Tiong Bahru Hari Raya standee incident: ‘Perpetuate the racist culture’?

I have to say upfront that I am invested in this, having been on the receiving end of smear campaigns constructed out of selective quotations.

In a statement released by the People’s Association yesterday, it was alleged that Ms Sarah Bagharib had accused them of being “racist” for putting up that infamous Hari Raya decoration. Predictably, online debate is now raging over whether or not it was “racist” or *merely* “culturally insensitive” (spare us the semantic hair-splitting, this reminds me of assertions that someone is not a “racist” but only a “race realist”). Point number 3 of that statement says:

“However, Ms Sarah has shared claims that this incident “perpetuate the racist culture”. She characterised this incident as “racist”. In her interview with Walid J. Abdullah, she also insinuated that our staff and volunteers did not find anything wrong with the standee as they might be “blind to racism”.

One of the things that aroused my suspicion was how short the quotes were. I think if you wish to build a case against someone it is always important to be able to reproduce what they said in full.

1) Scanning through PA’s statement, one would be forgiven if one thought that Ms Sarah was the one who made the claim that what PA did “perpetuate[d] [a] racist culture”. But she was actually sharing something someone else had written, a female Chinese clinical psychologist who wrote:

“This whole thread is written with much labour, can we Chinese Singaporeans please appreciate the labour and educate ourselves on our conditioned racism? It’s long overdue towards our friends in minority communities who have to put up with our ignorance–which continues to perpetuate the racist culture that hurts them.”

Crucially, it does not say that putting up the decorations “perpetuate[d] racist culture”. It says that it is *ignorance* that does this.

2) On that point that she had characterised the incident as “racist”, this was what she said:

“allyship plays a big part in promoting true racial harmony–one that goes beyond “racial tolerance”. i am so, so grateful to allies who have used their voices to stand in solidarity with razif and i, and ethnic minority communities, in the aftermath of this incident (and other racist attacks and incidents that have been filmed).”

She did not directly say “this racist incident”, and neither did she say “and other similar racist incidents”. Talk about missing the point. I think Ms Sarah has been at pains to assert that all Singaporeans, and not just minorities, are stakeholders in the issue. Hers isn’t some kind of minority grievance whose aim is to indict an entire majority community.

Of course the people at PA would want to distance themselves from “obvious” racists like Beow Tan, Tan Boon Lee and the gong lady. Because the model of “racial harmony” that they’ve been operating on would not recognise that something is racist unless it “disrupts” harmony–which is to say if someone or something is being a public nuisance. And thus pleading “cultural insensitivity”–otherwise known as “racism that is not tantamount to public nuisance”.

3) That last bit about about “staff and volunteers” being “blind to racism”. I listened through Ms Sarah’s whole interview with Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah and couldn’t find it. What I found instead was this, 9 minutes from the end. Walid jokes with her about whether she’d have a teh tarik with Melvin Yong (the MP on the banner) and she replies:

“There was a light-up event, at Tiong Bahru arcade, where the standee was as well, and I wonder if he saw it? There was a light up Hari Raya event, at that very stage. With his face, and the kampung thing, coconut tree and all of it. So I wondered if he saw the standee, what he thought about it. If he did, and he didn’t say anything, or think twice, to think that something was wrong about it. If I had teh tarik with him then I’d like to know if he did see that. And if he did, and he didn’t say anything about it, then something is definitely wrong, right?

And I think there was a comment there (on Instagram live) as well about internalised racism which…”it is what it is”…we’ve been so conditioned to think in a certain way…that there’s nothing wrong with this because people are colour blind, or blind to racism at play. Or there’s nothing wrong because it doesn’t impact them.”

There was no mention of PA staff or volunteers. It’s a stretch, but maybe she was questioning whether the MP had noticed that something was wrong–and it’s important to underline that these are questions, not accusations.

I’d recommend that everyone listen to the interview on Instagram at @walidj.abdullah. If you don’t have IG you can watch it here.

What struck me was how articulate and composed she was throughout, sometimes with a twinkle in her eye, often a determined set in her jaw–and my guess is this was why PA chickened out. There’s often talk about how “racial harmony” is supposed to be a work in progress, but I often wonder whether the emphasis is on the “in progress” part than the actual work.

Because for me, one of the most important work is dialogue–real dialogue with those on the other side of the aisle, not stage-managed ones of vetted questions and screened guest lists. I dream of the day when PA can have a dialogue with Ms Sarah, or when Zaobao editors can have one with the scholars who wrote in to them on their coverage of racial issues. It’s a dream that’s entirely within reach.


Alfian Sa’at


* Article first apperared on the writer’s Facebook page.




12 Responses to “Tiong Bahru Hari Raya standee incident: ‘Perpetuate the racist culture’?”

  • I had been conned:

    Thank you for the real information.

    Give some people a pineapple, and they claim you have given them a bowl of rotten rojak with mouse droppings.

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  • Auntie say Ng TUC:

    It’s preety easy to accuse the majority race of being racist to get your way. If people care to observe, most races are racists.

    The Chinese have to hire the token Indian and Malay so to avoid being branded as racists. But you see certain companies only one race.

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  • xoxo:

    I grew up eating mee-pok,roti prata,mee rebus and pasta and,at 65,i am still eating n enjoying them.

    I revere LKY’s colleagues like TOH CHIN CHYE, Dr Goh,Rajaratnam,Yusof Ishak,Benjamin Sheares,E W Barker and others like Hon Sui Sen and they are all Singaporeans,not by mere words or by their deeds n sacrifices.


    As for me,i am getting not to able to *recognise* our Singapore.
    Maybe its my *eye sight*.
    Am i seeing things or folks out there are also seeing what i see?

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  • liew mun leong must be jailed:

    since 2017 when pap threw away the Singapore Pledge and played race politics, Singapore today is a place where everything is racist.

    there are many subtle points in the above statement.

    1, before 2017, we believed in the Singapore Pledge. race was something we write on our IC. not something we care about in our daily lives. there was no racism before 2017.

    2, in 2017 when pap played race politics, we did try to tell pap it is a very slippery slope to indulge in. worse we realized after the whole event that pap wasn’t only engaged in race politics, pap was actually lying. pap said Singapore needed a malay president and proceeded to appoint an INDIAN one. what a lie.

    3, less than 5 years after 2017, practically anything everything is racist. unemployed after a job interview? racist. losing an argument in TRE? racist. pap caught lying? racist. didn’t get the pay rise? racist. cannot get into SAP school? racist.


    a, we know firmly after 2017 that pap lies. so anyone today who speaks for pap is by association a liar.

    b, because all kinds of legitimate decisions, when not to the liking of anyone, is classed as racist, we do need to stop and not judge too fast when someone is labeled as racist. after all, it may not be a racist case at all but just someone unhappy with any decision invoking the shocking racist practice of pap to gain face.

    c, honestly, if not for pap racist policy, the INDIAN can be president of Singapore over against esteemed Chinese Dr Tan CB? surely she ain’t qualified even to stoop down and untie his shoe laces. if not for pap racist policy in politics, the few malay pap MPs in pap parleement today any chance to be in pap parleement against wonderful smart educated Chinese WP PSP candidates? surely nil chance.

    so the race lid opened by pap sure as sunrise is pointing clearly why pap has dug its own grave.

    we are not racist. we just stopped believing in the Singapore Pledge which pap destroyed in 2017.

    BTW if lky is muslim, is he a malay by pap definition?

    after all, an INDIAN muslim is classed as a malay by pap.

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  • opposition dude:

    Did Ms Sarah actually say that the cut outs of her and her husband used in the Hari Raya thing were racist? If so then it’s shallow minded of her. Wedding clothing used for a new year celebration is a mistake, I can’t see how this is racist or am I missing something obvious?

    Of course the PA can’t be let off scot free since they are the ones who made the mistake. The PA didn’t say which staff were responsible for this oversight so whether it’s ignorance or not we do not know.

    Hari Raya clothing should have been used and perhaps a family cut out too since it’s families visiting each other.

    An equivalent of this would be the PA wishing all chinese a happy new year but used pictures of a traditional chinese wedding instead.

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  • Asd:

    I think can understand how the couple felt life size duplicate face curved out their very special moment in life omg super scary horrifying to have done such an act

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  • Asd:

    I think the people’s association has lost it’s way

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  • Asd:

    I think this is racist and horrible thing to do

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  • Support you:

    Ya. Very inauspicious. The body is there but the face is gone. So horrible.

    Who dare to do the same to a wedding picture of pee-am?

    I think can understand how the couple felt life size duplicate face curved out their very special moment in life omg super scary horrifying to have done such an act

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  • Spineless Sinkie Syndrome:

    Good write-up by Alfian.
    I don’t deny that there is always some level of “racism” by the White Monkeys and their ilk like the PA ballz-suzkers.

    Witness once again, how “White Monkeys” can have obviously “racist” policies arbitrarily and hurriedly implemented for the “erected” President, but then claim similar Sinkieporeans’ actions are “culturally insensitive”.

    Typical of White Monkeys playing with semantics again, like between “ponding” and “flooding”? lol.

    Anyway, whether this incident is deemed “racist” or whether the photo depicts a Malay wedding and not Hari Raya may be all intentional DISTRACTION tactic used by the PA.


    If PA had not gotten permission, then Ms Sarah can SUE them for damages.

    The same logic applies if you make use of a photo of LHL to make some poster also, right? You will likely get sued by LHL if you use his photo likeness to sell say condoms or women’s panties, yes? lol.

    PA is obviously just trying to make Sarah “appear” to be overly “sensitive” and use “race” card to make her look bad via the “court of public opinion”; when PA knows they are the one in the WRONG for not seeking permission, before they anyhow use other people’s private data.

    I’d like to see Sarah & husband sue PA soon and give them “White Monkeys ballz-suzkers” a taste of their own medicine. There is no point to argue semantics with “White Monkeys”, just SUE them and see them fumble. lol

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  • hornet nest can be stirred:

    //Did Ms Sarah actually say that the cut outs of her and her husband used in the Hari Raya thing were racist? If so then it’s shallow minded of her. Wedding clothing used for a new year celebration is a mistake, I can’t see how this is racist or am I missing something obvious?//

    aiyoh. just put it this way ? you do not know why and when a hornet nest can be stirred ?

    for example, one may say something not appropriate, and out of a sudden he gets a sucker punch ?? a disproportionate reaction ?? but it does not matter anymore, the damage is already done ???

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  • Asd:

    I think the couple will be mentally tormented for the rest of their life especially on every hari raya will remind them that their face was “carved out” and their expensive once in a life time bridal wear is actually very commonly worn by those who put their face their to photograph

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