Ethnocentrism, not racism, is the root cause of division in Singapore’s society today

The Dave Parkash incident where a Singaporean Chinese male accosted an interracial couple, telling them that it was a disgrace for a Chinese girl and an Indian man to be together may be ethnocentrism at play.

Some landlords’ preference for not wanting to rent out their properties to those of Indian ethnicity may also be an example of ethnocentrism.

To be clear, racism exists in Singapore but to truly drive a constructive discourse on what’s dividing Singaporeans these days, we first have to understand the exact problem that’s festering.

Ethnocentrism vs Racism

Ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture and way of life is more superior to all others. It is the idea that one’s own culture is the main standard by which other cultures may be measured.

When people use their own culture as a parameter to measure other cultures, they often tend to think that their culture is superior and see other cultures as inferior and bizarre.

Racism on the other hand is one’s hatred for another race based solely on the colour of their skin or their ethnicity.

Ethnocentrism can set precedence to racism or xenophobia if the provocateur seeks to deny a person’s right to well-being, standards of living or even employment because the person’s race is different from theirs.

Ethnocentrism is often perceived as racism, but it lacks the malicious intent of racists who are bent on eradicating other races. A person can be proud of their race or origin without wanting to destroy those not like them.

For instance, a landlord may reject an Indian or a Chinese national from renting his home based on the preconceived notion about how different groups would take care of their homes better, but he may also employ Indians and Chinese immigrants as employees in a different setting.

Is the landlord then an ethnocentric or a racist?

Very often, people that are ethnocentric don’t know they are using their culture and way of life to judge another’s. The culture of an ethnocentric person is considered the ‘normal’ way that things are done, just as the landlord believes.

Was Tan Boon Lee, the Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer who confronted Dave Parkash and his girlfriend over the couple’s interracial romance a racist?

That would depend on whether Tan is consistenly applying his discriminatory ideals into his own way of life.

If it can be demonstrated that Tan applies his discriminatory views towards grading his students who are from the minority race, then yes, he is racist as he is denying the student’s right to a fair and equitable treatment of the student’s academic achievement based solely on his hatred for the student’s race.

Civility – a step towards a more harmonious society

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism: the ability to understand another person’s culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of your own culture.

No doubt, differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash.

A non-hindu may feel digusted with the Hindu practice of using a cow to bless their homes or a non-Muslim may be repulsed by female circumcision as practiced by Muslims in Singapore.

We can learn to understand and tolerate someone else’s culture but tolerance implies a passive endurance of differences privately perceived to be repulsive, immoral, or even abhorrent.

So what’s the best way forward?


Civility is about treating others with courtesy, politeness, and concern. It does not involve endorsing or morally accepting their culture or behaviour. It involves disagreeing without demonising, and hearing diverse opinions without attacking.

This notion of civility involves neither the sacrifice nor the moderation of personal convictions. It does, however, make us more expansive in our thinking and promotes reflection.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “Being Singaporean has never been a matter of subtraction, but of addition; not of becoming less, but more; not of limitation and contraction, but of openness and expansion.”

It may be wishful thinking to get Singaporeans to be more accepting of someone with a different culture but the least they can do is to be civil about it.

What do you think?

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