The Convenient Racist

The big news on the international stage is the choice of Ms. Kamala Harris to be the Democratic Party’s choice for Vice-President. Ms. Harris, who is currently the junior senator from California will be the first “woman of colour” (her father is black Jamaican and her mother is Tamil) to be on any primary ticket. Of the four running for office this November, Ms. Harris stands out as something refreshing (the other three being crusty white men) and she’s helped electrify the campaign with Donald Trump calling her mean (she won’t sleep with him) and she’s made the elections interesting beyond America’s borders: [LINK]

While Ms. Harris has proved herself to be a capable politician in her own right, the truth is that she was chosen because of her gender and bi-racial roots. The Biden Campaign’s strategy in choosing a “woman of colour,” is obvious. If the Trump-Pence Campaign is all about getting old white men out to vote, the Biden-Harris campaign is going to be about getting women and “people of colour” to vote.

Ms. Harris isn’t the only politician in the world to be “helped” by her gender and race. Like it or not, the world is simply not colour blind and what you have between your legs counts when it comes to the polling booth. As much as we like to think of ourselves as “progressive” and being blind to colour and ethnicity, we’re not. It took America, the land that gave us a constitution based on individual happiness and liberty took more than two hundred years to elect a man who was slightly darker than pink (and let’s not forget his mother is white) and then promptly reversed that by electing his successor who decided that America needed to be more White than White and while it’s taken two hundred years to elect someone darker than pink, America has more famously never elected a woman to be president or vice-president (by contrast, the more “sexist” societies of the Muslim parts of South Asia have put four women into power).

People generally like people they are comfortable with. Unfortunately, comfort usually means people who are most like them and in a democratic society that happens to be ethnically and religiously homogeneous, leaders tend to look pretty much like the rest of the electorate. However, in diverse societies, the politics like business becomes a question of target markets. In American Presidential Campaigns, a presidential candidate looks for a running mate who can compliment him (most of them being men). The most striking example being the young and black Obama choosing an old white man called Joe Biden.

If the divisions in a society are particularly deep, you might find a case of certain political offices being reserved for certain communities. In Lebanon it was understood that the President would always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament being a Shia Muslim.

Singapore did have something similar in its presidency. Lee Kuan Yew states very clearly that he needed to show the government in KL that a Malay could rise up in Singapore and so he chose Yousof Ishak to be Yang De Pertuan Negara (Malay for Head of State, a title conferred on the Malaysian Sultans, though Ishak was to be a non-Royal head of state. The title was changed to President once we became an independent republic).

In our early days it was understood that the Presidency would be reserved for ethnic minorities as it was understood that as the Chinese were the majority, it was more than likely that the government and Prime Minister would be Chinese.

The rationale for reserving the presidency for ethnic minorities was clear. This was to preserve ethnic and religious harmony and it was a valuable symbol for ethnic minorities.

However, by 1985, it was obvious that the government felt that race was no longer a thorny issue and Mr. Wee Kim Wee (obviously ethnic Chinese) became our President. Then towards the end of Mr. Wee’s term, the Presidency moved from being about racial harmony to being about looking after our savings. The Presidency became an elected office in its own right (even if two Presidents have had their elections fixed).

The evolving nature of our presidency should be the story of our progress in race relations and this was a government that felt the need to reserve the head of state role for ethnic minorities. This is a government that is known to read the ground and plan carefully. So, when Mr. Wee Kim Wee was appointed to be President in 1985, they must have felt that it was no longer necessary to reserve the office for ethnic minorities because our race relations must have improved.

Singapore’s government also acts tough of “racist” or “acts that disrupt racial harmony.” I, like many Singaporeans grew up with the message drummed into our heads that racial harmony was something special.

Yet, while successive Singapore governments have done so many right things in the name of promoting racial harmony, they’ve also been playing the “race card” in a rather ingenious way.

The first step was to return the presidency to being about race and the rather clumsy attempt to arrange the winner (fix being an ugly word). The most embarrassing moment came from our Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr. Chan Chun Seng, who said “An Indian Muslim is a Malay,” which any half-educated Western Expatriate could tell you is not true. The nicest thing you could say about the Ministers comments is that our management of race relations must have been so successful that he couldn’t tell the difference between an Indian Muslim and a Malay.

One has to question why the government felt it was necessary to play the race card with the presidency when it had felt it was no longer necessary to do so back in 1985. Are we to say that race relations have worsened in this supposedly more “liberal” age and if the rights of ethnic minorities has become worse or at least so much so that you have to make the presidency about race again, what does that say about the government’s management of race relations since the 1980s?

Instead of having a candidate that could appeal to all (Malay, Muslim Lady), what we got was a presidency that lost its legitimacy before it even began.

The other point of convenient racism came when the party kept insisting that “Singapore is not ready for a Chinese Prime Minister.” This is despite the fact that the most popular member of government happens to be from an ethnic minority. While, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said that he’s not interested in the job, one has to ask which part of Singapore is not ready for an ethnic minority to be Prime Minister when the Senior Minister is considered a “dream candidate” for so many.

To make matters worse, the newly appointed “Leader of the Opposition” or leader of the only other party to win seats happens to be an Indian. If the electorate is willing to support “non-Chinese” party leaders, where does the government get the idea that the nation is not ready to be led by a non-Chinese? Is the government still stuck in the politics of the 1960s while the electorate has moved on?

A government that has worked so hard to create a society that is “regardless of race” has to understand that it cannot no longer micromanage race relations or impose yesterday’s fears on today’s population. Talk to many local Chinese and you may find that they’re more comfortable with their Tamil and Malay buddies than they are mixing with Mainland Chinese. You need to address current issues rather than dig up old wounds. When the incident with Ramesh Erramalli broke out, Singapore’s Tamil population sided with an old Chinese security guard rather than with their “own kind.”

When the electorate gives a party led by an Indian more seats after you’ve said that they’re not ready for a “Non-Chinese” Prime Minister, the message is clear – Stay Out of Race Politics.”


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




7 Responses to “The Convenient Racist”

  • xoxo:

    In truth,there are ONLY 2 RACES /KINDS IN SG,peoPLE ane PAPple?
    In the larger context,there are 2 RACES/KINDS OF PEOple,THE PEASANTS N THE RICH N POWERFOOL$?

    WHY MUST PEASANTS fight each other?

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  • opposition dude:

    The thing about PAP is that they aren’t so good at playing the race card anymore. Remember PAP doing or saying the following below?

    Meritocracy. What a dirty word it is now used by a dirty party. It’s meritocracy on Monday then the president MUST die die be malay on Tuesday. Steady right?

    Your race CLEARLY stated on your IC. Why the need to tell people your race, your name alone cannot ah?

    CDAC, Sinda and Mendaki. Why so special need to split the 3 main racial groups up for assistance ah? Are we not SINGAPOREANS? Does the pledge not say REGARDLESS OF RACE, LANGUAGE OR RELIGION?

    And lastly, who can forget one dead founder’s statements on a malay officer in charge of a gun battalion? Or that malays do not makan together with other races?

    The PAP is the only one with the fear of the bogeyman, they are the ones who hanf onto 1960s thinking. Without using their brains they just come right out and say the older chinese are not ready for a non chinese PM. Wah lan eh, what kind of a stupid political party can do something THIS dumb? As if the older generation chinese call the shots for everything ah? What about the younger generation chinese as well as the other races, their opinions are simply brushed aside and do not matter?

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  • Inconvenient Truth:

    Tang Li, the question of “Non-Chinese” Prime Minister was brought up by certain quarters and you should study in-depth, which? Obviously, it is not so simple as you envisaged.

    Looked at the recent aggressiveness and many instances of racist attacks. Who are they. If you haven’t been sleeping on your blog, please read back on these issues. We are already infiltrated by them in our workplaces I wouldn’t want ‘them’ to have a PM of their own color.
    Please do your research well. Politics isn’t what you made it up to be. There is more than meets the eye. It involves another big country politics and dominance. Not that simple. THINK!!!!

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  • TUMASIK Patriot:

    Kamala is there to DRAW the Black Votes away from The TRUMP


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  • Alamak!!:

    Ms. Kamala Harris is in the right place and at the right time.
    Would not be surprise if White House will become Kamala Villa !!

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  • Yoda:

    The American MSM touted her as “the first african-american” to be chosen to run as vice-president”.
    Look at her – she’s whiter than Nancy P!

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  • No Problem:

    “Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” – Deng Xiaoping

    The American MSM touted her as “the first african-american” to be chosen to run as vice-president”.
    Look at her – she’s whiter than Nancy P!

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