While many Singaporeans seem blasé about racist jokes, others feel we should know where to draw the line.


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“How come you’re so light-skinned for an Indian? Are you sure you’re Indian?”

“Why can’t Malays do Math? Because you can’t count on them.”

“What’s the worst thing about breaking up with a Chinese? Every other Chinese looks like your ex.”

Passed off as friendly teases, such tongue-in-cheek comments are part of everyday life in multiracial Singapore.

Many see such joshing as a form of socialization if the remarks are made in good humor among people who know each other well.

“It’s one of the ways that can get people together and let people bond together,” said Mr Ng Zheng Han, an undergraduate from Singapore Management University (SMU).

He added that it’s generally acceptable among his peers when these racial slurs are used in a self-depreciating way. For instance, it’s fine for Singaporean Chinese to mock at their own race, but less so if they were to spout racist jokes targeting another race.

It’s all the more important for the majority race in the society to be more culturally sensitive than their minority counterparts, who are likely to have been subjected to more racial slurs, said Mr Divian Nair, a former 987FM presenter who’s of Chinese and Indian descent.

“I get jokes about it (my mixed parentage) all the time,” said the founder of the “We Are Majulah” national unity campaign. The 29-year-old was speaking on the topic of race relations at the Cross Cultural Symposium at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

“A lot of subtleties are easily swept aside by the majority because they don’t feel it every day … What they fail to realize is that the minorities go through this every single day,” Mr Nair said as he cautioned that even casual jokes can be “damaging” to one’s confidence, especially for members of the minority, who tend to be have been exposed to racially derogatory comments more frequently.

Echoing his sentiments, Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s visiting lecturer Matthew Barnard said racial slurs can be “harmful and upsetting”. A good-natured ribbing can be fun, but “there are better ways to make friends than telling jokes that imply the teller is better than the other person simply because of their skin color differences,” he said.

A recent study commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies also found that more Singapore residents (58%) think it’s unacceptable to make jokes about another race in the company of friends. 2/3 of the respondents (66%) are also against labeling certain racial groups as ‘dirty’, ‘lazy’ or ‘money-minded’.

Weary of the labels often associated with her skin color and race, Ms Aleysa Shaeba John said the best way forward is for Singaporeans to have open and deep discussions on the topic of race. The more we avoid the “very touchy subject”, the less aware we are, the 19-year-old said.

“This is the reason why these kinds of jokes keep happening,” said the Singapore Management University undergraduate, “People don’t realize that it’s insensitive.”

Additional reporting by Constance Goh




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About the Authors:

Yuan Xiu Lim



If you meet Yuan Xiu on the streets, don’t be offended if she doesn’t say hi. Most likely, she’s lost in her own world dreaming. Again. Her wildest fantasies include becoming the President, or having 10 kids and 2 dogs. Preferring the warmth of her bed, Yuan Xiu only steps out of her house when bribed with free food and movies. An avid reader of news, she loves having heated debates about politics with anyone who is willing (or foolish enough) to spar verbally with her. Her other hobbies include pretending to be a tourist, being a cat whisperer and people watching.


Wong Si Jia



Just a geek who likes have her fun, Si Jia enjoys subjecting her friends to bad puns, dad jokes and cheesy pick-up lines. Even her writing is not spared – she loves to incorporate puns in her articles while coming up with witty titles. As a part-time contributor of CAMPUS magazine, a bi-monthly publication for tertiary students, Si Jia often has a chance to practice and improve her writing skills. In her spare time, she can be found playing badminton, watching anime, hanging out with her friends, or aggressively shouting at her laptop screen during video game sessions.