Racism in Singapore
I already talked about it in my article about my visit of Singapore. This city-state, located in Southeast Asia, is very different from the neighboring countries. Either the culture, the standard of living, or even the odd rules you have to follow there. Therefore I was quite disoriented, sometimes surprised and constantly with my eyes wide open while visiting the country. But there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting at all : racism in Singapore.
I’m getting used to hear people telling me that I’m living in my own little bubble where I think everybody’s nice, and sometimes that I have to come back down to earth (this remark mostly comes from black people). People also told me the fear of racism when traveling is warranted, unlike the article where I was explaining that as a black person, you can go wherever you want to if you use your common sense and if you take the necessary precautions. But honestly here… I have to admit it, racism in Singapore does exist and is present.
But just before going into more details, you need to know something. After leaving Singapore, I wasn’t like “They’re all racists here, it’s crazy!“. Actually it was only a few weeks later, in the Gili Islands, while I was telling my misfortunes to a French girl who lived in Singapore for a year, that I started telling myself “What happened to me there, and all the stories I heard, this is too much and definitely cannot be just mere coincidence…“. And that same (white) French girl dropped the bomb I didn’t dare to admit to myself “It’s sad to say this but… Yeah, after living there for a year, I can tell you they’re racists in Singapore!”
I thought it was useless to clarify this but I have to anyway, given the topic we’re talking about… I’m not tarring the 6 millions inhabitants of Singapore with the same brush, and those who follow/know me already know I’m not the kind of guy to see racism everywhere (by the way my article about fear of racism when traveling caused me several remarks, people were telling me it’s all well and good to travel off the beaten path, but we don’t always live in a world of Care Bears, and traveling while black is not that easy!). Anyway… what happened? Why am I talking about racism in Singapore?
I went to Singapore from Malacca, Malaysia. A 5-hours bus ride with a quick stop at the border. The bus was full with backpackers, travelers, and also Malay who were going to work in Singapore. We reached the border and we all hopped off the bus to go through customs, a mere formality. I mean… a mere formality for the whole bus… except for me, the only black person! They literally broke my balls! “Hey you! On the side!” Then they asked me how long I was going to stay there (“Just for a few days“), why I was coming here in Singapore (“Tourism“), and a customs officer asked me to follow him in a room a little bit further.
I’m used to be inspected at the customs, and to have customs officers in front of me spending more time lingering over my passport (it happened in Ukraine, in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh, damn even in Vietnam…). But here… They treated me like a nonentity. They asked me to show them my onward ticket but I didn’t have one. I knew I wasn’t going to spend more than a few days in Singapore, but I never know exactly how long I’m going to stay in a country. I like it? I stay. I don’t like it? I’m outta here! This is when they started to panic, and they bombarded me with questions!
First they wanted to see my hotel reservation, then they asked to see my money “Do you have money? Show us your money, we want to see it!“. But they also insisted to see my credit card, and they spent a looong time with my card, scrutinizing it four inches away from their faces (I have to admit the scene was funny, five customs officers staring at a credit card…). Then they made a few phone calls, asked me 15 times “Where do you plan to go after Singapore?” and they asked one more time if I was coming here for tourism, not to find a job! “Guys, you have my hotel reservation, my credit card and you just saw I have money… I’m not going to move in Singapore, the cost of living is very high and as you can see with all the stamps on my FRENCH passport, I’m traveling! I’m not going to stay here!”
I think my comment hit the nail on the head, because five minutes later, they let me go “All right but how do I do to reach the city now? All the other passengers of the bus left the border more than a hour ago, the bus is probably not here anymore…” In an aggressive tone, they said “Wait for the next bus passing by!” “Yeah but I have a ticket for the morning bus, I don’t know if the driver of the next bus will be able to pick me up…” “Just explain him what happened!” “But what if the bus is full, like the one I was in this morning?” “Wait for the next one then!” Great… I’m stuck at the border, and I don’t know how long I’m gonna have to wait for the next bus. It’s gonna be very complicated to leave here…
I left the border irritated… And I spotted my bus!!!!!! Still here!!! I wasn’t expecting to see it at all! I ran -with my backpack and everything- waving at the bus so that the driver could see me! And I hopped on the bus! I thanked the driver profusely and as I was looking for a seat, the whole bus started applauding me 😀 “Yeaaah! You made it!“ I thought I was going to see annoyed people because they waited for more than one hour just for one guy, but no. The atmosphere was relaxed (as I said, there were mostly backpackers in the bus, the kind of people not really in a hurry!).
Since the atmosphere was relaxed thanks to/because of me, I took advantage of the opporunity to ask the other ones “Hey guys! Did they ask you to see an onward ticket?” “A what?” “An onward ticket, to prove you’re not going to stay here…” “Hmmm no!” Actually, no one. Except me. No onward ticket, no hotel reservation, no cash, no credit card. In the bus, there were mostly people from France, from the UK, from Germany and from the Netherlands, all white. They all went through customs serenely, unbothered! We started to make jokes about racism in Singapore, basically saying it probably doesn’t exist. Not possible in Southeast Asia. And we finally made it to the city center! I thanked the driver one more time, an Indian guy, and he said “Haha no worries. I knew it would take a lot longer for YOU to go through customs…”
I found out later there’s a real facial discrimination at the customs there. To them, black people are drug dealers (cf. screenshot below)! A Dutch girl I met in Brunei told me that her Moroccan boyfriend, who was crossing the border with her, was detained for two hours and a half in a room, while she crossed the border with no objections! Wow two hours and a half! When I think about it, the hour I spent there, that was nothing compared to him! Anyway, they took his fingerprints, and they were 15 (really, 15!) customs officers questioning him… When he said he was crossing the border with his girlfriend, they asked to see a picture of the girlfriend in question. When they saw the picture, they said “Why would a white woman be involved with somebody like you?” I don’t know how I would have reacted… The worst part is, later on, when the Dutch girl was telling what happened at the border to the locals, they were like “Oh but it’s normal, your boyfriend is probably black right?”
There’s also this (white) French girl who spent a year studying in Singapore. She told me they were about 20 students coming from France, going through customs at the same time. All the passports were stamped within minutes… except for the two black guys who were detained in a small room for several hours. They were almost sent back home (although they had all the papers to prove they were coming to study!).
Anyway, I made it to my hostel. The manager wasn’t there, so I put my backpack behind a desk, and I had to wait for her to do the check-in at the end of the day. A few hours later, as I was in the common area, the manager arrived, sat down behind her desk, and then shouted at me “You’ll have to pay me TONIGHT when you have a moment!” “All right, give me ten minutes” Eleven minutes later… “You said ten minutes! Come and pay right now!” The other travelers started looking at her, a bit surprised by her brusque tone. I stood up to pay…
In fact, I had already paid directly online on Booking when I booked the hostel, and that’s what I told her once I was just in front of her “No, it’s not true! You didn’t pay, you have to pay now! You didn’t pay! If you don’t believe me, call Booking but pay me!” I managed to prove her she was wrong, I did pay online when I booked a bed. But I also foolishly asked her if it was possible to stay one more night in the hostel (I found a cheap flight, but it meant staying longer than expected in Singapore!) “No you cannot stay, the hostel is fully booked! No more beds available for you! You’ll have to leave and go somewhere else!”
All right… I was like “Nah this can’t be true“, since the hostel was almost empty! A (white) American girl told me she heard everything and said “I just asked her the exact same thing a few minutes ago and she said yes without batting an eye. She was a lot nicer to me. And smiling!” I checked online, yeah there were availabilities… Actually a lot of rooms and beds were available! At first I was like “I won’t give one more penny to this bitch!” but I reconsidered the situation… And I booked one extra night online. After three nights there, I left the hostel at noon, saying “Byyye!” to the manager… and I came back two hours later with a bright smile on my face for my second check-in! 😀 You should have seen her face! That was sooo funny! Oh and needless to say, unlike what she said, the hostel was definitely not fully booked!
I was explaining it in my article about my description of Singapore, in this country about 75% of residents are of Chinese descent, 13% of Malay descent and 8% of Indian descent. You get it, most of the inhabitants are Singaporean Chinese, and racism towards minorities (Malays and Indians) is a sad reality. Malays are discriminated against, but it’s even worse for Indians. Especially to find a job. There’s this Malay girl who couldn’t get a job because of her descent, those parents who didn’t want their child being taught by an Indian teacher, and all those Indians who struggle to find a job there.
Cause… yeah, in Singapore, you can hear stupid shit you never thought you would hear in Southeast Asia “There are too many foreigners here, they’re stealing our jobs!” That’s what someone said to the Moroccan guy, who wanted to buy a local SIM card (he couldn’t get one, they did refuse to sell him the SIM card!), although his white girlfriend could buy one with no objections… I really don’t get it, Singapore wasn’t even a country a few decades ago, and people who live there ALL come from different countries.
Apparently, Singaporean Chinese don’t like Chinese from mainland China either. They found them dirty and noisy (ok this is not entirely false…), and they call them PRC (“Please Return China“). So many problems related to ethnic origins in such a small country, I wasn’t expecting it… The three main communities don’t really mix but they manage to live together without too much difficulty, even though there are tensions sometimes.
However, the governement makes an effort and tries to make the locals forget about racism in Singapore. Racial Harmony Day takes place every year on July 21st in Singapore. It’s a day to reflect on and to celebrate Singapore’s success as a racially harmonious nation, no matter your descent. Most activities are organized by grassroot organisations, religious groups and schools. Students in schools across the nation are encouraged to be dressed in other culture’s traditional costumes. Why this thing? In 1964, there was a violent racial riot in Singapore (when it was still part of Malaysia), between Chinese and Malays. 22 people died and hundreds were severely injured. That’s what brought the independence of Singapore forward, and now they try to forget this dark page of history.
The initiative is good but in fact, racism in Singapore is still present… There’s another issue -not affecting Singapore only but many countries- but in the media, minorities (Malays and Indians) are not represented at all. That was one of the main criticisms against Crazy Rich Asians, a movie taking place in Singapore. It was a great idea to release a movie with an exclusively Asian cast, but there are no Indians nor Malays in the movie, although they’re numerous (and visible!) in the country.
I was thinking about all those things, as I was eating (alone) at a restaurant in Little India, not far from my hostel. I had compassion for the Indians. Quite ironic when you know my stay in India didn’t go without a hitch! And I remembered what a local girl told me “People say Little India is dirty, dangerous, and you shouldn’t hang out there. But honestly, you traveled a lot, you already have your reflexes to anticipate risky situations, so you shouldn’t have any problems. To be honest, it’s mostly an urban legend. I go there every now and then, I never had any problems” Me neither, apart from the hostel mishap 🙂
I finally left the country, heading to Kuta, Indonesia, after spending four days there. This time, it was really fast. They don’t even stamp your passport! It’s automatic with a device! You scan your passport, your boarding pass, and they take your thumb’s fingerprint. Without human intervention! In the following weeks, I heard other stories about racism in Singapore. Of course, they’re not ALL hostile to foreigners, there are nice and open-minded people for sure. But the customs, the hostel, the microaggressions and sly remarks… didn’t make me wanna go back. I spent some time with a local girl (I met her in Bangladesh), and thanks to her, my stay was better. They’re not all bad there. When I think about it… The local girl has been living in Singapore for a few years, but she’s from Kuala Lumpur…
Have you ever been to Singapore? If you’re black/dark skinned, did you face racism in Singapore? Or on the contrary, everything went smoothly? Let me know!