Biracial Singapore Privilege
All photos by the writer. 
race-identity

What It's Like to Grow Up Biracial In Singapore

We asked young Singaporeans about their experience being in the fourth of three major race categories in Singapore.
17 January 2020, 8:59am

Race may be a social construct, but it still affects my everyday life. In my own experience as someone who is multiracial, the odd conversation with a taxi driver is always punctuated with the assumption that I’m a foreigner. The bowl of wanton mee always comes with a smile indicating that the hawker was impressed that I knew how to ask for more chilli in their dialect.

Perhaps the incidents that affected me the most, though, were closer to home.

Growing up, my parents impressed on me that I didn’t need to be defined by any category. My mother is a first-generation Singaporean whose family hails from North India while my father, who is also first-generation, is of Portuguese, British, and Goanese descent.

I’m still a bit muddled about my fathers’ ancestry as my parents got divorced before I could pick his brain on his heritage. Raised by our mother, my brother and I grew up with Indian culture as the Eurasian side of our identity fizzled into blackness. It only ever surfaces when I present my IC (Identity Card) or write my dad’s surname in official documents.

Finding the middle ground between a practised culture and a theoretical racial identity was exhausting.

The constant remarks that I didn’t look Indian, and by extension, Singaporean, the inability to relate fully to my Indian friends and family, the lack of exposure to my Eurasian heritage, all led to me disassociating from my racial makeup.

I picked up odds and ends from different cultures and paved my own moral sidewalk, one that made sense for only me to walk on.

Singaporeans often feel obliged to check one of three majority monoracial boxes (Chinese, Malay, and Indian), even if we don’t necessarily fit into it. In a nation with such a diverse mix of cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds, there’s an ironic urge for bi/multiracial people to identify as just one of these, or risk getting caught in the undercurrents of an identity crisis.

For me, the solitude of walking on this sidewalk in my adolescence, became alienating and lonely. I became angry that others couldn’t relate to, much less share, my internal struggle.

Put into perspective however, in 1997 around the time I was born, only 8.7 percent of marriages in Singapore were between people of different races, but in 2017, that rose to 22.1 percent. Perhaps the statistics suggest that I’m less alone than I had imagined, so I decided to seek out fellow bi/multiracial people and see how they felt about the whole thing.

Astrid Jansen, 25, Graphic Designer/Illustrator

Christian Jansen, 24, Musician in Islandeer/Creative Consultant

Siblings. Half-Chinese, half-Eurasian father and half-Filipino, half-Irish mother

1579248515017-pjimage-7

VICE: What do you identify as?

Astrid: I don’t really identify as anything specific, to be honest, but I strongly identify with my Asian roots a whole lot more than my Caucasian/European roots. Mainly because I was brought up in Asia, by my mom and dad, and Filipino grandmother. While my upbringing was probably less conservative and traditional than your average Asian household, we were still raised on ‘Asian values.’ I guess I’ve just grown very comfortable with feeling vaguely Asian, if that makes sense?

Christian: I identify as a Singaporean! I went through ‘O’ Levels in a neighbourhood school and did two years of National Service, so I’m very Singaporean. I only missed the PSLE (a national exam) because I was in Kuala Lumpur. I don’t really see my race as part of my identity.

Do you feel different from other Singaporeans because of your mixed ethnic background?

A: Nah. I’m really an average Singaporean gal. I went to a neighbourhood secondary school, I grew up in a HDB (government-assisted public housing, most common Singaporean dwelling), I eat chicken rice when I don’t know what else to eat. Honestly, I don’t feel different until someone else points out that I am. Usually, it’s because I look “ang moh” (slang for caucasian person).

C: I speak Singlish, I stay in a HDB, and I feel that having said the SAF pledge (Singapore Armed Forces pledge recited in mandatory military service), I’m pretty much a typical Singaporean guy.

Does your family have any practices or traditions that seem particularly unique to your bi/multi-racial heritage?

A: The traditions at home stem from a diluted mix of Eurasian, Filipino, and Chinese practices. I guess meal time is pretty interesting because my mom and I eat with our hands, while my dad and brother tend to eat with cutlery.

C: The food my mom cooks (which has been passed down from her mom, and so on) is pretty unique. Corned beef patties, torta (Filipino meat-omelette), shepherd’s pie — they’ve all become traditions. That, and our annual Christmas parties, where there’s lots of alcohol, sing-song sessions, and food.

Have you experienced discrimination or felt marginalised as a bi/multi-racial person in Singapore?

A: It wasn’t until secondary school that I experienced feeling “out of place.” I had just moved back to Singapore from Malaysia and had to enter secondary 2 at Bukit Batok Secondary School. The first few weeks were kind of tough; I found it hard to make friends.

There was a group of classmates that didn’t want to associate with me because they believed ang mohs were arrogant. On hindsight, I can’t really blame them. But it sucked in the moment, like those movies where the girl who has no friends sits in the toilet and cries during lunch. Eventually, I met two Burmese girls who I befriended because we were exempted from taking mother tongue (second language, with the default determined by race) and had a free period together. They’re still two of my closest friends to this day.

The language barrier also made things tricky because most of my classmates spoke in their respective mother tongues, and I wouldn’t understand entire conversations. So it was hard to socialise, and pretending to laugh when everyone else did grew kind of pathetic. But I just gave it some time, and eventually there were a few that were kind enough to translate and even code-switch at times. No one was really being discriminatory on purpose.

C: Yeah, but nothing too crazy. When we moved back to Singapore, the change from an international school to a neighbourhood school was a tough one. From not noticing anyone’s race, to everyone suddenly noticing how different I looked. Not to mention, the language barrier. But with all things, eventually, you find some common ground, you start socialising and making friends. Things got better, eventually. That said, I definitely got a few ‘chao ang moh’s’ (derogatory term literally meaning smelly white person) in my life, but that’s not really a big issue to me. I’m not that smelly.

What’s the best thing about being bi/multi-racial?

A: I love that I am exposed to a lot of cultures. You’re not sure if you fit in here nor there, so anywhere also can. So now, I have friends from all sorts who introduce me to different aspects of their cultures.

C: It’s a great conversation starter. Sometimes, Grab drivers would ask “Oh, are you local?” and I would tell them “Yeah, but I’m mixed,” and they’d ask what mix, and it would last the whole ride. It’s also funny to throw people off because they don’t think I’m local, then the “lahs” and “lors” come through, mixed in with Malay and Mandarin words, and they get really impressed. It comes in handy when I need an icebreaker.

What’s the worst thing about being bi/multi-racial?

A: Answering the question “Ha? You not Malay, you not Chinese, then you what?” Especially in the back of a taxi, in the early morning, when I’m already late for work. And then having to explain, “I’m Eurasian,” and them replying “Mix with what?”

Eurasian, in Singapore, is a race on its own, with its own culture, with its own essence. But people don’t treat it as such. I used to enjoy these kind of questions, and I guess it was nice being able to enlighten people, but after a while, it gets tiring. I suppose people are just unaware.

C: I think it’s that most people within my age group don’t really know the term “Eurasian.” During the first few weeks of school, I had to constantly explain that it meant European plus Asian, and that it’s an actual phrase, but they didn’t have a clue. Most of them thought I was American. I think my particular school just didn’t have that many Eurasians, so none of them knew any better.

Tessa Kaur, 24, Marketing Associate/Writer

Punjabi father and Cantonese mother.

1579247054862-2020-01-17-123027-1

What do you identify as?

I identify as Chindian, or Chinese-Indian. I do find that my identification changes with context — with a group comprised of majority Chinese people, I feel like the token brown person, but with a group of Indian people, I feel like the outsider Chinese person.

Do you feel different from other Singaporeans because of your mixed ethnic background?

I have definitely felt different from other Singaporeans, but only because they treated me as different. I didn’t realise that my race was a big deal until the people around me started asking questions about the way I live, as if it would be very different from the way they lived. It has also led to a ton of identity issues for me, not feeling like I belonged anywhere or ‘deserved’ to claim either of my cultures fully.

What was it like growing up?

Growing up for me was relatively easy because I was fair-skinned. My dark-skinned Chindian compatriots have definitely encountered a lot more difficulty than I have, but Chinese people (and honestly some Indian people) never fail to tell me that I’m “so lucky” I got the fair-skinned genes. It’s very gross. I also got mistakenly identified as Eurasian a lot, sometimes Filipino, so I found myself having to establish my race over and over to acquaintances and strangers. It’s hard not to have that become the way you identify yourself, when so many people see it as the most interesting thing about you.

Does your family have any practices or traditions that seem particularly unique to your bi/multi-racial heritage?

If anything, my family is completely lacking in traditions and practices. It’s like they couldn’t decide what to pass on to me, so they decided not to pass anything down at all. For example, my father was raised Sikh and my mother Buddhist, and I was raised basically an atheist. My father went to a gurdwara and my mother went to a Buddhist temple, and I went to neither. We eat a lot of Western food at home. It’s made me super white-washed. I get a lot of “Are you even Singaporean?” from people when they realise how lacking in culture I am. I didn’t learn it from my parents, so friends had to teach me. I ate biryani for the first time when I was 17 because my Indian best friend brought me to her house for dinner. I’m half Indian! It’s ridiculous.

Have you experienced discrimination or felt marginalised as a bi/multi-racial person in Singapore?

I’ve absolutely felt marginalised. When I was in primary school, I was in Higher Chinese for about six months. My classmates called me “dirty blood” in Chinese. I dropped out afterwards, obviously. When I applied to university, they made me prove that Chinese was my mother tongue by asking for my birth certificate to prove I was actually part Chinese, as if I would study it for twelve years for fun.

I once had to sift through resumes for a former employer who told me to toss any resumes of non-Chinese people, as if I wasn’t also a brown person. I’ve had Chinese people tell me Chinese privilege isn’t real, after hearing countless stories of my own family being turned away from jobs despite being better qualified than their Chinese counterparts. I’ve been exoticised by countless people, told I’m not “really brown” because I don’t eat with my hands or can’t speak Punjabi. I went to Punjabi school for a while, but quit after a year or two because they bullied me for being Chinese.

I don’t feel like I’ve ever fit in anywhere, because I’m so obviously different from the people around me. I can see people staring at me and trying to figure out how to classify me when I walk into a room.

What’s the best thing about being bi/multi-racial?

I never really thought about it, honestly. Being biracial has never been a good thing to me. I guess it makes me more open-minded and conscious of the struggles of minorities in Singapore, but apart from that, the only way I benefit is that Chinese aunties are always so charmed by my Indian features that they call me pretty even when I’m buying chicken rice in my pyjamas.

What’s the worst thing about being bi/multi-racial?

Definitely the knowledge that I almost never am able to blend into a room. I will always stand out for looking different, and that’s not a good thing to me.

Hadi Lee, 27, Web Developer

Chinese (Hokkien) father and Malay mother.

1579247067408-2020-01-17-123034-1

What do you identify as?

I identify as both Malay and Chinese equally. I hardly subscribe or associate myself with either of them. I feel like it’s equal, because I don’t feel closer towards any race.

I used to feel predominantly Chinese because I felt I had a lot to prove after being bullied for “being brown and studying Chinese.”

Between the ages of 7 and 10, our classes used to separate for mother tongue lessons (Malay students would leave the classroom), and my Chinese friends would constantly question why I hadn’t left yet. Sometimes, at the start of a school year, a new Chinese teacher would ask me, very kindly, if I was sitting in the wrong classroom. It made me feel singled out. So very early on, I was trying very hard to prove how Chinese I could be by trying to converse in Chinese as much as possible.

I got over that really quickly because my form teacher in primary 3 really made me feel comfortable with my identity. She was always uplifting and helped me develop a sense of confidence when it came to issues dealing with my mixed-race background.

Do you feel different from other Singaporeans because of your mixed ethnic background?

Just a little bit. Race right now feels to me more like a social construct than something scientific, and it doesn’t really matter to me how people look at me racially. Most people haven’t changed the way they talk to me after they learned that I’m mixed-race.

It sometimes feels like I have to take sides when people talk to me about racial issues, but I know I don’t have to prioritise race over who’s right and who’s wrong. Every time I meet someone knew, it feels like they’re deconstructing my identity when they’re asking questions, like “Oh so your father converted because of marriage?” or “And you’re Muslim?” Short interactions like that really make me feel uneasy because I feel like I’m being examined, like an artifact. But I’ve gotten used to it.

What was it like growing up?

My parents firmly believed that I didn’t have to lean towards either race. I believe that stemmed from the pressures my father felt when he converted to Islam in the 80s. As part of the Muslim community in Singapore, he was always encouraged to speak Malay and “be more Malay.” That impacted my father a lot, because he was brought up in a traditional Chinese household. His Chinese friends also distanced themselves from him at the time.

Growing up, my mother insisted that I study Mandarin so the people around us could see, empirically, that you can be both Muslim and Chinese. I guess it was a lot more uncommon in the 90s.

Does your family have any practices or traditions that seem particularly unique to your bi/multi-racial heritage?

Because we didn’t feel particularly Malay or Chinese and didn’t want to choose, during Hari Raya and Chinese New Year, we usually wear non-traditional clothes.

My family has been to a few Chinese funerals in temples that only families and close friends attend. Looking back at it now, it sure looks unusual for my mother and sister, who both wear the hijab, to participate in Taoist funeral rituals.

Have you experienced discrimination or felt marginalised as a bi/multi-racial person in Singapore?

I feel like I’m not getting the full experience of being a multi-racial person when I say I haven’t. Don’t get me wrong — I wouldn’t want to experience something like that. Singaporeans have been a lot more discerning/aware about racial issues. We have a lot of work to do, obviously, and we have a long way before we get to where we want to be.

My friends have said I can pass off as someone from either race, and that translates a lot into my interactions with strangers. Both Chinese and Malay staff have opened conversations with me in their respective mother tongues, and when I don’t understand, I just explain my mixed-race background. But that’s about it, really.

What’s the best thing about being bi/multi-racial?

I get to closely experience two different cultural practices regularly.

What’s the worst thing about being bi/multi-racial?

Having to be at the end of some really ignorant remarks about my identity, because when some people are getting to know me, they just take all the convenient stereotypes they have about both races, and dump them onto me. That makes me feel like every complex and wonderful experience I’ve had as a mixed-race person has been reduced to a noun or a slur.

Isabella, 23, Illustrator/Art Teacher

British father and Malay mother.

1579247079797-2020-01-17-123041-1

What do you identify as and why?

I’ve never really considered myself either British or Malay. The British never really considered me to be Caucasian and the Malays don’t believe that I’m Malay, just that I'm “mat salleh lor” (Malay colloquialism for caucasian). I usually identify myself as mixed because that’s the truth! I sometimes like to call myself “light brown”, but then I get judged by actual brown folks.

Do you feel different from other Singaporeans because of your mixed ethnic background? Why or why not?

Yes! Only because I’m a third culture kid. I was born here but raised in Saudi Arabia.

Growing up in the land of sand and camels, I always identified myself as Singaporean because that’s what my passport said and it made me feel special since I was the only Singaporean at school. Fast forward 11 years, I moved to Singapore and realised I was the least Singaporean person. I was (still am) “too white” to be a local. I had a real identity crisis! I could never really relate to ‘pure’ Singaporeans and they couldn’t relate to me.

What was it like growing up? Was your racial identity impressed on you a lot?

Growing up in Saudi, I didn’t really care so much about my racial identity. I lived in an international compound with neighbours from all over the world. Everyone was welcoming and no one really cared about where you came from or your ethnicity. However, the friends I had in Saudi would always label me “Asian,” and I was their “chinky” friend. It was only when I visited family here that I was considered “the white girl,” which made me feel excluded, or when I visited family in the UK, I would always be the outcasted “Muslim cousin from Singapore.” I’m the black sheep of both sides of the family, which was and still is fine!

Does your family have any practices or traditions that seem particularly unique to your bi/multi-racial heritage?

Sometimes during Hari Raya and Christmas, we have Malay-infused roast dinners! The father loves his English food and the mother likes spices, so when you mix them together, you get non-bland potatoes and gourmet roast chicken with kuah lodeh and beef rendang as side dishes.

Have you experienced discrimination or felt marginalised as a bi/multi-racial person in Singapore?

Not really. I’ve been told that I’ve gotten a lot of privilege for being Eurasian. Which isn’t bad at all, I can’t really complain. Most of the time, strangers treat me like a tourist, which I enjoy. When I do something stupid or wrong, I can say that I’m not from around here.

What’s the best thing about being bi/multi-racial?

Being able to adapt! I’ve never truly felt like I belonged anywhere and nowhere is truly “home.” I used to hate it, but fuck it. I now love it! I love the freedom and ambiguity of it all! I can live my life exploring and it excites me!

What’s the worst thing about being bi/multi-racial?

Being considered as “the other” from family members. It gets lonely when no one can relate to your experiences and when no one truly understands when you feel like an outcast. I never really had a sense of belonging. But c’est la vie! I used to dwell on my identity crisis and didn’t like the fact that I didn’t fit in anywhere. For a long time, I felt chronically lonely. Thank goodness I managed to grow out of it and have a change of perspective. Sure, I do still feel lonely at times, but it doesn’t feel as bad as it did in the past. Alhamdulillah (thank God), life is good.

Find Aditya on Instagram.