Suspending/escaping Race: A Civil Society Experience

Constance Singam

I was in a taxi chatting with the driver, a Chinese man, when he spotted an Indian woman on the roadside. He points to her and says to me, ‘There’s your country woman’, and I tell him, ‘We are all from the same country; we are all Singaporeans’. ‘No’, he says, ‘Singapore belongs to Lee Kuan Yew’.

Race matters to this taxi driver. Race need not be the only source or even a major source of meaning or identity in a multicultural, multiracial, multireligious and globalized city like Singapore. But it would seem from the taxi driver’s comment however that he identified with race against other available identifications such as nation. He was also using race to signal his alienation from national identity. When racial categories are imposed as a dominant indicator of identity, they become the root cause of marginalization and discrimination. As we can see from the above anecdote, the taxi driver’s denial of national identity led him to ‘other’ the Indian woman, who was a fellow Singaporean.

Racial categorization has been officially set and normalized in Singapore. It is considered ‘normal’ in Singapore to describe people in terms of their race. It is ‘normal’ for the media to identify people in terms of their race. It is ‘normal’ to compare the achievements of various groups along racial lines. It is ‘normal’ to limit the learning of a language to one’s ‘mother tongue’. In Singapore, racism is thus institutionalized. Every official document requires one to record one’s race. By the time children enter school they have been indoctrinated into defining their identities in terms of their race rather than as Singaporeans.

Race matters in Singapore. For example, a 2004 study by staff of the National Institute of Education has given us the evidence that children of different races are not mingling (Lee et al. 2004). It confirms what we have suspected all along–that the current public policies have not brought people together. Indeed they may have created more divisions.

Race matters. But is it possible to escape it? Singaporeans have access to multiple identities–race, ethnicity, religion, culture, nationality and class, as well as others. None of these identities are fixed: they are continually evolving and changing, constantly shifting according to time and place, so that they are simultaneously ‘traditional and creative’. For instance I am Singaporean; before that I was British, and then, for a brief period, Malaysian; I was daughter, wife and housewife. I was young once and am no longer young. I am woman, feminist and social activist, teacher, and writer. Of all these categories, race is the least important part of my identity. Identity is important for it builds citizenship, interests, values, projects and social commitment. How and what kind of identity is constructed, especially as a dominant category: these are equally important questions. How then can I escape the limitations that ‘Race’ imposes on me in Singapore, where race is an official signifier of identity?

I am interested in the possibility of forging a Singapore community of people across racial divides, suspending racial categories. This process suggests a need for radical thinking that challenges powerfully held beliefs, which are supported and reinforced by public policies. My own experience and research leads me to believe that it is possible to forge such a community for the following reasons: people are not as powerless as they think they are and so need not feel trapped by official categorization; historically, women have succeeded in challenging oppressive systems and patriarchal domination; and civil society groups, such as women’s groups, suspend racial divides and have succeeded in challenging dominant values and ideologies and forced changes in the laws.

State multiracialism, civil society and citizen power

Literature on multiculturalism asserts that ‘civil society’ organizations can serve as a kind of ‘social capital’ that contributes to the development of a public culture of citizenship and inclusive participation. I am, therefore, particularly drawn to the concept of power that invests the individual with the capacity to shape and transform her life (within material constraints) and also to resist and subvert domination and control, be it individual, ideological or institutional. This is the power that has been demonstrated most clearly by local feminist organizations such as AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) which lobbied for women’s rights and equality, and other civil society groups such as TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) in their fight for the rights of domestic workers, the Nature Society (Singapore) in raising awareness about conservation and preservation of natural habitats, as well as the Cat Welfare Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in their campaign against cat abuse. Their campaigns raised awareness about domestic violence, maid abuse and cat abuse which triggered a response from the community and nudged the state into responding to these abuses vigourously by prosecuting abusers and imposing severe penalties (Long 2003).

This is the concept of power as analyzed by Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. Power in the Foucauldian sense is not possessed but exercised through actions. In his view, the mechanics of power are not centered in particular types of institutions but are dispersed through a labyrinth of networks. It is this interplay of power through multiple discourses that helps to explain the opportunities to challenge dominant ideologies and state control. The social reality of a multicultural society offers alternative discourses that inform other significant ideological directions. It is, therefore, possible to imagine a different Singapore and a different Singaporean. In the essay ‘Quietly resisting; silently subverting: the “wayward” ways of Singapore women’ (Singam 2002), I explored that different city – the slightly chaotic side of Singapore and of Singaporean women, who are redefining themselves in the mix of cultural influences that they experience, and who are not bound by traditional or official forms of identity.

Historical evidence supports the view that Singapore women have succeeded in challenging dominant value systems. There were the Samsui women who were highly visible from the 1930s to 1950s as labourers in our construction industry, who led independent lives, spurning marriage and living in a community of sisterhood under the most oppressive patriarchal system; the immigrant wives who crossed oceans to begin lives in a foreign land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; pioneers such as Hajjah Fatimah, the successful businesswoman of the nineteenth century; Janet Lim, the author of the autobiography Sold for Silver, who triumphed against slavery; and Shirin Fozdar and Chan Choy Siong who lobbied for an end to polygamy (Chin and Singam 2004).

These women survived some of the harshest realties of life for women in their day. Janet Lim had arrived in Singapore in the 1930s as a child mui tsai (slave) but escaped from her bondage and grew to become the first Asian matron of St. Andrew’s Mission hospital. She eventually married an Australian and settled in Australia. Harsh experiences made such women strong enough to resist imposed identities and build new lifestyles in the face of considerable odds (Lim 1958).

The study Singapore Women Re-Presented traces the history of Singapore women and her evolution over time (Chin and Singam 2004). The editors conclude that Singapore women do what they want: they marry whenever they want or they don’t marry; or they marry whoever they want, going against expectations that they marry within their race; they won’t have children just because the State wants them to; they will have them, however, on their own terms. They are educated, financially independent and they have, in the course of a short period, in historical terms, emerged as smart, independent women. It is these women who will blaze the trail for the evolution of a Singapore identity precisely because they are prepared to embrace change in order to survive, as their grandmothers had done before them.

Their identity is defined by their history, their experiences of culture, race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, religion, geography, class and gender. Consequently the Singapore woman can be a Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian or Caucasian. Yet, she is not a Chinese woman the way a Chinese woman is in China, nor an Indian woman the way an Indian woman is in India. She is evolving into a unique Singapore version of the different ethnicities. That is exciting.

These women, however, may not openly contest the strength of the dominant cultural forces, where control and traditional attitudes are pervasive and where many other women work to support these forces. My argument, therefore, does not assume that either patriarchal or modernist frames of reference have been replaced or superseded. But rather, I want to say that the consequence of domination is that acts of resistance and subversion will be low-keyed, circumspect and individual, and consequently may go unnoticed. Therefore the challenge to state prescription and re-definition of values based on racial categories will be slow and incremental in its assertion. But it will happen.

Identity is not only ideologically articulated and constructed by the state but it can also be re-articulated and re-constructed by the individual. However obstacles do exist as, indeed, do opportunities, to question the dominance of state-imposed values and systems. Firstly, there are many Singapores, which make the forming of affiliations difficult. There are the remains of the British colonial days: its buildings, its laws, its language, its churches, its schools; then there is the city of immigrants, who continue to pour into the city in search of work and wealth and who care very little about Singapore’s multicultural history; there is the city of English speakers, children of early immigrants who had settled here; fourthly, there are the Malays, the original settlers of Singapore; and finally, there is the city of vernacular speakers of Tamil and the Chinese dialects, who continue to feel marginalized.

Another obstacle is the attitude of Singaporeans who have become so accustomed to a centralized and oppressive system, a monolithic form of control, that they have difficulty envisioning opportunities for subversion or resistance to that power. In ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Louis Pierre Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, examines oppression as a structural condition arising from a system of social institutions which are patriarchal and capitalist in nature and highly structured as a top-down system (Althusser 1971).

The third obstacle to challenging the system would be, as Linda Lim notes, the state’s use of ethnic/race identifications as a technology of control that delimits the subject-formation of citizens, sometimes on terms that are not commensurate with the nation’s past or its present, the ‘real’ historical forces within which it operates (Lim 2006). These necessarily impact adversely on the citizen’s ability to imagine and materialize new social possibilities. Lim points to the way in which the state re-shaped identities especially through language policy for the purpose of creating a national identity that would ensure survival in a globalized world in specific ways (and not always involving equality) and which would not challenge its own political dominance. In the past we saw the fusion of local cultures, which led to the formation of Peranakan ethnicities. If the state had not intervened in this process of identity formation, other historical forces may have led to the further evolution of local ethnicities that would have disrupted racial categories.

Raymond Williams has observed that a culture is a production of meanings of the experience of a whole society (1997: 9). ‘ It is stupid and arrogant’, he says, ‘to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways we cannot know in advance. To try to jump the future, to pretend that in some way you ARE the future, is strictly insane’ (ibid.) This may be an overstatement of the issue but Williams captures the anomalous position of Singaporeans living and working within a postmodern, multi-cultural and fast-moving society but subscribing to yesterday’s, particularly colonial, constructions of race imposed by the state.

The mother-tongue policy does not only enforce specific racialized identifications, but also impacts on citizens’ perceptions of reality. This is a fourth obstacle to Singaporeans’ attempts to escape from imposed identities. Language is the means of imposing order on things and people. Through language, the symbolic order continually reproduces a ‘reality’ that is also a hierarchy of values which sustains the interest of the dominant power. It is in the interest of power to impose a particular perception of ‘reality’ as the only one.

However, despite the perception of a monolithic form of state control, the reality on the ground is a slow erosion of racial categories and the emergence of new ethnicities and the assertion of old ones. For instance, the state has attempted to construct one Chinese ethnicity out of a multi-dialect system by mandating Mandarin as the official ‘mother’ tongue of Singapore Chinese. It banned the public use of other dialects from all broadcasting media, in which Cantonese operas, movies and songs had then been a popular source of entertainment. However, today, this banning of dialect cultures has been less successful given the individual’s easy access to global communication systems, including video discs, cable television channels as well as the Internet. These have compromised the state’s ability to monitor and control the interpellation of ‘raced’ citizens.

Ordinary citizens also triumphed over the control of the language policy when, starting with the 1997 election, the ruling People’s Action Party surrendered its declared language policy to the use of dialect during election campaigns. This prompted a cynical political observer to observe to me that while PAP promotes Malay as the national language (which very few people outside of the Malay community use), and English as the language of commerce, Hokkien has become the language of elections.

Thus the capacity of individual citizens is revealed in the way Singaporeans negotiate their private lives, somewhat independently of the ideological practice and style of government. State control is tempered by other loyalties, interests and cultural discourses of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious immigrant population which, separately and in synergy, offer the potential to dissolve into less monolithic fragments. These fragments are often reconstituted at the level of the individual or group.

So the state may imagine a strong, well-organized and racially pure Singapore, steeped in tradition, but the real life in the streets of Singapore is less organized and a little messy. As illustrated by civil society activism cited above, the category of race was suspended as Singaporeans of all races collaborated in addressing common concerns. It is, therefore, possible to leave the politics of race to the politicians and to imagine a different Singapore–a Singapore driven by a different set of values and identifications than the one rooted on the rhetoric of race.

AWARE: suspending race through gender

As we have seen, Singaporeans have the capacity to define their own reality and challenge dominant ideologies. Often this has required the suspension of racial identification in bringing other significant categories to the forefront in the pursuit of common goals. The role of feminism in this process has been an important trajectory for the redefinition of identity along non-racial lines.

Manuel Castells characterizes the new social movements in the information age as involving a decentred form of networking and intervention that counters the more centralized networking logic of domination. For him, women’s movements are an example of ‘insurgents against the global order and religious fundamentalist movements’ (1997: 362). He describes women’s movements as producers and distributors of cultural codes in their various networks of exchange, interaction and sharing of experience in women’s groups, women’s magazines, women’s films and other women’s support networks.

Indeed, perhaps feminist activism enjoys greater facility than other civil society movements in penetrating more deeply against a society’s existing and dominant ideologies. In fighting for a better life for themselves, women must necessarily cross racial as well as class and sexuality lines to form the critical mass required for effective action. The need for inter-racial collaboration for the women’s cause is even more urgent within multiracial contexts such as ours. As I will show, within the local women’s movement, race was very often temporarily suspended or relegated to the background in addressing concerns shared by women from diverse communities. One may protest then that feminist activism can only offer utopian possibilities for thinking through and beyond race on the back of a struggle against another inequality, that of gender. This raises the irony that race can be suspended only by uniting all in another social category of oppression and struggle. Except that one has to bear in mind that gender intersects with many of the major ideological formations of patriarchal culture, including that of race and nationalism. Much of what we understand about our ‘racial’ culture or our national identity involves notions of women’s social roles, specific expectations of female conduct and gendered meanings of ‘tradition’ versus ‘modernity’. To then ‘suspend’ race in favour of the gender struggle is also simultaneously to cross swords with it, to interrogate it, to re-configure its meanings. In the women’s struggle, to suspend race is not just to ‘forget’ it temporarily but also to remember it later differently, as something less oppressive, less divisive, less compelling as an identification. This would apply also to the gay movement, given the traffic in meanings between sexuality, race and nationalism.

The first significant mobilization of women across race in Singapore was in 1952 with the formation of the Singapore Council of Women, which had a membership of 2,000 women of different races. It spearheaded a campaign, led by Mrs. Shirin Fozdar, an Indian, to abolish polygamy, which was a serious social problem for women from the majority Chinese population. The second serious challenge to dominant ideology took place in 1985 with the formation of the AWARE. This challenge was provoked by government intervention in the reproductive roles of women due to declining birthrates.

AWARE has created a space for challenging Singapore’s dominant ideology and control, a space for plurality and for the ‘ethics of self’ as a way of empowering women. Working across divides and focusing not just on gender but on sexuality, feminist activism traverses much inter-racial cultural terrain by at least temporarily deferring racial identifications. Solidarity among women across divisions of class, race/ethnicity and language allows them to draw on the power of collective action and it has been successful precisely because of the diversity of those involved. In their struggle to transform their society, women suspended race and class divisions to work towards shared issues related to women. Rape, unequal work burdens, and the political marginalization of women speak a universal language. The focus on the common good, universal values, human rights and AWARE’s leadership in challenging the state’s patriarchal values have earned public respect and recognition across the racial divide. One of the major successes of AWARE and other civil society groups has precisely been the suspension of race consciousness in a very race-conscious society.

For instance, when I was president of AWARE (1987-1989, 1994-1996) and of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations (1990-1992), I was seen, not as an Indian, but as a person and leader in her own right who represented the views of all women, regardless of race. In a 1995 AWARE survey of membership, the writer, Lenore Lyons, noted that the AWARE membership data maintained records of the number of members, life members, student members, Friends of AWARE, year of joining, marital status, age, citizenship and nationality (all of which are required by the Registry of Society) and occupation. But the association, she pointed out, did not maintain racial records of its members. Although the majority of the membership is made up of Singaporeans of Chinese descent, five of the 12 AWARE presidents have been non-Chinese. Of the three past presidents who became Nominated Members of Parliament, two were of Indian origin. Feminists in AWARE have offered a critique of society and a commitment to social change such as has not been attempted in Singapore’s political culture. The association has taken issues that confront Singapore women to the public realm and challenged the State’s definition of reality for women.

Through consciousness raising and advocacy over the past 20 years, AWARE has succeeded in challenging patriarchal values and forcing changes in the system and in the law to acknowledge the human rights of women. By suspending race, it countered the use of the state ideology of multiracialism to mask pressing social inequalities. The association played a role in the government’s rescinding, in 1994, of a gendered policy that had required girls to study home economics and boys to attend classes in technical studies for the previous ten years. The association’s efforts also led in 2003 to improved citizenship rights being offered to foreign husbands and children of Singapore women, the lifting of the medical faculty quota system which had limited women to one-third of the cohort, and the granting of equal medical benefits to families of female civil servants. The association had also been working for eligibility for singles to purchase certain HDB housing and for family friendly benefits to be extended to employees, giving longer maternity leave, lower maid levy and a five-day week. This was accomplished in 2004.

In 1995, as part of an AWARE campaign to raise public awareness about the problem of domestic violence, Dr. Kanwaljit Soin, a past president of the association, moved a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament in her capacity as Nominated Member of Parliament, calling for better protection for women in situations of domestic violence. Two years later, the Women’s Charter was amended to include provisions for the protection of victims of family violence and gave the police more power to arrest abusers. The campaign to change the attitudes and value system of Singaporeans re-negotiated social contracts in which society as a whole had condoned domestic violence against women as acceptable in a marital relationship, as a ‘private’ matter between husband and wife that did not warrant state intervention, and even as something that was acceptable within ‘Asian’ culture in that it related to male authority in the family. The campaign established the right of women to be treated as equal to men in a relationship, garnered the support of the wider public, the media, and other civil society activists in this, and also opened channels between government and non-governmental organizations to work against these existing attitudes and perceptions.

AWARE set about subverting, through its activities and its writings, the way people thought about power and control by shifting the state-controlled space towards more open debate on women’s issues. By questioning the categories that define and limit us, AWARE has suggested the potential for self-transformation. It challenged all of us who were disturbed by the controlling power of dominant ideologies to engage in on-going, critical self-examination about how we live in our world. AWARE’s public assertion of a feminist ideological position, empowering in itself, not only demonstrated a radical form of resistance to patriarchal values in its suspension of race but also articulated a resistance to state ideology and its authority.

Small groups of activists, well positioned and strategically armed, may well be more successful in effecting change than large-scale mass organizations with divided interests. Groups such as AWARE and TWC2 have challenged notions of race and gender and the controlling power of dominant ideology. While the State continues to dominate public space, limiting citizens’ freedom, the experiences of feminists offer a different view of power as a ‘productive creative force’ that creates knowledges, methods and techniques that can be deployed to maintain a sense of power and control over one’s life. Women devised a variety of creative strategies to assert their own interests and to achieve goals without overt expressions of hostility.

The main goal of the feminist group AWARE, as it is of most feminist groups, is the liberation of society from behaviors that constrict the humanity of any one group. It may also work for the liberation of all people, not only women, from arbitrarily imposed behaviors, including that of race constructed strategically to serve particular social and political ends. It can do this without directly butting heads against ‘race’. These experiences could provide an ever-changing frame of reference that animate society and serve to validate a new imagined community or to revitalize ideals without conflict.

Civil society activists appeal to the core decency of ordinary people when they address issues of common social problems and values. Thus they have the power to take the Singaporean imagination beyond racial barriers in re-visioning society. What is, therefore, the particularly important lesson learnt from the experience of feminists and other resistant groups is the practice of seeing through and beyond race, questioning and challenging definitions of gender and race, and rejecting the very concept of a dominant value system. To challenge the authority of the one ideology and to name one’s reality against it is to usurp that ideology’s power to dominate and devalue one’s culture. Feminist discourse, as a body of knowledge and as a political force and praxis, offers such a site for challenge.


Civil society, while it respects diversity, is able to forge unity across differences, as opposed to a state defined ‘multiracial’ identity. Indeed I argue further that there exists within these organizations under discussion, a respect for the individual and recognition of her/his humanity irrespective of their race, class, gender or age. Consequently, politicized civil society movements forge ‘cultures of solidarity’ which can be transformative for a race-conscious community in offering citizens other and more heterogeneous identifications. The values engendered by the ‘cultures of solidarity’ in non-race-based causes that connect individuals within organizations and across civil society are then extended beyond these boundaries of civil society interaction to the spaces of everyday life. When youth in schools and tertiary institutions as well as government organizations are roped into civil society work, as they often are, then one could say that the thinking through and beyond race is achieved to some degree even in state-controlled spaces.

However, given state control of its spaces, civil society alone cannot adequately counter the government’s power to order local subjectivities along racial lines. Also, the deferral of race in social activism may not survive beyond the projects engaged in if no new cultural energies enter the national landscape. It remains to be seen how and whether civil society can work in tandem with the larger forces of globalization that so have the propensity to cause significant interruptions in the state’s agenda. With the Internet, for instance, the government can no longer have the kind of control over public opinion that it used to, including curbing open discussion of race relations and hostilities. This has resulted in more attention being given now to inter-ethnic relations, muting somewhat the discourse of race. The influx of foreigners who come for study and employment here has also allowed race to recede a little into the background, if not interrogated as a category, with differences in nationality, ethnicity and class becoming more apparent in marking people. But, as we can also see, the global movements of capital and labour across continents have also unleashed forces that are crystallizing new, perhaps more powerful transnational constructions of race and ethnicity. How these will play out in our society and against the state technology of race is anyone’s guess. Civil society may need new strategies, new causes and modes of organizing if it is to continue to make gains in future in overcoming barriers to social and self transformation posed by limiting ideologies of race.


Althusser, L. (1971) ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Brewster.

Chin, A. and Singam, C. (eds) (2004) Singapore Women Re-Presented, Singapore: Landmark.

Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity, Malden: Blackwell.

De Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) ‘Truth and power’, in C. Gordin (ed.) Michel Foucault: Power / Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York: Pantheon.

Goh, C.L. (2006) ‘…while local brides are not: far fewer Singapore women than men marry foreigners, but sociologist believes number likely to rise’, Straits Times, 1 Oct 2006.

Lee, C., Cherian, M., Ismail, R., Ng, M., Sim, J., and Chee M.F. (2004) ‘Children’s experiences of multiracial relationships in informal primary school settings’, in Lai A.E. (ed.) Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore, Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

Lim, L. (2006) ‘Singapore: place or nation?’ Straits Times, 19 June 2006.

Lim, J. (2004) Sold for Silver: An Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia, Singapore: Monsoon.

Long, S. (2003) ‘Contradiction at the heart of the Singapore system’, Straits Times, 29 May 2003.

Lyons, L. (1995) Summary of Findings from the AWARE Membership Survey January 1995, unpublished, AWARE, Singapore.

Mak, M.S. (2007) ‘Foreign affairs: when people of two races marry, even something like where you cut your nails can be a problem’, Straits Times, 6 May 2007.

Oon, C. (2003) ‘Be my dimsum curry tonight (and every night)’, Straits Times, 3 August 2003.

Scott, J.C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Singam, C. (1997) ‘The workings of power in Singapore: control-resistance-change’, unpublished Master dissertation, Curtin University of Technology, Australia.

—–. (2002) ‘Quietly resisting; silently subverting: the “wayward” ways of Singapore women’, in W. Lim (ed), Postmodern Singapore, Singapore: Select.

Williams, R. (1997) ‘Culture is ordinary’, in A. Gray and J. McGuigan (eds), Studying Culture: An Introductory Reader, London: Edward Arnold.

Constance Singam is the legendary three-time president of AWARE who describes herself as “a writer, a social activist, teacher, restauranter and now … a blogger” (Living Life at 70).