Obviously, I am a minority woman, but I’m also a minority within the racial minority communities in Singapore. My dad is Arab and my paternal great-grandfathers are from Hadhramaut, Yemen, where most of the Arab community in Singapore comes from. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, is Javanese. She came here with her parents from Indonesia when she was young. They set up a satay stall in Geylang Market which still exists today, and she met my maternal grandfather, who is part of the Minangkabau community from Malaysia.
One size does not fit all
People often ask me: “What are you?”, probably because they can’t put me in a box. They’ll look at me and go: “Hmm, you don’t look Malay, but you don’t quite look Indian either.” Race has always been a confusing and confronting part of my life because I never felt like there was anywhere I belonged. And this is what happens when, as a nation, you are conditioned to think about race through the lens of a CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) model. As a kid, I remember often thinking: “Why can’t I just be Malay?” I did not want to deny my heritage, but I was trying to fit in neatly the way all my friends did.
Even today, I’m sometimes tempted to identify as Arab alone since that’s what is written on my identification card, but that would disregard my maternal heritage. I could also simply identify as a Muslim woman, but I don’t wear the hijab, and that goes against societal expectations. I turned 30 last December and it was only then that I started identifying as a Muslim, Nusantara woman, which is a regional way of labelling my heritage.
“There’s an expectation for you to trauma mine by looking through all of your racial trauma and coming up with concrete examples that are going to perfectly explain what is a daily, overwhelming experience”
I sometimes wonder why race plays such a big part in my understanding of my identity. Do people from the majority racial group also sit with this question like I do? I don’t want to assume—I should actually have this conversation with two of my best friends, both of whom are Chinese and have been great allies in race-related issues. But I think this is something you are only cognisant of when you are a minority, like my Chinese- Singaporean friends who live abroad and for whom race has become a prominent part of their identity.
My daughter’s identity card reflects her mixed heritage—it says Malay-Arab, since my husband is Malay. One day, she might have to choose a label for herself. I think about how confusing race has been for me and what her mixed-minority heritage would mean for her.
The elusive face of racism
There have been a slew of inflammatory race-related incidents in Singapore, which has been documented and put online. These videos have gotten a lot of views and rightfully, a lot of backlash. But this is the public, visible face of racism in Singapore which we rarely see. In reality, a majority of racial experiences here come in the form of microaggressions.
Racial microaggressions are a lived, everyday reality for minorities in Singapore, including myself. They stem from privilege, which is another concept we find difficult to wrap our heads around if we believe that the meritocracy which Singapore has been built on is unflappable. But the truth is that the playing field is not level for minorities here.
“I brought racial issues up in a public forum this past year and was met with a lot of gaslighting. People denied that my experiences were real”
Intersectionality plays into this as well—how many minority women are represented in leadership roles in Singapore? I wonder how much of that I have internalised. It took ages for me to put my name on my brand, Crazycat, a platform designed to uplift and inspire everyday women. I was so hesitant to include my name on the Instagram page bio because I felt that once people got wind that a minority woman was fronting the project, not many would want to get behind it. I’ve had countless experiences in forums and events where the voices of minority women were not represented. When I tried to raise the issue, it went unheard, or the importance of the problem was belittled. Then there are the ‘support local’ campaigns that pop up often, featuring only Chinese female entrepreneurs. This ultimately signifies to minority women who don’t see themselves reflected in these positions that success only has one look.
Fostering empathy and active citizenship
It’s hard to explain racism when it’s invisible and subtle. But as a minority, you are made to tirelessly justify why you feel marginalised or discriminated against. This is one of the most frustrating things about talking about race: there’s an expectation for you to trauma mine by essentially looking through all your racial trauma and coming up with concrete, bite-sized examples that are going to perfectly explain what in reality is a daily, overwhelming experience.
Believing minorities and lending an empathetic ear is invaluable. I brought racial issues up in a public forum this past year and was met with a lot of gaslighting. People denied that my experiences were real. I was accused of trying to stir up racial tension. But the truth is that as a Singaporean citizen who loves my country very much, what I want is for us to get to a place where we can truly hold our intersectional identities as Singaporeans, and our strength lies in our diversity. There are a lot of things involved in making that happen—and I know that policy is complicated, there are a hundred things to consider and delicately balance.
We can start by listening with an open mind and a full heart. It can be very unsettling to have believed your whole life that Singapore has perfect racial harmony and suddenly realising that it isn’t the case. Chinese privilege, too, is a difficult concept to wrap your head around for the first time. In other instances, when someone denies racism, what they are doing is just projecting their emotional response to discomfort. For me to be able to accept and understand that, I have to come from a place of deep empathy, right? If that grace is extended towards minorities too, racial conversations in Singapore will be transformed. When you hear minorities share their experiences, don’t try to discredit or invalidate them. Being a good, empathetic listener is the first ingredient to bridging the racial gap.
As citizens, we can continue to use our voice and push for accountability. Email your Member of Parliament, talk to your leaders. That is what active citizenship means—to me, it’s a big part of patriotism. If you are a leader in a business, it’s important for you to think about race as well. How can you alleviate racial dynamics in the workplace and level the playing field? Speak to your employees and hear their concerns with an open mind.
I am looking forward to a brighter future and a more equal Singapore. The truth is that while I’ve always been passionate and outspoken about many issues, what has really transformed my drive for advocacy is my daughter. The Singapore we leave behind will be the Singapore my daughter grows up in. I don’t want her to suffer through the same struggle and confusion that so many of us have gone through. And I still get emotional talking about it because she is my whole world. The incidents that unfolded over the past few months have been incredibly traumatising, but she has been my silent source of strength. She doesn’t even need to say anything, she just exists, and that’s enough for me.
Sarah Bagharib is a communications specialist at an international humanitarian aid organisation. Outside her day job, she’s a TEDx speaker and a TV presenter. She’s also a social advocate who strongly believes in empowering women and intersectionality. In December 2017, she founded Crazycat, a media and community platform that aims to help everyday women shine through digital content, events and workshops.