By Loraine Lee
If you watched Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Chinese speech during the National Day Rally 2021, one thing stuck out like a sore thumb.
“It is entirely baseless to claim that there is “Chinese privilege” in Singapore,” said PM Lee, based on the Prime Minister Office’s English translated transcript.
Although there is much uproar about his statement that “Chinese privilege is entirely baseless”, PM Lee affirmed that the Government has stayed impartial throughout its 56 years of nationhood. He also added that the Chinese community has given up much for racial harmony.
However, I’m afraid I have to politely disagree that Chinese privilege is “entirely baseless” despite his explanation that none are granted privilege explicitly by the Government. While this may anger some, the conversation around privilege, even if not created intentionally, is necessary in Singapore.
Chinese privilege is a term borrowed from western culture, implying that the Chinese have an advantage over other races because of their race.
The term, however, can be problematic.
As noted by NUS Associate Professor Daniel Goh during the Forum on Race and Racism in Singapore on Jun 25, if used as a blanket term without proper context, Chinese privilege will “revert to the same kind of racism and racialisation that we do not want”. However, he adds that the concept of privilege in Singapore is important and should be discussed.
The debate between the terms “majority privilege” and “Chinese privilege” is for another day, and so is the attempt to really define what privilege is, but I will use the term “Chinese privilege” in reference to the advantage the Chinese get in Singapore based on their race throughout this commentary.
Intention doesn’t make it baseless
One key point of PM Lee’s statement behind his dismissal of Chinese privilege? Intention.
“When drafting our laws and administrative measures, the Government was impartial and did not favour any race,” PM Lee said, emphasising that this has been the norm since the early days of nation building.
Because the Government has never had the intention to give the Chinese community additional privileges, hence Chinese privilege is “entirely baseless”.
However, not having any intention doesn’t mean it is baseless. Rather, it’s simply just, not intentional.
While these may not be the intentions of the Government, certain laws may have created the side-effect of Chinese privilege.
Take SAP schools for example, which were introduced to preserve the then disappearing Chinese-stream schools. However, these schools have become known as elite schools that only offer Chinese as a mother tongue, and are accused of promoting Chinese elitism.
There is also the CMIO framework, which has given the Chinese priority because of their race and majoritarian power. Its application for housing through the Ethnic Integration Programme, for example, has made it often difficult for minorities to buy and sell public housing.
While CMIO may have come with good intentions to encourage racial harmony, it has unintentionally afforded the Chinese an additional privilege based on race.
The Chinese have made sacrifices — but so has everyone else
In his speech, PM Lee said that the Chinese community has made concessions to achieve racial harmony. Indeed, the Chinese community lost Nantah, a Chinese university built on the backbones of the Chinese in hopes to retain its culture.
There’s also the sad reality that most youths can’t understand, let alone utter anything, in their dialect. The Chinese have become homogeneous, losing their heritage and ancestral roots in China.
As PM Lee addressed in his speech, “We adopted English as our lingua franca, to put the ethnic minorities more at ease. The use of English put those who spoke only Mandarin and dialects in a disadvantageous position.”
This, and much more, were lost in the pursuit of multi-racial harmony, as PM Lee mentioned.
However, other minority groups in Singapore have also made sacrifices as well. For one, their own version of SAP schools have disappeared over time.
Tamil is also the only official mother tongue for Indians, despite there being a range of other languages in India such as Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati.
These sacrifices in the name of racial harmony and cohesion are just the tip of the iceberg — so perhaps Chinese privilege should not be seen as non-existent because of their sacrifices.
Who was the speech really for?
The matter of fact is that this speech is not targeted at youths like myself. It’s targeted to the Chinese who set foot on this island with nothing on their backs in their heyday and built what we call home today.
It’s the elderly, older Chinese folk — those who are a part of the Merdeka and Pioneer generation. The ones who have made all those sacrifices mentioned earlier, and more.
Some struggle to communicate with their grandchildren, who are bananas (slang to describe Chinese people who can only speak English) who can’t understand their dialect, let alone utter a sentence in fluent Chinese. To be told that they have any form of privilege when they are feeling marginalised would be, understandably, shocking for them.
But yet, we should not claim that Chinese privilege is entirely baseless.
While they may have sacrificed much, there are still privileges that Singaporean Chinese have compared to other minority Singaporeans.
And if we wish to be able to continue calling ourselves a multi-racial society, we need to acknowledge this privilege and strive towards equality.
Singapore has been taking more steps — PM Lee announced that nurses will now be allowed to wear their tudung and plans to propose an act in parliament to enforce racial harmony during his speech.
However, these steps taken will do little if we do not address the concept of privilege, let alone acknowledge its existence.
As the term Chinese privilege gets thrown around in light of the rally, it’s a good time for us to have a proper discussion about racial harmony and privilege, for a brighter future.