“Chinese Privilege”


Simply acknowledging my privilege will not improve race relations here if I do not take the next step of reaching out to others. Privilege is also not a zero sum game - one group’s sense of marginalisation does not negate the fact that they, too, could hurt the feelings of another minority group.
Yuen Sin
The Straits Times Journalist

“华人特权”?


在传统华人社群里,“华人特权”的概念基本不存在,搜索《联合早报》等华文报章的言论内容,也几乎找不到有人曾在谈论新加坡的语境里,公开使用该词汇。在撰写这篇文章前,与报馆较年长的同事提及华人特权的概念,马上能感受到世代之间的差异,一些前辈马上会采防御姿态,基本论调是说:“我们哪里有特权了?”
伟曼
《联合早报》记者

Dear Wai Mun,

It was only when a group of drunken men began calling after me with shouts of “chink” in the middle of a wintry English night that the idea of “Chinese privilege” acutely hit home.

Growing up in Singapore, I navigated everyday life unmarked by my race. I never had to explain away how I looked, or ever felt alienated by a group because of my ethnicity. After all, the Chinese were the majority at home, and most of us took for granted the fact that most of our countrymen understood the basic fundamentals of our culture and traditions.

But in the English town of York, where I spent my university years, this sense of Chineseness was something that I could not quite escape from. “Where are you really from?” people will enquire, sometimes curiously, sometimes patronisingly.

This letter from a Singaporean friend has Yuen Sin’s address on it. She was then studying in York, United Kingdom.

The streets grew hostile at night, when racial slurs emerged under the influence of alcohol. Once, after a heavy snowstorm, a group of children hurled snowballs at my Chinese Singaporean friend, whom I later found in our hostel, freezing and close to tears.

When a Dr Lee Siew Peng wrote to the Straits Times forum last year (2017), questioning why racism had “suddenly become an issue in Singapore”, it triggered a backlash. Many such as local novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal took umbrage at Dr Lee’s remarks that she had thought of herself as “simply a Singaporean” and that she never had to deal with her “Chineseness” until she went to work in Europe.

“In Singapore, my ‘Indian-ness’ has always been an issue,” pointed out Ms Jaswal. “Many minorities here are questioned when they say they are Singaporean,” she added.

Ms Jaswal echoes points that independent scholar and activist Sangeetha Thanapal made when she coined the term “Chinese privilege” to refer to the behaviour of Chinese Singaporeans, akin to “White privilege” in the West - not being able to see things from the viewpoint of those who are not in the majority.

These sentiments speak to me. Though I had always been aware that racism existed in Singapore, it was only after being part of a minority while studying abroad that I made a conscious effort to “check my privilege”.

The first thing I did was to be more aware of how simple words and actions in everyday life can be insensitive - or even insulting - to those who are in minority groups. After all, it was the small things that contributed most to the subtle sense of marginalisation I felt abroad.

Classmates, for example, politely commented on how good my English was, not realising that it was precisely because of the fact that their forefathers had colonised our country that had led to us even learning English in school in the first place. Others often casually lapsed into obscure references about local shows or historical events in Europe that I had only the slightest inkling of in conversations.

Though I had always been aware that racism existed in Singapore, it was only after being part of a minority while studying abroad that I made a conscious effort to “check my privilege”.

Back home, whenever a group of people suddenly got too comfortable and started speaking in Mandarin in the presence of someone who was not Chinese, I would try my best to steer the conversation back to English.

When a Hindu friend discovered that the hawker centre that a group of us were at had no vegetarian options, I left and accompanied her to a nearby Indian vegetarian restaurant instead. I felt apologetic that we had not thought of scouting out options for her before we made the decision on the lunch venue.

While I used to stay quiet if someone made an offensive remark about a person of another race and nationality, I am now bolder about calling it out, because I, too, know how much it stings to be on the reeving end.

Worrying issues remain: for instance, employers who discriminate against hiring minorities even for jobs where Mandarin is not required, or landlords and property agents who reject tenants of other races.

Do you agree that the Chinese, as a majority race in Singapore, enjoys a natural privilege?
{{data_qns1.q1_ans1}} Yes
{{data_qns1.q1_ans2}} No
Total Votes : {{data_qns1.q1_total_vote}}

However, there are also times “Chinese privilege” feels like a blanket term, too broad and sweeping in its scope.

Many bandied the term “Chinese privilege” in protest in 2016, when Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said during a Parliamentary debate on proposed changes to the elected presidency that the Chinese community had made compromises in the interests of Singapore society.

They had accepted English as the state’s working language, for instance, and thus will understand the need to safeguard minority representation in the president’s office, he said.

Perhaps it had been unwise for him to conflate this historical episode with the heated debate over the reserved election, as these are two separate topics.

But it was also not wrong for Mr Ong to acknowledge the sense of marginalisation that a generation of Chinese-educated Singaporeans felt when they were swept up by changes to the dominant language of instruction in schools to English in the seventies.

My mother, for example, gave up on further education beyond secondary school after grappling with the new English syllabus. I am aware of the sense of disadvantage she must have felt when it came to getting a job due to her limited grasp of English - a predicament that likely extended to others in schools where Malay or Tamil had been the main language of instruction.

While some Chinese Singaporeans like Dr Lee could grow up here feeling unmarked and unattached to their ethnic Chinese identity, my mother’s generation bore the brunt of trauma that came from the closure of vernacular schools and the demise of the Chinese-medium Nanyang University.

They still feel threatened by a growing tide of youth - including their own kids - who spurn speaking Mandarin for English, and listen to American pop songs in place of local xinyao tunes.

Like other minority groups here, they, too, fear that their sense of identity could be diluted by a majority with disproportionate amount of power in society, including English-speaking Chinese.

The term “Chinese privilege” has provided a framework for us to start examining the myopia and ignorance that we may bear as members of the majority race.

But as American writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy has noted in her book The Perils of “Privilege”, published last year, “privilege” is an amorphous accusation that can derail discussions about inequality and injustice into an unproductive spiral of personal confessions and attacks.

The term “Chinese privilege” has provided a framework for us to start examining the myopia and ignorance that we may bear as members of the majority race.

Simply acknowledging my privilege, for example, will not improve race relations here if I do not take the next step of reaching out to others. Privilege is also not a zero sum game - one group’s sense of marginalisation does not negate the fact that they, too, could hurt the feelings of another minority group.

Rather than rounding on each other with scornful calls of “privilege”, let’s start addressing this by being empathetic towards the lived experience of those who feel marginalised - regardless of whether this is due to divisions along lines of race, class, or other identity markers.

Yuen Sin

伟曼:

那是一个寒风凛冽的英国冬夜,一群醉汉对我大喊“chink”(对华裔的歧视性用语)。直到那一刻,我才第一次深刻体悟到“华人特权”这个概念。

在新加坡长大的我,日常生活中对自己的种族无所察觉。我从未需要解释自己的样子,或是因为自己的种族而感到被疏远。毕竟,华人在我的国家里是多数,而我们很多人想当然地认为,我们的同胞了解我们的文化和传统中的基本价值观和常识。

然而当我来到英国约克念大学,自己身为华人则成了我不太能摆脱的意识。“你到底是哪里来的?”人们会这么问,有时带着好奇,有时则带有居高临下的姿态。

这是袁昕求学时期,朋友寄给她的信函。信封上有她当时在英国约克的地址。

到了晚上,街道变得不太友善,酒精的作用让带种族色彩的语言脱口而出。记得一次暴风雪后,一群孩童将雪球丢向我的新加坡华人朋友。后来我在宿舍看到这位朋友在严寒中强忍泪水。

李笑萍博士去年致函《海峡时报》言论版,质疑为什么种族歧视“突然在新加坡成为问题”,掀起轩然大波。本地小说家巴利∙考尔∙贾斯瓦尔(Balli Kaur Jaswal)对该言论十分不满,尤其是李博士说自己一直都自认“就是新加坡人”,直到她去欧洲工作之前都不需要想到自己的华人身份。

贾斯瓦尔指出:“在新加坡,我的印度人身份一直是个问题。当这里的很多少数种族说自己是新加坡人时,都会受到质疑。”

贾斯瓦尔的说法让人想到独立学者和行动主义分子桑吉塔∙丹那巴(Sangeetha Thanapal )在创造“华人特权”一词时曾提到新加坡华人的行为,认为和西方“白人特权”如出一辙,也就是无法从非多数群体的角度看待事物。

这些感受让我产生共鸣。虽然我一直都知道新加坡也存在种族歧视,但我只有在出国留学并成为少数群体中的一员之后,才开始用心地“检视自己的特权”。

首先,我开始留意日常生活中和少数群体打交道时的简单言行是否不够敏感,甚至带有侮辱性。毕竟,正是这些生活中的细节形成了我在国外微微感受到的被边缘化。

比如,我的同学会礼貌地赞扬我的英文很好,而不会意识到这正是因为他们的祖辈将我的祖国占为殖民地,造成我们得在学校学英文。也有人在谈话时很容易就说到源自当地电视节目或历史事件的词语,而这些都让我不知所云。

虽然我一直都知道新加坡也存在种族歧视,但我只有在出国留学并成为少数群体中的一员之后,才开始用心地“检视自己的特权”。

回国后,每当一组人突然有些松懈,开始在非华族同胞面前说起华语,我会尽量把对话带回到英语。

当我的印度教徒朋友在我们聚餐的小贩中心找不到素食选择时,我就转移阵地陪她到附近的印度素食餐馆。我对在决定用餐场所时忘了替她着想感到愧疚。

以前,如果有人对其他种族和国家的人使用冒犯性的语言,我会保持沉默,但如今我会更勇于指出这样做的不妥,因为我知道它给对方造成的痛苦。

本地还是存在一些令人担忧的情况,比如有些雇主在招聘时对少数种族带有歧视,即使工作上并不需要用到华语,有些房东或房屋经纪也拒绝其他种族。

你认为华人因为占新加坡社会大多数,而享有自然的优势吗?
{{data_qns1.q1_ans1}} 认为
{{data_qns1.q1_ans2}} 不认为
Total Votes : {{data_qns1.q1_total_vote}}

然而,有时“华人特权”也成了一个很笼统的词,显得过于宽泛、涵盖面太大。

教育部长(高等教育及技能)王乙康在2016年国会辩论修改总统选举法令时说,华族社群为了新加坡社会的利益而做出妥协。很多人指出这是“华人特权”意识,纷纷抗议。

王乙康说,华人接受了以英语作为国家的工作语言,同理也会理解保持总统有少数种族代表的需要。

或许他把历史事件和当时备受热议的保留选举混为一谈,是不明智的,因为这是两个不同课题。

上世纪70年代,一代华校生因为学校的主导语言改为英文而经历巨变,并因此感到边缘化。王乙康部长指出这一点,并没有错。

比如,我的母亲中学毕业后就放弃了升学,因为新的英文课本让她学得很痛苦。我知道她因为英语能力有限而在求职中处在劣势,而这也是当时其他原本用马来或淡米尔语教学的学校学生同样面对的困难。

当一些像李博士那样的新加坡华人能够完全不受华人身份影响的环境中成长和立足,我母亲的一代人则经历了母语源流学校和南大关闭所带来的巨大冲击。

他们至今仍有些惧怕日益壮大的年轻人群体,包括他们自己的孩子——这些爱讲英语、厌烦华语;不听新谣,而是听美国流行歌曲的新一代。

和其他少数群体一样,他们也担心自己的身份认知可能被一个掌握着过大社会权力的多数群体稀释,而这个群体包括讲英文的华人。

“华人特权”一词为我们提供了一个框架,探讨作为多数种族会存在的视而不见和无知。

但正如美国作家菲比·马尔茨·波维(Phoebe Maltz Bovy)在她去年出版的The Perils of “Privilege”(“特权”的危机)一书中提到的,“特权”是一个模糊不清的指控,可能让有关不平等和不公正的讨论沦为一种毫无建设性的个人忏悔和攻击。

“华人特权”一词为我们提供了一个框架,探讨作为多数种族会存在的视而不见和无知。

如果只是承认自己享有特权,却并没有再踏出一步和他人沟通,那就不会改善种族关系。特权也不是一个零和游戏,一个群体自感被边缘化,并不意味着那就可以抵消他们也可能伤害了另一少数群体的情感。

与其互相指责对方享有“特权”,不如让我们带着同理心去理解那些感觉被边缘化的人,无论这是因为种族、阶级或其他身份标志的区隔。

袁昕

袁昕:

南非反种族隔离的黑人运动领袖比科(Steve Biko)说得一口流利的英语,但因为那不是他的第一语言,他在周围人都说英语的环境里,总能清楚意识到自己处在劣势,甚至在交谈过程中失去信心,感到沮丧。他曾说:“你可能很聪明,但表达能力没那么好……你往往会认为,说英语的那个人在思想上要比你更高一等。”

要突破比科所形容的这种自卑感,我总觉得需要很长时间的心理建设。我在一个讲华语和方言的家庭里长大,即便经后天努力英语已达一定水平,但因说话时表达能力仍欠缺,在讲英语的场合里,至今多少还是会不适应,甚至觉得那已近一种失语的状态。这种“失语”,不表示当下无法与眼前的人沟通,更多因我即使发出声音,却还是自觉有言不达意的地方,是一种心中的感悟。

有时候,在与讲英语的人对话时,即便对方完全不察觉有不妥,并且能百分百理解我所说,我却还是完全可以感受到自己正在做很大的努力,以隐去母语(不管是华语或方言)在我身上留下的痕迹。我一向来觉得“流亡”是个很重的词,它过于悲壮,但我在和生活于不同语言世界的人交谈时,却往往原地不动就能感觉到自己在流亡,觉得在这个以英语为主流的社会里,自己某种程度上算是个边缘人。

不过,我同时也意识到,这种把自己摆在弱势位置的心态,多么危险。

我同意你所说,在新加坡这个多元种族共存的社会里,我们有时候会忘记自己身为华人,其实是占社会大多数,与少数族群相比,享有一些自然优势,这也让我们在看事情的时候,容易有盲点。

你有没有过因为英语讲得不好,感到自卑的经历?
{{data_qns2.q2_ans1}}
{{data_qns2.q2_ans2}} 没有
总调查 : {{data_qns2.q2_total_vote}}

但事实是,在传统华人社群里,华人特权(Chinese Privilege)的概念基本不存在,搜索《联合早报》等华文报章的言论内容,也几乎找不到有人曾在谈论新加坡的语境里,公开使用该词汇。在撰写这篇文章前,与报馆较年长的同事提及华人特权的概念,马上能感受到世代之间的差异,一些前辈马上会采防御姿态,基本论调是说:“我们哪里有特权了?”

且不论当年南洋大学和新加坡大学的合并,如何在那一代人心中烙下难以磨灭的伤痕,如今在华人社群里,即便是少了上一代人的包袱与悲愤的华语源流人士,也多多少少都在教育政策变化中感受过挫折,或至少感慨于社会的逐渐单语化。华社捍卫母语文化的心,因此很容易让我们在面对华人作为大多数被视为享有特权这个严肃的课题时,感到无所适从,尽管两者本应不存在冲突。”

然而,过去一年,也许你也观察到,在社交媒体世界里,华人特权却恰恰是我们朋友群中沸沸扬扬讨论的课题之一。美国总统特朗普带有明显种族歧视色彩的粗暴言辞,让社会上种族与阶级的分野更明显;在新加坡,启动保留总统选举机制等议题的讨论,一定程度上也凸显了族群差异与种族意识。

华社捍卫母语文化的心,因此很容易让我们在面对华人作为大多数被视为享有特权这个严肃的课题时,感到无所适从,尽管两者本应不存在冲突。

去年5月底,本地印族演员巴尔加瓦(Shrey Bhargava)参加梁志强新电影《新兵正传4》试镜,被摄制团队要求以浓厚印度口音模仿典型印度人一事,就瞬间引发网民热议。我的面簿朋友群中,好些马来与印族朋友诚实地分享了看法,也描述自己与华族同胞相处时,曾被不经意言论伤害的经历。

同时,我也看到一些华族网民对此事发表不敏感言论时仍能理直气壮。这促使我不得不开始思考与正视种族歧视的问题,并且检视自己的言谈举止,是否也曾逾越界限。

2016年,南中国海仲裁案课题和新加坡装甲车在香港被扣留的事件,曾让新中两国关系进入低潮期,网上部分舆论当时倾向新加坡应在外交战略上与中国建立更亲密的关系,多少也触碰到少数族群的敏感神经。本地剧作家和诗人亚菲言(Alfian Sa'at)就此分析说,本地华人族群中这种情绪的涌现,或多或少象征着“某种被压抑的文化与政治身份的卷土重来”,与过去华社部分群体曾感觉被边缘化有关。他指出,华社应有所警惕,不应为维护这份“过去被压抑的尊严”而让主观情绪影响其判断。

当然,亚菲言的言论不一定具代表性,甚至一些人可能会觉得当中存在对华社的误解,并且质疑“华人特权”这严厉的指控是否有足够的现实依据,或是这词汇其实在互联网更开放的舆论空间里,已被滥用。但不可否认的是,华社必须正视他抛出的问题:一个崛起的中国会不会动摇本地的社会凝聚力和国家主体意识?

另外,这也进一步揭露另一更宏观的问题:本地华人应该如何看待自己的身份认同?传统华社的定义是否应该放宽?

对于一个定义模糊不清的东西,我要如何产生认同感?新加坡华社的定义是否能扩大到跨越语言和肤色,代表着一群热爱华族文化的人?

我认为,新加坡政策研究所去年5月至7月间展开的一项国人族群身份认同调查结果,一定程度上凸显了本地华社面对的挑战。尽管华文华语式微,大多数人仍将族群认同感建立在语文的掌握上,而与此同时,本地华人对祖籍观念和华族传统与传统艺术的重视则相对变得薄弱了。

在与报馆其他同事了解他们对华社的看法时,有不少人就指出,广泛定义的“中华文化”已无法让年轻人有归属感。也有同事反问:“对于一个定义模糊不清的东西,我要如何产生认同感?新加坡华社的定义是否能扩大到跨越语言和肤色,代表着一群热爱华族文化的人?”

值得庆幸的是,这一连串的问题和反思,很可能也代表本地年轻人在看待认同问题时,视角已变得更包容,甚至有了更丰富的历史和世界观。新加坡将在2019年纪念开埠200年,趁着思考这个历史命题的同时,我们是否也能以更开阔的胸怀拥抱我们身为华族、新加坡人,甚至是东南亚人的身份,并接受这其中的复杂与多元?

谈到认同问题,我总会不禁想起大学时期,曾为探索身份认同问题,访问著名学者王赓武教授的情景。当时,教授从他1950年出版的英文诗集《脉搏》(Pulse)中挑了一首题为《阿末》(Ahmad)的“马来亚诗”,深情朗诵,为我们述说他对这片土地的原始情怀,令我印象深刻。不知怎么的,尽管我对那从未认识的“马来亚”只能有想象,但教授办公室回荡着的声音竟触动了我心深处某一块东西。那微妙的感觉我至今无法解释,但也觉得没有必要刻意去定义或为它寻找什么坐标。

伟曼

Dear Yuen Sin,

My family spoke only Mandarin and dialects when I was young. It took me a long while to overcome that sense of inferiority I felt whenever I was surrounded by people who were used to English as their first language.

To some extent, despite the fact that many would think that I am effectively bilingual, I now still vaguely feel that sense of unease when a conversation is conducted in English. I would even describe it as feeling as if I were in a state of exile - although I recognise that saying this reeks of self-victimisation. It is a dangerous position to take.

I agree with you that in a multi-racial society like Singapore, as ethnic Chinese, we sometimes forget that we are the majority and as such, enjoy certain natural advantages compared to minorities. It also means that it is easy for us to have blind spots.

But I’d also like to point out that, to the Chinese-speaking community, the term “Chinese privilege”, in the context of Singapore is an extremely unfamiliar one. You would hardly find any mention of the phrase in past commentaries published in the Chinese-language newspapers like Lianhe Zaobao.

Have you ever felt a sense of inferiority because English is not your strongest language?
{{data_qns2.q2_ans1}} Yes
{{data_qns2.q2_ans2}} No
Total Votes : {{data_qns2.q2_total_vote}}

It might be due to generational differences. Before writing this letter, I had mentioned the concept of Chinese privilege to my older colleagues in the newsroom. Some instantly adopted a defensive posture, retorting: “What privilege?”

But I can understand how they feel.

Setting aside how the merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore has left an indelible scar on the Nantah generation, one still cannot ignore the fact that there are also others in the Chinese-speaking community who have experienced setbacks due to educational policy changes. Then there are those who rue the state of Chinese language standards today. This common understanding that this tight-knit community has forged - to do all it can to defend what’s left of Chinese language and culture - can distract from the serious discussion of Chinese privilege.

Before writing this letter, I had mentioned the concept of Chinese privilege to my older colleagues in the newsroom. Some instantly adopted a defensive posture, retorting: “What privilege?”

However, in the social media world that we’re both familiar with, the situation seems completely different. I believe that you would have noticed that for the past year, the issue of privilege has been much discussed. It could be that the election of American President Donald Trump has once again brought race to the forefront, or that in Singapore, a reserved presidential election has created more discussions and awareness about some of our differences.

Some of my Malay and Indian friends shared openly on Facebook about instances of casual racism. At the same time, whenever these issues were brought up, I saw how some Chinese reacted in an insensitive way, and were surprised by how they seem unaware that it was inappropriate.

It got me thinking about racial discrimination. I realised, too, that I have to be careful with my words and actions.

I am also reminded of something else that I’ve read on Facebook. In 2016, the issues over the South China Sea arbitration case and the detention of Singapore’s armoured vehicles in Hong Kong caused ties between Singapore and China to fall to a low point.

There were netizens who called for Singapore to take a more pro-China stance in its conduct of relations with the country, without realising that this could be a sensitive issue for racial minorities.

This prompted local playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at, in a Facebook post, to describe what he observed to be netizens siding with China, as “comeback of a form of Chinese cultural and political identity that was suppressed”. He questioned if some in the Chinese community should let their judgement be clouded by their bid to “reclaim overdue dignity”.

It got me thinking about racial discrimination. I realised, too, that I have to be careful with my words and actions.

Of course, Alfian’s comment might not be representative of how most felt about the issue. Some people might also think that the accusation of “Chinese privilege” does not have sufficient basis, and that it might have been misused. But I think that this question that Alfian raises is worth thinking about: Will the rise of China affect social cohesion in Singapore or the exercise of our sovereignty?

It further exposes a problem that the Chinese community needs to address: How should we view our identity? Is the way we define “Chineseness” too exclusive?

I have noticed that this anxiety about the Chinese identity is felt among the younger Chinese-speaking crowd. Several of my younger colleagues said that they find it hard to identify with what is commonly defined as “Chinese culture”. One of them asked: ”If the Chinese Singaporean identity is so vaguely defined, is it possible for me to feel a sense of belonging? Also, if there is no one ‘Chineseness’ we can speak of, can we look beyond race and language, when promoting Chinese culture?”

It further exposes a problem that the Chinese community needs to address: How should we view our identity? Is the way we define “Chineseness” too exclusive?

But if we look at the other side of the coin, such introspection may also mean that even if younger Chinese Singaporeans display a stronger sense of ethnic pride, they choose to adopt a more inclusive view in doing so. Some are starting to trace their identity, and adopt a more historical point of view.

The Singapore bicentennial commemoration in 2019 would be a good time to take a closer look at this issue. Can we learn to embrace our multiple identities, as Chinese, as Singaporeans, and as South-east Asians, all at the same time, and accept such complexities and diversity?

Wai Mun
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