Is “Chinese privilege” at the root of racism in S’pore?

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Shrey Bhagarva’s unfortunate audition experience for a role in the Jack Neo movie, Ah Boys To Men (ABTM), has ignited a debate online. The views, on whether what he experienced was indeed racism on the part of the film producers, are split.

Some say it is just a movie, and a slapstick one, which Jack Neo is known for. As such, Shrey should have been prepared for performing exaggerations of racial stereotypes.

Others, however, see it as more insidious, that the film industry here is rife with racism, as is indicative from the lack of roles for non-Chinese actors and the stereotyped roles non-Chinese actors are asked to play.

The debate, perhaps inevitably, has veered toward the issue of “Chinese privilege”.

One definition of “Chinese privilege” says it “is a term used to describe the societal privileges that Chinese Singaporeans enjoy as compared to non-Chinese Singaporeans by virtue of their race. Similar to how white privilege operates in white-dominated societies, Chinese privilege can manifest as various benefits and advantages that may often go unnoticed by Chinese Singaporeans, such as the prevalence of Mandarin Chinese in the public sphere, access to better educational, political and employment opportunities, and widespread media representation of Chinese people.”

The following are two seemingly opposing views on the issue of “Chinese privilege”, sparked by the debate over Shrey Bhargava’s account of his experience at the audition.

The first is from Gregory Ng, a Facebook user, who posted – among other things – the following, explaining in his views the relationship between racial stereotypes of minority races and “Chinese privilege”:

“The fact is that the proliferation of racist stereotypes allows Chinese people in Singapore to continue feeling comfortable with our racial privilege.

“Racist jokes fool Chinese people into believing that there are no structural issues that need solving; that the socioeconomic problems experienced by the Malay and Indian community are of their own doing. And so when we laugh about Malay people being lazy, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the high rates of poverty and unemployment in the Malay community, all the while limiting their education and job opportunities so that we might have more for ourselves.

“When we joke about Indian people being inassimilable foreign workers, it stops becoming an issue that they are denied housing, work, and cultural representation because of their race – since, we believe, they don’t really belong here, and we somehow do (even though we are not the Indigenous people of this country!). Claiming that there is truth behind racist stereotypes allows Chinese people to cast off any guilt for having the racial privileges that we do not deserve. It allows us to invent a kind of cultural and social amnesia; a short-term memory where we continuously forget how we have oppressed and still oppress other ethnic groups in order to ascend to and maintain power in all areas of life in this country.”

Is Mr Ng’s indictment of the “Chinese people in Singapore” an unfair broadbrush of all “Chinese people”? Are they all such ignorant, even racist people?

It would indeed seem an unfair characterisation of the whole, based, apparently, on the example of one experience.

In fact, some “Chinese people”, as Mr Ng described them, do not agree with Mr Ng.

Indeed, some find the term “Chinese privilege” itself unhelpful in resolving such issues.

Such a term, and the idea, cast non-Chinese as victims, said Mr Donovan Choy, another Facebook user.

He said:

“The term itself is intensely loaded. It implies that (1) Chinese individuals have enjoyed entitlements due to their birthright that minorities did not enjoy; (2) Chinese individuals should be silent or hang their head in shame when minorities speak; (3) minorities could have “had more” if they weren’t oppressed and victimised by the Chinese.

“You may challenge my interpretations (1), (2) or (3); it is what I have taken away from most of its adherents.

“These suggest to Chinese that their lives, occupations and achievements have been or are to some extent devoid of personal merit. You are making the argument that Chinese folks possess “privilege”, likened to that of a possession, that minorities do not possess. Of course some Chinese individuals will take offence – there’s no way that they wouldn’t.”

“Instead of teaching those who have been on the receiving end of racism (and likely still face them on a daily basis) to hold their heads up high by instilling them with pride, what “Chinese privilege” does instead is to teach those who are already marginalised by their race to soak in a sense of victimhood and feel sorry for themselves i.e., fostering the crutch mentality. Some of the “Chinese privilege” adherents (not all) even go as far as to champion why X race is superior or inferior to Y race.

“Would that it be fine if it only robbed them off their pride, but teaching someone to be a victim also teaches them that there is an “enemy”, an “oppressor”, and that they are the cause of your shortcomings in life. This is precisely the type of bitter rhetoric that has been marshalled by countless populist politicians, creating divides and rifts among people in the process.”

Is “Chinese privilege” the problem which leads to racism? Or are there more complex causes of racism in society? If one day “Chinese privilege” is removed, will racism automatically disappear?

Is “Chinese privilege” at the very root of racism in Singapore?