“Racist, or Just Culturally Insensitive”: Why Not Both?

Since the PA's high-profile misstep regarding a Hari Raya standee several weeks ago, we've witnessed the debate turn into an intractable tug-of-war between those who saw it as "racist", and those who didn't. It’s clear, however, that both sides of the debate understand the term somewhat differently, and it’s these understandings I attempt to unpack here.

[Image Source: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash]

By Joel Tan

What does racism look like? When is something racist, and when is it not?

These questions have once again come to the fore following what appears to be a simple matter of organizational oversight: the People’s Association’s (PA) usage of Ms Sarah Bagharib’s wedding photo as a decorative Hari Raya standee, without her and her husband’s consent. Beyond the obvious intellectual property violations, the PA alleged that Ms Sarah had also accused them of being “racist”, which it swiftly denied. Various parties have since weighed in on the situation: some agree that “racist” is too strong a word and that those fueling the outrage are “opportunists”; while others retort that the incident is “part of a larger issue that impacts the Malay-Muslim community”. 

While the dust appears to have settled and public attention has since moved on to more pressing issues, we’re no closer to answering the aforementioned questions than we were the past several times similar cases made the news. And when even Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam says he is “not so sure” of Singapore’s progress regarding racial harmony, the message is clear: race cannot be something we talk about for a few weeks after someone does something offensiveit has to be a constant, growing conversation.

To be clear, the point of this article isn’t just to keep the conversation going for its own sake. It’s also to clarify a core issue not many have explored: what the word “racist” actually means. Though many have made do with pedantic dictionary definitions in order to support their takes on the situation, I believe it’s far more important to ask: what do the PA and its supporters mean when they say it’s “not racist”? Likewise, what are Ms Sarah and her fellow advocates actually asking for, especially now that the PA has already offered an apology? Having received no adequate answers to these questions, I’ve sought to dive deeper into this issue, in the hope that my efforts bring you a little more clarity.

Racism: What’s it to you?

“What exactly is racism,” you might ask; “isn’t it when you deliberately discriminate against someone or cause them harm because of their race?” This is the common dictionary definition that many (including one of Ignite’s own writers) go by. From that point of view, it’s difficult to see the PA’s oversight as racist. After all, there was no clear evidence of intentional unfair treatment of a group on the basis of race, just an oversight stemming from a lack of knowledge about Muslim customs (the intersection between race and religion is another issue entirely that is sadly beyond the purview of this piece). 

It’s abundantly clear, however, that both sides of the debate understand the term somewhat differently, and it’s these understandings I attempt to unpack here.

While the PA asserts that its error was “certainly not racist” without further explanation, it does take pains to emphasize the accidental nature of the act, describing it as a “mistake”, “lapse” or “error”. The belief that such actions should be judged on their intent is echoed by some, most notably by Suhaimi Yusof, who was quoted as saying: “if [the PA] had deliberately done it to degrade or humiliate…I would be angry” and that “the intention is important”. This lack of intent to harm remains one of the most common defenses of the PA; it didn’t mean it, it said sorry and therefore, it has done enough.

Apart from intent, scale also factors into this informal understanding of racism. The term “racist” is used to refer to not only to individual acts of discrimination, but also wider patterns of unequal treatment such as discriminatory laws or policies. Accordingly, the PA’s statement describes its oversight as an “isolated incident” that isn’t part of any such patterns. 

The assertion that the incident was “culturally insensitive” carries a similar connotation; the root of the issue is nothing deeper than a simple lack of cultural knowledge among a few staff members, which the PA said it’s aiming to remedy via the establishment of a cultural “resource panel” as well as “[stepping] up training efforts” in its statement on June 14. And as far as the PA is concerned, this is where the story ends.

“Why does this keep happening?”

So when did Ms Sarah accuse the PA of, as highlighted in their statement, being “racist”, “blind to racism” or “perpetuat[ing] racist culture”?

Short answer: technically, she hasn’t. Well, not directly. 

Writer Alfian Sa’at located the original context of the lines the PA took issue with and argues that Ms Sarah never explicitly labelled the PA or its staff members as racist. The line “perpetuate the racist culture” came an Instagram story by psychologist Dr Jean Cheng that Ms Sarah had shared, where Dr Cheng talks about Chinese Singaporeans’ ignorance of the existence of racism in Singapore.

The statement by psychologist Dr Jean Cheng, which Ms Sarah shared. [via MustShareNews]

In another Instagram Story, Ms Sarah stopped short of directly classifying the issue as “racist”, but did mention it in the same breath as “other racist attacks and incidents that have been filmed”.

Ms Sarah’s mention of the word “racist” in her socials. [via MustShareNews]

Nitpicking over what she did or didn’t say, however, is not the point of this article. In fact, Ms Sarah lays out her intentions pretty clearly in her interview with academic Walid J. Abdullah. Throughout the conversation, Ms Sarah discusses the broad struggles minorities face in a level-headed, inclusive manner, and I strongly encourage you to give it an honest listen as I have. Nevertheless, what we’re especially concerned with here is this: where do Ms Sarah and her fellow advocates believe the problem lies, regardless of what name we give to that problem?

The problem, Ms Sarah says, is that incidents of “cultural insensitivity” towards minorities are far from new. In the episode, she raises up several examples: in 2020, former MP Lee Bee Wah (who is Chinese) was called out for her habit of wearing the traditional Malay baju kurung and the Muslim hijab for Hari Raya celebrations (while practicing Muslim women working in the public service remain barred from wearing the very same hijab at work, in the name of “secularity”). The year before, an advert featuring Chinese actor Dennis Chew dressed up as several minority characters — with Mr Chew’s skin tone artificially darkened to match — was widely condemned as “insensitive” and “in poor taste”, something none of the involved parties had apparently noticed before it went public. And this year’s unprecedented spate of aggressions targeted at minorities — cases of verbal and physical abuse — should need no introduction.

Against such a backdrop, is it unreasonable for Ms Sarah to see a connection between what happened to her and a long history of similar incidents? She questions in the interview: “…the fact that it happened again shows that there wasn’t much reflection done, I’m not sure what are the processes in place that this is still happening”

“Insensitivity” goes beyond the headline-making incidents mentioned by Ms Sarah, beyond countless anecdotes of “insensitivity” raised by minority netizens and mixed-race couples, beyond seemingly innocuous jokes about not being able to see certain people in the dark. It extends into the workplace, where perceptions of discrimination among minorities have continued to increase over the past several years; into the justice system, where Malays constitute a disproportionate segment of the prison population; and into the education system, where only about 10.8 per cent of Malays graduate from university, compared to 34.7 per cent and 41.3 per cent for Chinese and Indians respectively.

With all this in mind, Ms Sarah’s question is this: why? Why are incidents like the PA’s gaffe still happening, year after year? Are these really all “isolated”, or are there underlying structures and processes we should re-examine? 

Specifically, she asks for “greater tangible accountability”, posing the following questions in the aforementioned interview: “What are the next steps [the PA] will take to make sure this will not happen again?”; and further, “what are the policies that are in place”, since in spite of them, the incident was still able to occur?

Or as this gentleman eloquently puts it: “…one time, two time can; three time [or more] cannot!”

The extent of the problem becomes even clearer when you consider that racial harmony is the PA’s core purpose and mission. Says Ms Sarah, “…the very fact that this happened by a government agency that was established for the very purpose of establishing racial harmony and building social cohesion in Singapore is really not acceptable.” To put it in perspective, consider how people reacted when the Ministry of Manpower failed to ensure adequate, safe living and working conditions for foreign workers. Widespread calls for thorough investigations into existing processes, and efforts to trace the chains of events that lead to each lapse, came in due course. Is it not unjustified, then, for Ms Sarah to be asking for the very same thing in this instance?

Moving beyond the R-word

In short, there appears to have been a disconnect between what Ms Sarah had asked for and what the PA and its supporters have understood. 

From the latter’s perspective, there was no hostile, racially-charged intent behind the incident; it was an isolated incident arising from mere ignorance, and steps were taken to address that. Despite this, to the PA, Ms Sarah continued to accuse it unfairly of malicious discriminatory behaviour.

Ms Sarah’s message in her interview, however, paints a vastly different picture. Apart from the three lines quoted by the PA, she hardly even uses the word “racist” in the episode, or applies that label to the PA or any individual staff member — because the issue might run far deeper. In spite of ample safeguards supposedly in place, an organization dedicated to fostering cross-cultural unity neglected to display “cultural sensitivity”. The affected parties have rightfully asked: “Are your current processes enough? How are you going to do better?” Strangely, neither the public nor Ms Sarah appear to have gotten answers. Apart from a general affirmation of the need for more “training programmes”, the PA does not seem to have explained its current processes, or where exactly they failed.

I’d like to focus on three key points here. Firstly, “racist” is usually taken to refer to standalone malicious actions, when it often goes far beyond that. Certainly, PA staff being unfamiliar with traditional Malay dress seems like a small issue on its own. But we have to remember that actions do not take place in a vacuum; they are seen, allowed, maybe even enabled by other people and systems. How many rounds of approval did the standee go through, you may wonder? Why was the oversight not spotted before it went public? Would a minority perspective have pinpointed the oversight early, and if so, why was such a perspective seemingly absent? Following this line of questioning, we can see how a seemingly “isolated” action might point to larger issues. 

Secondly, it is clear from the interview that Ms Sarah is far more concerned with advancing the conversation rather than obsessing over the intent behind the incident or who is to blame. The issue of whether the PA meant any harm is only mentioned briefly at one point by Mr Abdullah before the conversation moves on — after all, systemic issues often still cause harm despite everyone involved having the best intentions. Rather than blaming any single party, too, she affirms that “issues that minorities face…are a Singaporean issue” in which “we should all play our parts”. Further, she spends far more time making constructive suggestions on what the PA can do going forward, for instance by “recognizing their position of power, to create safe spaces for not just minority communities but all of Singapore to talk honestly about race”. 

Thirdly, some have argued that, regardless of whether Ms Sarah had a point, she exercised an “unrestrained license to weave narratives without evidence” that could deepen fault lines in society. That might have been the case, had she unequivocally declared that the PA and its staff harbour hostility toward minorities. Yet, the tone she employed throughout her correspondences was questioning more than accusatory — and a mature society should be able to make room for honest, well-intentioned questions. Further, the question at the heart of her advocacy — “can your processes be better?” — is a fair question that the PA could’ve explored during its intended meeting with Ms Sarah. If the answer was found to be “no; our systems are watertight, we’ve done enough”, that would’ve been that. The PA would’ve had every opportunity to defend themselves against what they say are “the views and comments of persons unrelated to the incident”. And yet it cancelled this meeting, though it may well have benefitted from it as much as Ms Sarah.

Talking about racism is difficult, tiring, and scary; I can’t pretend otherwise. Minorities who’ve been hurt by the unthinking actions of others, by policies and practices that are defended on grounds of being expressions of “preference”, constantly fear being told they’re “too sensitive” or “sowing discord”. Members of the majority, such as myself, might shy away from even asking why certain things are offensive, fearing the eternal bogeymen of “the woke brigade” and “cancel culture”. Throwing the R-word around without understanding it, I believe, has only entrenched this divide. 

Amidst this, it’s important to keep in mind that often, the word “racist” is simply an injunction to think about the circumstances and conditions that allowed a particular behaviour, even if done completely unknowingly, to occur. Rarely is it meant to accuse any particular person or group of harbouring deep-seated racial hostility, or to sow discord in society. As Ms Sarah says in her interview, “this isn’t a majority vs minority issue, this is a Singaporean issue.” In the end, we all want the same thing, “…that we set all races up for success, not just one community over the other.”