Friday, May 10, 2013

Colour, ethnicity, and privilege: A response to Disappointed Exchange Student.

It all started here. Someone identifying as "Disappointed Exchange Student" submitted a short article to The Real Singapore, recounting an incident at Clarke Quay, where she was molested by an "older very large white man". She concludes that she pities Singapore: for all its attempts at "artificial decor", we have not been able to create "MEN" (i.e. chivalrous men who are knights in shining armour) even though we have "mandatory military service".

This blog post responded to the comments on the first article; specifically how commenters tried to minimise the girl's trauma, blamed her, pointed to her non-Singaporean nationality as a reason, and claimed it a Singaporean characteristic to not be nosy. This blogger is "ashamed" for our collective lack of humanity for not helping the girl in distress and for their unhelpful comments.

What troubled me most when reading both articles was the dichotomies: 1) men versus women; 2) Singaporeans versus foreigners.

1) Men versus women.

Disappointed Exchange Student (DES) rightfully pointed out that no one helped her or "stand [sic] up" for her when she was harassed and molested. However, by specifically blaming Singaporean men and all men in general was counterproductive. Singaporean men became defensive, especially when told that NS did not make them men (even though the NS motto promises this!).

Yes, those men were bystanders. In Psychology 101, you will be taught concepts like the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility, using the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered near her home even when some people heard her cries and saw her struggling. In short, the more people there are at the scene of a crime or accident, the less likely that any of them will do something, unless you point to someone specifically -- this should make it more likely that the person will help.

Harassment is also very site-specific. Depending on where and what time of the day, men are more likely to harass and women are more likely to be victims. If Channel News Asia is to be trusted, this news clip shows that there have been increasingly more cases of harassment, molest and/or flashing in Clarke Quay (all tastefully lumped under the offence category of 'outrage of modesty'). I lived for some time in Morocco, and there were higher rates of harassment in urban neighbourhoods (compared to rural villages), and especially where there was high male unemployment.

The blogger pointed out how the commenters' responses to the girl's article were "inhuman", petty and "uncompassionate". Yet other commenters gave examples of how Singaporeans have helped each other. So it isn't about a crisis of masculinity, nor of humanity.

2) Singaporeans versus foreigners

Protests for our generation are a new thing; we grew up knowing almost nothing of civil society action. Today, activists have smart ways of going around the rules against "illegal assembly". In the most recent protest, there were placards saying "We are not xenophobic" (here and here), illustrating that foreigners are not the enemy (who are the people who work in our homes and build our roads?), but too many rich foreigners are.

By Ogawa Ryuju. Source.

Dividing the world into 'foreign' and 'non-foreign' makes sense when this is state rhetoric. 'Foreign workers', 'foreign domestic workers', 'foreign maids', 'foreign talent': these labels make 'foreign-ness' the most important thing, when what is more important is the class of the migrant (worker = poor, talent = rich), the work they do (low-skilled v. high-skilled), and the opportunity for long-term stay (yes to Chinese and Indian nationals getting permanent residence, no to migrant domestic workers and construction workers staying longer than 2 years at a time).

When our population increases rapidly by adding 'foreign talent', who pay little tax, inflate housing prices, increase consumption tax, and don't have to do National Service (NS), then all foreigners start to get lumped together (and not in a nice way!).

The rich from outside Singapore get tax breaks and all kinds of concessions to come and live in our post-colonial but still mentally colonised country. Check out this documentary about how Singapore is now a playground for the (white) rich.

A long time ago, our local rulers were happy to let the British come and occupy us. Then our own government built our country with the help of capitalists symbolically molesting our country's resources while indigenous peoples become increasingly marginalised, why wouldn't it ever filter down to other rich (white) men who want to grope a woman in Clarke Quay?

Which brings me to my main point...

3) Intersectionality matters.

When do we ever see a Singaporean (of any size or colour) standing up to a white man in Singapore? The average man and woman, socialised into docility and politeness, without having lived in a country with a different ethnic composition, would not stand up to a drunken white man in Clarke Quay. Either because of physical size, psychological intimidation, self-consciousness, etc. White men can get away with a lot of shit because of their privilege.

If it was a dark-skinned man (say, a Bangladeshi) who groped a woman, I bet everyone would be scrambling to get him. They have been vilified enough (as prostitutes, criminals, etc.) in our local media. 

In this case, the specific combination of dark spaces, availability of alcohol, and the entitlement felt by white men in Clarke Quay led to molest. This is the deeper and more systematic social problem: white/rich/privileged men in Singapore feel entitled to groping women of colour (I don't know what ethnicity DES is, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't white, because she wouldn't be expecting Singaporean men to save her).

Why did DES blame Singaporean men? Why didn't she blame the white man's friends (his immediate peer group), who were more likely to be able to stop him? Why didn't she blame white women there? Singaporean women? Everyone in Clarke Quay? The whole country?

I feel that DES, not disclosing her origin, thinks that ethnicity doesn't matter. But it does. Yes, harassment and violence against women in all forms is awful, but colour matters in determining who will help you, especially in a country so coloured by racial politics.

Meanwhile, the only person that wasn't blamed was the "older very large white man". He's the one that harassed and molested DES. He should be the one who is blamed, not half a people, an entire people or an entire country.

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