Confronting Chinese privilege in Singapore

While not as prevalent as White privilege in The United States, Chinese privilege in Singapore exists in insidious forms.


SINGAPORE – Insensitive racial comments made by radio DJs of Kiss 92 FM in January and Night Owl Cinematics (NOC)’s YouTube video controversy in April earlier this year has shed light on the micro-aggressions faced by minorities in Singapore, ignorance about them, as well as Chinese privilege.

The Kiss 92 FM DJs had commented that the Chinese are unable to sleep as much as Malays and Indians because they have “to send their kids to school and leave early for work” while Malays and Indians “work less and go out and party”, gaining criticism online for the racist remark. Kiss 92 FM later on apologised in a Facebook post.

NOC had released a YouTube video concerning make-up for the US music festival, Coachella. In the video, the NOC members criticized each other’s make-up, with one commenting “she look like she’s attending Deepavali”, which drew flak for being racist. NOC has since taken down the video and apologised.

These incidents have sparked discussions about race in Singapore, with many focusing on Chinese privilege and how it could be attributed to ignorance about minorities. Sangeetha Thanapal was the first person to propose the idea of “Chinese privilege” in Singapore. In an interview with b2o, she revealed that the term was coined when she realised that she could replace the word “White” with “Chinese” in a paragraph about white privilege in the book Beloved Community: A World Without Racism, and that the result suited a Singapore context.

“By virtue of being Chinese in Singapore, you start life at a higher place compared to minorities.”

– Indian Singaporean activist Sangeetha Thanapal in an interview with Vice

In a Vice article, Cher Tan writes compares her Chinese privilege to Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack” concept where advantages may seem less obvious as it forms a part of the daily life of the privileged. She also mentioned her Indian friend, Eden, who had been bullied for his physical features when he was young, and as a result, used to “[believe] that there was something inferior about [him]”.

Beyond bullying, Chinese privilege can also extend to other aspects of one’s life such as job hunting. Rachel Yap posted on Quora, sharing that she noticed her two Indian friends had difficulty finding jobs, often being told that Chinese speakers were required or preferred. They had also been rejected by hiring companies with the reason being cited as the office having a majority of Chinese and that they did not want to make Yap’s friends “feel left out.”

Origins of Chinese privilege in Singapore

Millennials of SG mentioned that the prominent articles about Chinese privilege have largely attributed Chinese privilege to People’s Action Party (PAP), claiming that PAP is responsible for the nation’s notion of Chinese culture being greater than the others.


The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had commented, “Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no way you can govern a Chinese society.” While the statement was a reply to his political opponents, the use of the phrase “Chinese society” has been interpreted as disregard for the other ethnicities in Singapore. There have also been other controversial statements made by Mr Lee which further support Chinese supremacy in Singapore and led to stereotypes formed for the minorities.

“We could not have held the society together if we had not made adjustments to the system that gives the Malays, although they are not as hardworking and capable as the other races, a fair share of the cake.”

– Mr Lee Kuan Yew

PAP’s implementation of the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) for Chinese-stream schools also led to these schools becoming “well-funded, upper-class monocultural institutions,” while other schools are deprived of these benefits. The nationwide “Speak Mandarin” campaign beginning in September 1979 has also been taken to reflect the government’s prioritisation of the Chinese language above other ethnic languages.

Heightened awareness of Chinese privilege in Singapore

As pointed out by Vice, the issue of Chinese privilege has started to gain traction in Singapore, with Channel News Asia (CNA)’s coverage of casual racism in Singapore, and an increase in online discussions about race. Thanapal told Vice that now, “minorities are more willing to publicly speak about it.”

This can be evidenced through the debate on Toggle’s apology for Shane Pow’s blackface skit, where members of the public dismissed Toggle’s statement regarding the incident as non-apologetic.

Renowned online persona Preeti Nair mentioned in an interview with Popspoken about the existence of casual racism in mainstream social media.

Dee Kosh, another Singaporean personality, went on to Twitter to express his thoughts about ignorance on race in Singapore, replying to one user that “ignorance is part of the Chinese privilege problem”.

CNA also released a documentary on perceptions of race in Singapore.

According to Vice, Thanapal thinks that this is beneficial in addressing racial issues in Singapore. “Two years ago, I was supposedly a kook on the internet. Now, state media is producing TV programs using a term I invented. That’s real progress in bringing racism in Singapore to public light,” she told Vice.

Opponents of Chinese Privilege

However, there are those who dismiss the idea of Chinese privilege for various reasons.

Donovan Choy took to Facebook to express his thoughts on the concept of Chinese privilege. He noted that while there is a need to put an end to certain negative comments towards minorities, the notion of Chinese privilege enables the minorities to play victim, pushing the blame to the Chinese. Choy also says that this is regressive and would end up in an “oppressor” versus “victim” situation which ends up “creating divides and rifts among people”.

He concluded that in order for Singapore society to make progress, its people have to think of themselves as individuals rather than being defined by collective groups.

“The sooner we think of ourselves not in terms of Chinese or Malay or Indian, and more as individuals, the sooner we are taking the right steps of progress.”

– Donovan Choy in a Facebook post

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