Second class citizens in Singapore will never admit that they’re poor

Hi guys. A term which has irked me a lot over the years is “second-class citizen” because ignorant and stupid Singaporeans often misuse the term when referring to Asian immigrants in the West who face some kind of racism or discrimination at the hands of white people. Now, don’t even get me started on such Singaporeans who try to pass judgement on issues that they know nothing about. My stance on the issue has always been very clear: discrimination on the basis of skin colour is a thing of the past. There are laws in civilized Western countries like the UK outlawing racism. In 2016, what matters is how much money you have, not the colour of your skin. With wealth comes privilege: you can buy your kids a much better education in the finest schools, you can live in beautiful houses in nice neighbourhoods and you can go to fine restaurants and hotels where you can pay people to treat you like royalty. By that token, there are plenty of poor white folks in the West who lead pretty miserable lives and suffer as a result of their poverty. The fact that they may have fair skin and light hair does little to change the fact that they are very poor. Today, your skin colour is far less important than your bank balance.

But let’s turn the spotlight for a change to Singapore: are there second class citizens in Singapore? I find this term contentious. Remember, we’re talking about citizens: those who have pink ICs — so that excludes those like the Filipino maid or the Indian construction worker who is in Singapore for a limited period of time on a work permit. Now according to Wikipedia, the definition of a second class citizen is “a person who is systematically discriminated against within a state or other political jurisdiction, despite their nominal status as a citizen or legal resident there Typical impediments facing second-class citizens include, but are not limited to, disenfranchisement (a lack or loss of voting rights), limitations on civil or military service (not including conscription in every case), as well as restrictions onlanguage, religion, education, freedom of movement and association, weapons ownership, marriage, gender identity and expression, housing and property ownership.” Now the most common example given women in Saudi Arabia, black Africans in South Africa during the Apartheid regime as well as native Australian aborigines prior to 1967.

So, are there second class citizens in Singapore? I hear you ask me, are you sure? Well, that’s something worth exploring in a blog piece like this. After all, in a capitalist society like Singapore, Singaporeans are quite happy to discriminate against poor people — after all, poverty is taken as a sign of personal failure and the fault lies with the individual for not having worked hard enough and the state/system is not to be blamed in such cases. Children are told to study hard, make sure they get excellent grades at the exams, go to top universities so that they can secure a good job, earn a lot of money and have a very bright future. I remember being warned by a teacher, “if you don’t study hard, you will end up driving a taxi!” It seems somewhat brutal, but that is a by-product of capitalism that we have all embraced. However, are there Singaporeans who are indeed systematically discriminated against by the system? Well, upon cross-checking the definition on Wikipedia, the answer is yes: there are definitely second class citizens in Singapore if we’re merely cross-referencing the Wikipedia definition.

Does your skin colour matter much in this day and age?

Now the first group of individuals are male Singaporeans who have to serve NS. Now I am not here to debate whether or not national service is important or can even be justified in the first place, but the fact that you have a group of individuals who are obliged by law to serve two years (it used to be longer, up to 2.5 years prior to 2004). This obligation clearly places male Singaporeans at a distinct disadvantage compared foreign expats in the job market — employers have to worry about their male Singaporean employees disappearing at the drop of a hat for various reservist activities and thus the system creates a situation where employers have a disincentive to hire male Singaporeans. And hey, for my female Singaporean readers, may I remind you that NS is not exactly a holiday camp where guys have fun. Is this how the system ‘rewards’ male Singaporeans who have given up 2 years (and in the case of older male Singaporeans, up to 2.5 years) of their youth to serve NS? Indeed, Singaporean men are simply expected to man up, make the sacrifice in the name of patriotism whilst the system does nothing in return to help them deal with the disadvantages they face in the local job market. Those who dare to speak up against the injustice of this system are often label traitors or unpatriotic.

Oh wait, it gets worse. Employers in Singapore have to consider their CPF contribution obligations when hiring a Singaporean as opposed to hiring a foreigner who is outside the CPF system. It is pretty strange that you have a system that discriminates against all local citizens and favours foreigners — but such is the system in Singapore. Any attempts to try to help citizens improve their position in the local job market have been feeble and ineffective at best — the government is simply unwilling to take stronger measures to help locals because of fears that interfering in the process of ‘natural selection’ would upset the free market, which ultimately thrives on the law of meritocracy. It was after all, this ruthless pursuit of economic growth, this embracing of the free market economy that has turned Singapore from the third world swampy island in the 1960s to the mega-rich city state it is today. So indeed, many Singaporeans are rather cagey about doing anything that may alter this formula has that delivered such impressive economy growth in the last 50 years.

Not everyone in Singapore can afford the high life.

However, the concept of second class citizens in Singapore is not as clear cut as in other countries where clearly one group is systematically discriminated against by the law. After all, there are plenty of male Singaporeans who have served NS and still go on to become fabulously wealthy despite having both NS and CPF liabilities. It is clear that for some male Singaporeans, these two factors have not affected their ability to achieve a very high quality of life in Singapore and they are extremely happy with their lives in Singapore whilst for others, it does have a more adverse effect. However, that does not mean that there are no ‘second class citizens’ in Singapore. Indeed, it is possible to triumph against the odds and still succeed when the system stacks the odds against you — but that doesn’t change the fact that the system is indeed discriminating against some citizens. Such is the situation for male Singaporeans today. So really, one should look at the rules of the system per se, rather than the products of the system to judge whether or not there are second class citizens in Singapore.

Are Singaporean men second class citizens then? This is when it gets tricky because the category ‘Singaporean men’ are hardly a monolithic entity. You have everyone from multi-millionaire CEOs to poor taxi drivers who are struggling to make ends meet. Take my Singaporean brother-in-law for example: he has a very well paid job in banking, he lives in a beautiful condominium and drives a very expensive car. The fact that he had to serve NS, had reservist obligations and is on the CPF scheme doesn’t seem to have hurt his prospects in life at all. Even if the system does make him a second class citizen, he sure doesn’t look like one. But then, if I may turn your attention to the scores of very poor white people in the UK. Recently, an Ofsted Chairman got into trouble for being a bit too honest when he described the Isle Of Wight as an “inbred, poor, white ghetto”. Now his language was definitely un-PC, but those of us who are willing to look beyond the un-PC language will know exactly what he is talking about. Of course there are pockets of poverty in the UK where poor white people live in terrible conditions — there are many such neighbourhoods within London as well, where poor people live. Are these poor, white English people first or second class citizens in the UK then?

All all English people are affluent and have nice homes…

You see, the label ‘second class citizen’ becomes quite meaningless at this stage because these poor, white English people are by no means discriminated by the state — but they still lead pretty miserable lives. The system here doesn’t discriminate against them — but does it do enough to help them out of their poverty? It is their poverty which lowers the quality of their life, not any kind of law comparable to that of the Apartheid system which systematically discriminates against certain groups of people in favour of others. No, indeed, these poor, white people cannot blame the law or the system for their poverty — there are a whole range of other socio-economic factors which can contribute to their current condition, but the fact is most Singaporeans would consider these poor, white English people first class citizens despite the fact that they probably lead quite miserable lives — far inferior to the Asian immigrants who have money (whom many Singaporeans would ironically term ‘second class citizens’). Do you see why such labels become not just inappropriate, but misleading at this stage? It simply does not reflect the reality and the complexity of the situation.

Singaporeans are ridiculously paranoid about racism in the West to the point where they have somehow chosen to ignore one far more important factor: wealth. No amount of ‘white, first-class citizen privilege’ can drag the poor white people on the Isle of Wight out of their miserable existence — the only thing that will make any difference to their lives is money and they need vast amounts of it. The fact is hardly any country in the world would go out of their way to discriminate against certain groups of people to create the phenomena of ‘second class citizens’: this is not done in democratic countries for it would never win you votes at an election (well, Singapore is a different case by that token.). Countries like North Korea and Eritrea clearly have laws which creates second class citizens, but neither governments are particularly worried about being popular with the electorate or winning more votes at the next election. So yes there are second class citizens in places like North Korea and Eritrea, but not in civilized Western democracies like the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and other similar countries.

Discrimination is simply not done in civilized countries.

Perhaps we can then make a distinction between countries where the governments try to help those who are at the bottom of the heap in society and those governments who do precious little. When governments do little to help those at the very bottom of society and let them languish in poverty, then they are effectively allowing a two-tier society to flourish: with an elite who have a much superior standard of living compared to the ordinary folks, who are by default second class citizens when compared to the elites. This is pretty much the situation in Brazil at the moment, with the world’s attention turned to the 2016 Rio Olympics. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor in Brazil today, the rich Brazilian elites have a standard of living on par with their counterparts in the USA, whilst the poor in the notorious Favelas (urban slums) live in abject poverty, suffering from everything from high crime rates, high unemployment, malnutrition and overcrowding. Does the Brazilian government go out of their way to discriminate against people in the Favelas? No they don’t, but by the same token, they do not do enough to lift these people out of their poverty. Indeed, some argue that the vast amounts of money spent on the Rio Olympics could have been better spent helping these poor people instead — let a richer country host the Olympics. That is why the decision to host the Olympics in Rio de Janerio has always been very controversial amongst Brazilians.

But then again, everything is relative, isn’t it? Those in the Favelas of Brazil may be poor, but they are still better off than say some of the tribes living deep in the interior of Brazil in the rain forests. And sure the white folks living on the Isle of Wight may be poor when compared to the elites living in London, but they are still a lot better off than those living in the Favelas of Brazil. By the same token, those Singaporeans living in the older HDB flats are definitely much worse off compared to the elites living in the flashy, new condominiums downtown, but they are still better off than say, their counterparts across the border in Malaysia. So if you were to take your low-income Singaporean family living in an old HDB estate, are they are second class citizen? Perhaps using such labels are too emotive or controversial for some Singaporeans, but no one can deny that such Singaporeans have a much lower standard of living compared to the rich elite in Singapore. Why isn’t this causing any trouble in Singapore then, why hasn’t this become a bone of contention then?

Why hasn’t the wealth gap become a bone of contention?

The answer is simple. There is this aspect of Asian culture which is this fear of “losing face” (怕丢脸) — that means that poor Singaporeans would never admit that they are poor or struggling, even to the point where they will refuse help because admitting that they need financial help would tantamount to “losing face”. I heard this story of a family friend in Singapore refusing to accept a subsidy from her school because she was so afraid her classmates would find out that her family was poor — the stigma of “losing face” in front of her classmates was enough for her to refuse free money. Go figure. So they would rather suffer in silence, to maintain the impression that they are doing fine, that they don’t need any help. In order to convince themselves that they are don’t need help, they would often compare their current situation to that of those in poorer SE Asian countries like Indonesia or Cambodia or even to that of Singapore several decades ago and think, “see? Things are not that bad for us today, right? Let’s be thankful.” It is this mentality which stops them from making greater demands of the government and there must be so many governments all over the world (such as in Brazil, for example) who wished that such a culture of 怕丢脸 existed in their countries too, so the government wouldn’t be under so much pressure to do a lot more to help the poor people.

So yes, there are poor people in every country in the world and they are the ones who are really the second class citizens in those countries. The key question really is then whether the governments in those countries do enough to help these poor people. Now in the UK, we have the welfare state — this is a controversial topic for Singaporeans as you don’t have a welfare state in Singapore. In the UK, the government will give poor people free or subsidized housing, the unemployed can collect unemployment benefits and job seekers allowance to help them back into the workforce. Those in poor health can access healthcare for free on the NHS. The list is pretty darn long — it makes our system look very left-wing, very ‘Robin Hood’: they tax the rich and help the poor. Now I’m not claiming for a moment that this system solves the problem of income inequality in the UK (nor am I defending it), but at least the British system does go a long way to try to help the ‘second class citizens’ here, those at the very bottom of our society. In Singapore however, the poor get little or no help from the government and Singaporeans would much rather pay less taxes and let the poor fend for themselves. So by that token, the system in Singapore is part of the problem and does create second class citizens whilst the system in the UK is at least part of the solution, not the problem, when it comes to solving poverty.

Singaporeans are very afraid of losing face.

Indeed, many Singaporeans are critical of the welfare state. “I am an honest person who works hard to earn my money, why should I pay high taxes just so some unemployed bum can get money from the government or subsidize some random stranger to get healthcare for free?” If that is the way you feel, then you are effectively supporting a system that does create second class citizens. So such is the situation in Singapore: those who have good jobs and are in relatively good health find it very easy to turn a blind eye to the elderly who are forced to work to make ends meet. Those who are effectively second class citizens in Singapore are in complete denial about the situation. Oh gosh, I remember seeing this interview on Facebook when a reporter interviewed this elderly Singaporean lady in her 70s or 80s working in a food court, cleaning tables. When asked why she was still working at her age, the lady replied with a smile, “我要exercise!” She then went on and on about how she would get bored if she stayed at home and watched TV all day, how working like this allows her to get out of the house and see her friends and how everyone she works with at the food court at so nice. Now the reporter was probably too polite to challenge this elderly lady, but I could think of far more pleasant ways for this lady to get some exercise and mingle with her friends without clearing the plates and trays at a food court and scrubbing the tables there all day and night for very little money. Such is the mentality of the 怕丢脸 Singaporean. But what did you expect this elderly lady to do — admit that she is facing financial hardship to a stranger on camera? She’s Chinese for crying out aloud.

So with the second class citizens in Singapore adamantly refusing to admit their status as second class citizens, it is all too easy for you Singaporeans to puff up your chests and claim that there are no second class citizens in Singapore. And as for that elderly lady in her 70s working in the food court — well didn’t you hear her? She said 她要exercise! It almost seems to be a conspiracy by all in Singapore to shame the second class citizens into denying that they are facing any kind of difficulty at all — perhaps that’s an Asian thing because I’m certainly not believing that elderly lady who claims she is working because she wants to ‘exercise’. So the next time you shrug your shoulders dismissively at the thought of second class citizens in Singapore, take a look at the elderly lady cleaning the tables at your local hawker centre or food court and ask yourself this, what kind of society has Singapore become and what kind of country do you want to live in? Many thanks for reading.

Limpeh Is Foreign Talent is a former Singaporean who has worked in over 10 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Originally published at on September 20, 2016.