Skip to content

Race in Singapore: Can we have race without racialisation?  

Saturday 21 March 2015, 1130 – 1300, Auditorium 2

Sangeetha Thanapal
Independent Scholar

PJ Thum
University of Oxford

State multiculturalism in Singapore has institutionalised colonial racial identities and woven them into the fabric of political and social life, such that they now constitute a common set of assumptions through which people conceive identities of themselves and others. This has foreclosed commitments to cultures other than the official categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) inherited from the British colonial administration. Furthermore, in stressing the primacy of race in cultural affiliation, state multiculturalism both does not recognise any other cultural identity, and also denies the possibility of not committing to any essential cultural identity.

There is, however, a growing sense of the limits this has imposed upon the recognition and interrogation of cultural difference, and on the formation of a civic nationalism (an inclusive Singaporean identity). Possibilities of questioning the relative value of cultural practices or forms, or of expanding contemporary cultural horizons in response to changing social contexts, are foreclosed in the interest of maintaining racial tolerance and harmony between communities conceived of as equal but essentially different. Genuine respect and appreciation arising from intercultural dialogue are thus precluded.

This also calls into question the ethics of the state’s commitment to promoting a constructed Chinese majoritarian culture in Singapore via public policy, which itself is a consequence of the politics of decolonisation. Such a practice contradicts the presumption of the equal worth of the recognised races, and rests on the argument that the promotion of such culture is a collective cultural good which necessitates state intervention.

This roundtable seeks to inquire into areas that Singaporean state multiculturalism have foreclosed. It asks if we can have race without racialisation in Singapore. How does state multiculturalism square with the colonial legacies of racialisations, racisms and racial cultures? How does state multiculturalism enact historical erasure or ideological validation of specific vernacular multiculturalisms? What forms of critical multiculturalism, if any, might enable a more complex engagement with cultural difference in Singapore? How do we resolve these inherent contradictions in plural societies to build an effective civic nationalism?


  • Sangeetha Thanapal (Independent Scholar)

Sangeetha Thanapal is an independent scholar and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ and initiated the recent online conversation on racism in the country. Her work focuses on applying concepts of Critical Race Theory to the Singapore context. She was recently interviewed by peer-reviewed journal ‘boundary2’ on “Chinese Privilege, Gender and Intersectionality.” She has also started a petition to reinstate Thaipusam as a holiday in Singapore, and is currently working on policy changes in that area. She has spoken at panel discussions held by the Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), and guest lectured at the National University of Singapore (NUS).  She holds a Master of Arts in Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex.

  • Viswa Sadasivan (Strategic Moves Pte Ltd)

Viswa Sadasivan is CEO of Strategic Moves, a strategic and crisis communications consulting practice with a special interest in policy issues. He has trained over 7,000 top executives in Singapore and the region. A former current affairs anchor, Viswa has interviewed leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, Lee Kuan Yew, and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Viswa served a term as a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore. He has a Master in Public Administration (MPA) degree from the Kennedy School of Government and Administration, Harvard University.

Viswa is also the founder of IQ (Inconvenient Questions), a sociopolitical site that strives to be the conduit for honest engagement between stakeholders and the government in Singapore.

  • Zainul Abidin Rasheed (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Zainul Abidin Rasheed is Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to the State of Kuwait. He was Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from 2006 to 2011. Mr Zainul has also held various key positions in the public service sector and media industry. He was Editor of Berita Harian for 20 years and The Sunday Times for 5 years, served as President of the Singapore Islamic Religious Council for 5 years and was Chief Executive Officer of the Council for the Development of Singapore Muslim Community for 6 years. Mr Zainul was also the Mayor of Northeast Community Development Council (2001-2009) and Chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation (2003-2010).