How to be an Ally 101: Responding to Institutional Racism

[Image Source: Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash]

By Aisyah Syahirah

The recent #BlackLivesMatter movement in the USA prompted many in Singapore to post petitions and raise awareness for the many injustices faced by the African-American community. While there is also much to unpack for the anti-Black sentiment rampant in the Asian culture in Singapore, this was also an opportunity to spark off and re-start conversations of our very own, locally-produced, made-in-Singapore brand of racism here.

As always, if you are a member of the majority confronting your privilege, talking about this will be uncomfortable, and it should make you feel that way. So, let us face the very real reality of racism in Singapore and examine how we all can work together to mitigate this sickness rooted in our beloved city-state.

[Image Source: Slow Factory Foundation]

Racism has many dimensions to it, as evaluated by the Slow Factory Foundation and Race Forward Trainings, which concerns structural, institutional, inter-personal/casual, and finally, internalized racism. However, in this article, I will be focusing on institutionalised racism, one that has been seldom talked about. While casual racism has been exposed aplenty of times and has been detailed wonderfully by my friend Dina here, institutionalised racism has yet to be confronted head on. Furthermore, if you are part of the majority race, there are some steps you could take in helping us dismantle this systemic issue.

How is racism institutionalised in Singapore?

Institutional racism could be defined by policies and practices that reinforce racist standards within a workspace or organization. This would be the hardest to eradicate, due to long-standing practices in the workplace. An extremely prominent example of this would be the statement by a minister that ‘based on [his] own experience of walking the ground and working with people from all walks of life, [he] doesn’t think that most of Singapore is ready for a Prime Minister of an ethnic minority’. This is despite the fact that a survey conducted by market research consultancy Blackbox in 2016 found that Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was the top choice among Singaporeans to become the next prime minister, with 69 per cent of almost 900 respondents indicating that they would support him. This would certainly raise a few questions on the validity of his comments.

While the above is an example from the highest office of this country, the regular folk on the ground persist in facing these same challenges too. The findings from Indicators of Racial Religious Harmony: Comparing Results from 2018 and 2013 had shown that large proportions of minorities (73% of Malays, 69% of Indians, and about 50% of Others) had felt that they had experienced discrimination when it came to applying for a job. On the other hand, only 38% of Chinese felt this way.

These discriminatory practices in the workplace can be insidious and extremely simple too – merely by insisting on needing a proficiency in the Chinese language would block access to the majority of the non-Chinese job-hunters. This is despite Chinese language not being a practical requirement or function to the job being applied for, such as tuition jobs which are being taught in English. But surely such explicitly discriminatory practices would be illegal, right?

No. Interestingly, Singapore currently has no official laws against racism in job adverts, and the only indication of disapproval of such practices would be the standards set by the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP). The guidelines set is that “Race should not be a criterion for selection of job candidates…”, and it is ‘strongly encouraged’ for employers to follow through with this. Otherwise, these guidelines are not actually legally-binding. Hence, being racially discriminatory in such situations would not, technically, be wrong.

I understand. But how can I help?

It is indeed difficult to grapple with such unpleasant realities faced by the minorities, and I admit such long-standing practices which have no place in our multi-racial society would take long to uproot. However, if you are part of the majority in Singapore, there is a lot you can help as an ally. If you happen to be an employer, even better!

Firstly, do not unnecessarily block access to job opportunities to minorities. For instance, if the job does not require a proficiency in Chinese, do NOT place out an advert claiming for it to be a requirement for the job.

Secondly, manage your workplace in a genuinely inclusive manner. As an employer you would have plenty of control over workplace practices, and it would help greatly to constantly be aware of implicit biases which may also shape your work culture. It would also help to be conscious of the cultural and religious differences between the different races. Such minute details in how the workplace is managed would make a great difference in how the overall work culture is shaped in being inclusive to all. What if this is too much for you to consider and you feel overwhelmed? Simply hire greater diversity in your workplace in order to ensure there are no oversights in how you consider your employees’, and even clients’, sensitivities. (How do you think the notorious brownface ad got approved by all parties involved in the first place?)

What if I am in no position to do so?

As an employee, it would be understandable if it is not in your capacity to do the above. However, do not underestimate your power to enact incremental change in how your workplace is being managed. Simple, but seemingly radical, moves may include increasing pay transparency amongst your colleagues in order to reveal any sort of unfair pay disparities, especially if your job scope is the same as theirs. This would likely hold management accountable and encourage greater transparency by them. Furthermore, if you see your fellow colleagues being unfairly treated or denied an opportunity based on any racial factors, or even facing casual racism, a simple call-out to those actions may help greatly in exposing such racist acts and increase pressure in correcting them.

To be clear, this is not a call for any sort of ‘saviours’ for the minority communities. This is a call for like-minded allies to stand with us and to wield your privilege effectively.

Upon seeing a slew of racist acts being exposed as being part of the reality of the minorities in this country, one might feel guilty and helpless. Instead, channel those feelings of outrage and guilt into a productive force for good. After all, it’s the difficult conversations that are worth having.