Singapore isn’t the global city of the future after all

What does it mean to be Singaporean?
What does it mean to be Singaporean?
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Years ago, I wrote about how I would search the library shelves of my New Jersey elementary school in the hopes of finding a character that looked like me in children’s books. One day my librarian handed me a copy of The Jungle Book. Though I had never revisited Kipling’s India—it wasn’t about the India my parents knew and loved or the India that I frequently visited on long, hot summer vacation—I remained an insatiable reader throughout my childhood and became a children’s book author myself, telling stories that I would have liked to have read as a young person.

Now, as a parent living in Singapore and raising a third culture kid who happens to be categorized as one of Singapore’s “official” ethnicities or “races,” I had expected my child’s journey of discovery to be easier than mine had been. Given that nearly 9% of Singaporeans and permanent residents trace their ancestry, wholly or in part, to the Indian subcontinent, I’d expected more visible signs and celebrations of Indianness. Moreover, Singapore touts its vibrant and diverse cultural heritage and has often prided itself on being a good example of multiculturalism at work, even though it is nearly 74% ethnically Chinese. So badly, I had wanted my child to experience diversity as I never had.

As I discover more books for young readers, though, especially of realistic stories set in Singapore, I cannot help but notice, and be saddened by, how few commercially-published fiction titles feature non-Chinese children as protagonists in realistic, contemporary settings. This speaks to a hierarchy of race that is wholly apparent to those of us who are not at the top. These books are peppered with the occasional non-Chinese Asian character, but these characters represent “diversity” only on a visual level. The characters hardly make it past their function as a visual supplement or plot device.

“Rarely are we people on our own with story lines not connected to Chinese people,” says Arya Sita Ramana, independent scholar and social justice activist who works on race relations.

“Only state-sponsored banners seem to feel obliged to dutifully represent the Singaporean in every shade,” writes Surekha A. Yadav in her widely-circulated commentary “Is Singapore a Racist Country?” that appeared in The Malay Mail in August. In it, Yadav writes of a “persistent and pervasive Chinese chauvinism” that often underlies Singapore as a nation.

“The Chinese identity… is the default identity,” she wrote. “If you aren’t Chinese, you need to justify your Singaporeaness, and even so, you’ll never be quite as Singaporean as a Singaporean Chinese.”

This chauvinism, dubbed as #ChinesePrivilege on social media, is the “systemic, racialized, and institutional privilege in the country as opposed to the countries’ minorities (primarily racialized as Indian and Malay),” writes Dr. Adeline Koh, associate professor at Richard Stockton College, in the provocatively-titled “To My Dear Fellow Singapore Chinese: Shut Up When a Minority is Talking about Race,” an essay on Medium. “[It] functions very similarly to white privilege in the United States,” she says.

And that white privilege, with which I am very familiar, also manifests itself here in Singapore. White characters often appear in titles I find in our library branch. Some books include Caucasian faces, but no discernable non-Chinese Asian characters. Others feature mixed race children—often part-Chinese and part-Caucasian. White expatriates, too, have their place on shelves here. Several titles feature American and European children exploring Singapore with abandon.

Admittedly books about Singaporean children and teens written by Singaporean writers are a very recent phenomenon. My friends here, of all races and ethnicities, tell me that they grew up on colonialist British literature, just as I did; “Crumpets, treacle, and ‘beastly,’” in their words. There are no official statistics as to the number of books for young readers published in Singapore, but Adan Jimenez, assistant director of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, a literary non-profit, and co-author of the middle-grade series, Sherlock Sam, says, “A total of 73 children’s and YA books were published in Singapore in 2013, nearly double the number of books published in 2012.” However, the rapidly growing industry has a long way to go before reflecting the country’s rich diversity of races and cultures.

While children’s books published in America continue to miss the modern diversity of the United States, a school librarian New York City, our home city, is less likely to hand my child Kipling than an enthusiastic librarian did to me all those years ago. My toddler has a shelf full of books about or set in South Asian America, many more than I had when I was only one of few South Asian Americans in my sleepy suburban town. I’ll admit I glow when she asks to read my book at bedtime.

My toddler loves spotting the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of her adopted home—the MRT, the botanic gardens, the hawker centers—in her “Singapore books.” But I recoil when I see no brown faces like hers as stars on the page, though she sees many brown faces at school, on the train, in the malls. Wouldn’t it be nice, I think, if parents, teachers, and librarians here had stacks of books to recommend to all young readers looking for their experiences reflected in the pages of a book?

There is certainly a need for such a conversation among readers and writers, but it is difficult to get it started. “One function of privilege is its invisibility,” says Ramana. “It functions so insidiously that both those who have it, and those who don’t, cannot see oftentimes how it works.”

“There are many social fault lines in Singapore, especially in terms of race and class,” says Kirsten Han, freelance journalist and social justice blogger. “Yet the official narratives, not to mention laws like the Sedition Act, of racial harmony and meritocracy have erased race and class from the public discourse, leaving us so uncritical of our own privileges that many Chinese Singaporeans are sincerely convinced there wouldn’t be much to say on these issues anyway.”