The racist reality of house-hunting in Singapore: “Sorry, your wife is Indian”

No room.
No room.
Image: Reuters/Tim Chong
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Last year, when Darius Cheung, co-founder of a property search portal, wanted to rent a house in Singapore, he met with many reluctant real estate agents. Many of them seemed interested at first, but would turn him down later. He found out why when one realtor gave him a rather shocking response: “Sorry your wife is Indian, (the) landlord won’t rent to you.”

Indians who have spent some time in the city-state know that they aren’t the first choice as tenants for many landlords, though Chinese people from the mainland have it even worse: they are said to be the least preferred by Singapore’s property owners.

That was evident from a quick search with the keywords “No Indians, no PRC (People’s Republic of China)” on two property websites. Gumtree.sg turned up 29 announcements with these words and PropertyGuru showed 63.

On the face of it, this would seem to be evidence of racial disharmony in a country where the government imposes a harsh penalty on instances of racial prejudice. But many see the discrimination in the rental market as an expression of the clash between the old and the new—the discomfort of the country’s long-time citizens with the influx of foreigners in the multi-ethnic, wealthy country.

Who are the Indians?

“There is discrimination against all South Asians, even though the listings often specify ‘No Indians,’” said Cheung, whose search engine 99.co introduced a new filter in July—All Races Welcome—as part of its “Regardless of Race” campaign. This drive aims to encourage agents and landlords in Singapore to indicate that their rental listings are open to all, regardless of the “ethnicity, background, or nationality” of potential tenants.

In Singapore, “Indians” is a catch-all term for all those perceived to be of South-Asian descent. For instance, a BBC report in May 2014 described how an immigrant of Sri Lankan descent searching for a home was rejected outright by several landlords for being “Indian.”

The prejudice against Indian tenants may spring from the stereotype that they are unsanitary and leave rented properties in a poor state. For instance, in July, The Independent, an online news platform in Singapore, reported that a departing Indian family left behind a dirty home, besides defaulting on the rent and other bills.

“Stories like this circulate and create a certain impression about a community,” said Ravi Philomen, a Singaporean of Indian descent who is also a human rights activist and a member of the opposition Singapore People’s Party. “There are similar stories about the Chinese from the mainland. It is said that the Chinese fail to get along with neighbours in government housing” blocks that have common areas.

Even American and British citizens of South Asian and mainland Chinese descent are often rejected by Singapore’s landlords, the BBC reported.

“These are some of the experiences in a society where people of different nationalities, each with their own world views and cultural prejudices, live in close proximity,” said Philomen.

Old and new

Singapore has many second or third-generation citizens of South Asian origin who are often referred to as “locals.” Most of this old South Asian population are descendants of early immigrants who migrated generations ago, in the 1800s, from the Indian subcontinent, primarily from south Indian states (Tamil Nadu, in particular) and from what is now Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Since the mid-2000s, thanks to changes in immigration policies, Singapore’s foreign population has boomed. In the first decade of the 21st century, the country’s non-resident population accounted for 25.7% of the total, in contrast to 18.7% in the previous decade, according to a 2012 report by the Migration Policy Institute.

The population of permanent residents grew at an average of 8.4% a year between 2005 and 2009. By contrast, the number of Singaporean citizens grew at a modest 0.9%.

Even though the annual growth of permanent residents fell to 1.5% in 2010, the government’s immigration policies have sparked concern from some locals who complain that the country’s infrastructure is inadequate for the growing population. Chinese and Indian nationals, being present in large numbers in Singapore, often evoke disquiet.

As per 2015 estimates, “Indians” comprise 9.1% of Singapore’s 3.9-million strong resident population, which includes both citizens and permanent residents. The total population, including non-residents, is 5.53 million.

Racial harmony, a government initiative

Some Singaporeans think that when those perceived as Indian and Chinese are rejected in the housing market, it tends to be an expression of the local population’s discomfort with foreigners’ lifestyles and habits.

“This [discrimination in Singapore’s housing market] is not a matter of racial prejudice,” Philomen said.

After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the government initiated proactive ethnic integration policies, such as a minority quota in government housing, to ensure the peaceful co-existence of different races.

For instance, July 21 is celebrated annually as Racial Harmony Day.

Philomen said the government’s racial integration policies largely succeeded in controlling sentiments of racial prejudice in Singaporean society.

In 2011, when a Chinese family, which had moved to Singapore recently, objected to the smell of curry emanating from the premises of their Indian neighbours, it resulted in an online furore. Many Singaporeans—the majority of whom are ethnically Chinese—rebuked the insensitivity of the Chinese family and hailed curry as an integral part of Singapore’s multi-racial culture. Netizens even created Facebook groups to celebrate cooking “a pot of curry”, according to AsiaOne, an online portal of Singapore Press Holdings.

However, even though the relationship between the country’s main racial groups—Chinese, Malays, and Indians—appears cordial on the surface, incidents of racial prejudice against minority groups are not completely unknown, as this report in the Straits Times notes.

In 2013, for instance, the accidental death of a South Asian labourer in Little India, who was run over by a bus, led to a riot in which property was damaged and more than 60 security officials and civilians were hurt. Though the riot was not race-related, racial slurs against foreign workers were hurled online in its aftermath.

The discrimination in the rental market comes with a caveat. Real estate agents say landlords’ reluctance in renting out to South Asians and other ethnic groups is less common in Singapore’s upscale properties. “This is a much smaller issue as you go towards luxury apartments of $10k rent per month and above,” said Cheung.

The over-supply of housing and the vacancies in the rental market are also expected to alleviate landlords’ racial prejudice. The search portal 99.co observes that 2016 has been a tough year for Singapore’s rental market, with vacancy rates hovering at around 8% and rental prices sliding.

“We have seen the number of ‘All races welcome’ listings rise from zero to over 2,500 [as of the end of July] since we launched the campaign,” Cheung said.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.