“Crazy Rich Asians” promotes the ongoing systematic erasure and oppression of Singapore minorities on a global screen.
By Sangeetha Thanapal
After the trailer for “Crazy Rich Asians” was released, the internet went wild over it, especially those of us who care about representation and diversity. Based on Kevin Kwan’s book by the same title, the film about a Chinese American woman who travels to Singapore to meet the family of her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend, is being lauded as a huge win for people of color. At face value, the movie is a stepping-stone for more representation of Asians in Hollywood, signifying a milestone for diversity.
Except that neither this movie, nor the novel it is based on, are even representative of Singapore.
After gaining its independence in 1965, the tiny island-state of Singapore has gone on to introduce a set of economic and social policies that are often marvelled at all over the world. The country is touted as a model to follow, both for its economic prowess and its multicultural approach to racial harmony.
However, underneath the façade of skyscrapers, is a country that has systematically disenfranchised its minorities. Chinese Singaporeans, at 77% of the population, are the vast majority of the nation and the population’s minorities are Malay and Indian people, who make up 15% and 7% respectively. There is also a sizeable populace of racialized labour from neighbouring countries with construction workers from South Asia and domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Racism against minorities is endemic in Singapore. Job advertisements frequently only ask for those who can speak in English and Mandarin, and even if minorities are able to do so, they are told that only ethnic Chinese are wanted. Muslim women in hijabs are kept out of certain civil service jobs because of their headwear. While there are police bans on speaking in Tamil, there are yearly tax-funded programs to promote speaking in Mandarin. Minority representations are rife with stereotypes and the idea of the quintessential Singapore girl is one that embodies only East Asian beauty standards. The country’s ruling power has stated that Malay-Muslims in Singapore cannot be trusted in the armed forces due to their divided loyalties between religion and state. It has further accused them of being unable to ‘integrate’ an irony considering that Malay people are considered the original inhabitants of the land. The founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, holds views on genetics that would seem disconcertingly similar to eugenicist and white supremacist ideals, as he has touted the genetic superiority of the Chinese as stronger and hardier, with Indians not being as bright, but still better than the lazy, un-driven Malays. Chinese people wear Indians in ‘brown face’ and many elite public schools are reserved for them.
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These ideologies have permeated into the very foundations of Singapore society, ensuring the continued discrimination of minorities. The term Chinese Supremacy, most adequately embodies this state of affairs. Racial supremacy by its nature will confer unearned advantages on a particular race—in this case the majority Chinese Singaporeans who are privileged in every aspect of Singapore society. It is why I coined the term ‘Chinese Privilege’ with regards to race relations in Singapore.
Given this context, this movie is actually perpetuating the state of racism and Islamophobia in Singapore. The only Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese in the movie. Minorities only exist in the periphery of the film. Why is this being lauded as revolutionary?
What people celebrating this movie are doing is bringing a Western racial framework to bear upon a Singaporean one. Chinese people in Singapore are not oppressed; they are the oppressors. Asians in the Global North are so happy to see themselves that they do not seem to care about the context in which this is happening. The movie is set in Singapore and only has Chinese people in it: this is not new or refreshing, this is actually the everyday lives of Singaporean minorities. The novel barely made a splash in Singapore when it was released because Chinese people writing about being Chinese is so commonplace here. It is only diversity for East Asians in the U.S.. Why should Western Chinese representation come at the expense of minorities in Singapore?
So when you applaud the film, ask yourself who you are complicit in erasing. It is the Singaporean minorities who have been told every day that we are worthless, ugly, lazy and undeserving of being represented—that we deserve to be treated as second-class citizens in our own country.
There needs to be a better understanding amongst Americans of the dynamics of race in other parts of the world, as well as the awareness that what seems like progress to some is actually built on the oppression of others. “Crazy Rich Asians” is not radical nor a win for representation. It is simply the ongoing systematic erasure and oppression of Singapore minorities on a global screen.
Author Bio: Sangeetha Thanapal is an artist and writer working on the intersections of race, gender and body in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore. Her fantasy fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Brown Girl Mag and many more. Her website is here and she can be found everywhere @kaliandkalki.
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