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Living in Singapore

Discrimination in Singapore

On the surface, Singapore might seem like an egalitarian state where residents of all ages, religious creeds, and races peacefully coexist. This does not mean, however, that discrimination in Singapore doesn’t exist, although it is often not openly visible.

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At a glance:

  • Although Singapore is an ethnically diverse country and the majority of its population would see themselves as accepting, racism is still a big issue.
  • The rising house prices and competitive job market are said to be two of the many reasons that fuel xenophobia in Singapore.
  • It’s not only some of the population who are said to be homophobic, but Singapore legislation itself is discriminatory towards homosexuals.

Racial Privilege: Discrimination in Singapore

While the three large ethnic groups in Singapore do, in general, coexist and cooperate without too many problems, there are some points of friction. At times, these issues are brought to light by the Singaporean media and netizens, promptly becoming the focus of public dispute. Due to the restrictive legislation concerning the press and the internet, it is hard to determine the actual scale of discrimination in Singapore.

A more tangible form of inequality and discrimination in Singapore is the apparent preferential treatment that citizens with Chinese heritage — the majority — enjoy over those with Indian or Malay backgrounds. Public transportation television screens tend to broadcast only in Mandarin or English, for example, and in beauty pageants, women of Chinese heritage are the favorites.  Although the majority of Singaporeans would say they are respectful of other races and are fully supportive of multiracialism, most also think that racism is still a huge issue in Singapore, in particular, when it comes to racial privilege.

Racial division is an unfortunate reality of daily life in Singapore, which often prides itself on its status as a metropolitan, non-racial nation. Still, the political and economic elite of the country is much less multiracial than its population. However, laws such as the Sedition Act have all but silenced debate on matters of race, ethnicity, and religion, making it very difficult to publicly address the problem of discrimination in Singapore.

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Xenophobia and the Expat

Negative attitudes towards parts of the foreign populace in Singapore do, unfortunately, also exist. They have become more widespread and vocal in the past few years, although the risk of facing discrimination in Singapore as a foreigner is still small. Xenophobia is often quite a shocking concept in Singapore, mainly due to the fact that the country is portrayed as an accepting, multicultural hub.

Some of the more frequent grievances seem to be very similar to xenophobic concerns elsewhere in the world — the perception is that Singaporeans lose their jobs because of foreign workers who are also said to receive preferential treatment from the government in terms of housing, education, and other areas of daily life.

These concerns can often be traced back to the limitations Singapore faces in many aspects, be they geographic, demographic, or economic. Singapore is tiny for a country of its international repute and attractiveness to foreigners and expats.

The Fear of Being Outnumbered

The situation on the housing market is very tense, with long waiting lists for public housing and high prices on the private market. Demographically, Singapore has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and a large influx of people from abroad might at times even raise concerns about locals becoming “outnumbered”. Singaporean xenophobia also has racial undertones as attitudes also depend on which part of the world a foreign resident comes from and their cultural background.

At the moment, however, expats will very rarely, if ever, be directly confronted with any xenophobic outbursts or other forms of discrimination in Singapore. This is due not only to Singaporean law and its thorough enforcement, but also the generally non-confrontational culture in Singapore. Many inhabitants value the atmosphere of peaceful, respectful coexistence (however easily fractured it might be at times) and want to retain it.

Section 377A: LGBT Rights and Homophobia in Singapore

Singapore’s attitude towards its LGBT population and their rights has often been a topic of debate and concern. Both the mostly unfavorable public view on homosexuality as well as Singaporean legislation and law enforcement pose problems for the country’s LGBT community and homosexual expatriates. Their sexual orientation or gender identity can make them victims of discrimination in Singapore.

From a legal viewpoint, there are several sections of the Penal Code that impede the freedom of the gay community in Singapore. The most prominent, and most frequently challenged, is Section 377A which states that so-called “acts of gross indecency” between men can be met with imprisonment of up to two years. In other clauses, this section also outlaws sex acts in private residences between consenting adult men.

Though the law is rarely enforced, the sheer existence of a statute legalizing discrimination in a country which values its egalitarian society seems contradictory. There are other sections of the Penal Code, for example Section 354 (“Outrage of Modesty”) or 294A (“Obscene Act”), which further limit homosexual men’s rights in the public space.

The LGBT Community and the Public

The public view on the LGBT community is also on the negative side: just under half (47%) of respondents to a poll conducted in 2014 stated that they reject homosexual lifestyles. Although there was a measurable shift towards positive or neutral opinions since the 2005 poll on the issue, the results speak for themselves.

Still, there is a silver lining: the annual Pink Dot, a festival in Hong Lim Park celebrating inclusiveness, diversity, and the freedom to love, manages to draw bigger audiences each year without interference from the government. However slowly, things seem to get a little better in terms of decreasing LGBT discrimination in Singapore.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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