• Illuminate Singapore

Racism at Work


This article marks the beginning of a new series that centers on racism in Singapore. Racial discrimination in the workplace is prevalent across societies, and Singapore is not exempt. Today, we spoke with Rita, an undergraduate pursuing Accountancy, so we may share with you her story.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee. Her responses have also been edited for clarity.


After ‘A’ Levels, Rita applied for administrative work as a temporary staff in a bank. She was the singular Indian-Muslim interviewee sitting alongside fourteen other Chinese candidates, and to her surprise, she got the job.


“Wow,” she thought, “even someone like me was able to get able to get an admin job at a bank.”


Assigned a table in the back office, she had a partner—a Malay girl, she noticed—who would work on the same task as her. That task was this: sorting stacks of loan applications. They’d scan these documents for the application’s statuses, then separate them into bags to be picked up thrice a day.


Mess it up, and the senior manager would be informed, who would then head to their table and shout at them for their errors. It was embarrassing for someone new to a job with three deadlines per day, but Rita pushed through. Oftentimes, other temporary staff, some of whom were the Chinese interviewees who’d been similarly employed, would head to their table and chat. Their work was more relaxed and didn’t stick to schedules as tight as hers. Sometimes, they’d help her out.


They also had the flexibility to take two-hour lunch breaks or complete their work two hours before the day ended.


“I couldn’t afford that,” says Rita, “because I had to clear about 300 applications [before each of the three deadlines every day]. But I didn’t think much of it.”


At least, not until she discovered two Malay women among the majority-Chinese permanent staff were assigned the labour-intensive tasks as well. 


“I confirmed that the non-Chinese temp staff were the ones who were doing the manual, brain-dead work in the bank. After I left, there was an Indian girl that took over from me,” she tells us. “They had actually selected me based on me being Indian and not because of my qualifications or how I spoke in the interview. That was what really scared me.”


“They had actually selected me based on me being Indian and not because of my qualifications or how I spoke in the interview. That was what really scared me.”

Her memories of her past experiences at the workplace left a strong impression that many doors open to the majority race were closed to her. But the banking and financial industry is cutthroat. If she wants to get ahead, that means attaining a summer internship for university. Even then, plenty of the offices are Chinese-centric, she feels, and some roles in the finance department require candidates to be proficient in Mandarin and English. 


“I never understood why,” she says. “If it’s a China-based company, there’s some reasoning to it, but otherwise, it’s disheartening. It limits my choices.”


Rita did find an internship this year. She thought she was lucky, but it turns out her experience wouldn’t be free from microaggressions either.


One of her mentors at a presentation flashed a slide in Chinese. He used one of the language’s proverbs, whose meaning was lost on her. 


“I will explain it to you later,” he informed her, before continuing with his speech. 


“I felt like a burden,” she tells us.


In a separate instance, another mentor spoke a sentence in Mandarin during a conversation with her. He asked if she understood it. 


“I only know basic Chinese,” she said.


“Please don’t mind me,” he responded. “I am from a Chinese background. That’s why I speak Chinese, and sometimes I might instinctively speak it.”


“I didn’t know how to respond to that,” she tells us. “I just laughed about it. I was wondering in my head: ‘I am from a Tamil background. Can I speak in Tamil here?’ Of course, no one will understand [it there]. These are the microaggressions I absolutely can’t stand.”


The fear of rejection by potential employers is nothing new among young adults seeking internships. But can Chinese residents claim that their fears are based on the colour of their skin and the languages they speak?


“What I’m scared of is them not even looking at my resume before rejecting me,” admits Rita. “They ask for your race in the application form when you go to the company’s application portal. I sent applications to forty places [over the summer], and the place I’m at now was the only one that had called back. Another sent me a rejection letter.


“What I’m scared of is them not even looking at my resume before rejecting me.”

“I was actually very grateful they sent that [rejection letter] because then I know they read my resume.”

Despite her fears and indignation, Rita is proud of her ethnicity. When asked if she worries that people might invalidate her experiences of racial discrimination, she has this to say: “I will get angry if they were to. I don’t give them the right to validate how I feel.


“I very much embrace and am proud of my identity. Diversity is beautiful and people who are blind to it are the ones to regret. I hold so much respect and pride for my language, skin colour and ancestors that ignorant racists make no difference to my stance.”


“I very much embrace and am proud of my identity. Diversity is beautiful and people who are blind to it are the ones to regret.”

To her, racism is unresolvable in Singapore; as long as a divide between a majority and minority exists in any society, there will be instances where unconscious biases and stereotypes seep through.


Regardless, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work against them. One thing we can do is try to inculcate the ability to help people identify discriminatory thoughts and actions. For instance, if one were to see an Indian and think of a slur, but were also to catch that line of thought, identify it as racist and discard it, that’s a win in her book.


“For that to happen,” Rita says, “you need to empathise and listen to what minorities go through and try to be aware of the slurs and hurtful things one can say. It will take time, but with more education and more avenues for people to learn about the different races, I think we can build a sensitive, more racially aware society.”




Written by Tze Min Koay

Edited by Samihah Niquat Safeel & Wu Weiming


© 2020 ILLUMINATE SINGAPORE

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