The Catalyst’s international column is a project to provide a platform for community members to speak out on issues happening inside and outside the bubble of Colorado College and the United States, but are regularly impacting the everyday lives of many members on campus. The project aims to counter dominant representations about the international community on- and off-campus and seeks to nurture a more globally minded campus. Organized by Anusha Khanal. 

Chinese Anxieties in Singapore Regarding the Coronavirus

By Fiachra MacFadden 

Along with the outbreak of the coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, have come reports across the globe of a surge in racism towards people who are Chinese or ‘look Chinese.’ To the racist eye — which is prone to essentializing and homogenizing vast groups of people — many may seem to ‘look Chinese,’ including but not confined to Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese people. 

Thus, many Asians, particularly East and Southeast Asians, have come to be conflated with Chinese people. But what has received less attention is the fact that a fair number of Asians have, in response, attempted to distance themselves from being Chinese. When racist incidents have occurred towards these non-Chinese Asians, the response has often been “I’m not Chinese!” It is, of course, infuriating to constantly be confused for another nationality. But this response does not shut down the racism with which the person was met in the first place — it simply redirects it. 

The response subtly implies that such racism is legitimate towards a person who is actually from China. Similar responses can be seen in many racist incidents towards people from a wide array of races and religions across the world. For example, Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh Canadian Member of Parliament, is frequently confronted with Islamophobic attacks. However, as he has explained, his “response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim.’ It has always been and will be that ‘Hate is wrong.’” He further states that though he is a Sikh, and is proud of his identity as a Sikh, he does not feel the need to explain that “because it suggests their hate would be okay if I was Muslim. We all know it’s not.” 

The small Southeast Asian nation of Singapore is often, to the annoyance of many Singaporeans, confused with China. About 75% of the Singapore population is ethnically Chinese. That being said, Chinese Singaporeans exclusively use the term “Chinese” as an ethnic and cultural label, rather than one ascribing nationality. Many Chinese Singaporeans, and Singaporeans more broadly, distinguish themselves from Chinese nationals by calling them “PRCs” (People’s Republic of China citizens). 

As a Singaporean living abroad, I have been observing the responses by Singaporeans to the outbreak of the coronavirus through social media. What some of my friends and I have noticed is that there has been a particularly intense flurry of racist posts, in the form of memes, statuses, tweets, and Instagram stories, from Chinese Singaporeans, rather than from Malay, Indian, or other Singaporeans. These posts often evoke civilizational discourses, commenting on the “unhygienic” and “backward” “nature” of “PRCs.” 

This racism is nothing new, but is particularly strong at this moment. As many have pointed out, racism towards particular groups is not suddenly created in moments of panic, but rather, moments of panic awaken racist sentiments that have long been there. 

These novel outbreaks are inevitable and occur from time to time. But until a cure is created for coronavirus, people are left in a state of uncertainty and fear. This makes them feel very vulnerable and in order to create a sense of stability, they create a kind of mental cure by blaming someone. In this case, the first victims of the virus were in the largest city in central China: Wuhan. These victims were identified as the targets of blame, and very quickly, the entire Chinese nation and their culture fell under this blame too. 

To ensure that they did not also fall under this blame, some Chinese Singaporeans, like some Hong Kongers and Taiwanese people, have claimed to be “more civilized”than “PRC” citizens and that they would never have “created” such an outbreak in the first place — as if anyone would ever want this to happen to them. In reality, this just reveals the anxieties of those who contribute to this racist discourse. They fear being compared to a group they see as lesser. Fear, as we know, contributes to stress, and stress can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to getting sick and contracting a virus like COVID-19. So, perhaps a better way of fighting this virus would be by also fighting racism.   

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