) without acknowledging the root causes. It is not enough to assert meritocracy without recognizing privilege.  

Perhaps we all need to take a step back and listen more humbly to the counter-narratives, without holding on so tightly to the utopia. Only a cold dose of reality, the same that I have experienced, can allow us to progress towards the very same ideals.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to:

Correction: Originally, this article stated that Law Minister K Shammanugam had sued Sangeetha Thanapal. It has now been corrected to reflect the fact that Mr. Shammanugam changed his mind after meeting with Ms. Thanapal.