The Amy Cheong Controversy: The Truth About Race

I thought it fitting to comment on the Amy Cheong Controversy, to discuss about the issue of race.

Do you know that “race”, as we know it, isn’t real? We think that “race” is a biological marker of our differences. But it’s not. Our race, in terms of differentiation, is real, only in the visual sense. What should be more abhorred, is that we have taken this visual differentiation further and used it to undermine others, simply by how a person looks.

Let me share with you an anecdote. A few days ago, I had a meeting with some colleagues. We were discussing about whether to include Malay and Tamil languages on a poster that I was developing for a campaign. In the end, they recommended that I do not need to include the Malay and Tamil languages on one particular poster because the poster would be placed at a specific location which will be frequented mainly by the Chinese-speaking group. I accepted their recommendation, since I had assumed that they would be more familiar in the overall communications aspect of the campaign. It was only when I got home and reflected about the campaign did I realise that I was the only Chinese person at the meeting. The other members were Malay and Indian people but this didn’t cross my mind at the time of the meeting. I had not noticed their skin colour. I had recognised them just as another human being. Most importantly, at the meeting, we were able to make objective decisions, not determined by our skin colour. But then again, should we?


Do you know that the colour of our skin has developed as a reaction to sunlight. I will try to put this as simply as could I understand it.

The colour of our skin is present because of a pigment called melanin Melanin protects us from ultraviolet radiation (UV). In the tropical regions (at and near to the equator), sunlight is the strongest, so melanin has to work more – it absorbs more UV rays. Then, the melanin granules will increase and expand – this will cause the skin to look darker. As you go further north and south towards the poles, the amount of sunlight is less intense and the duration of sunlight is shorter, so there is relatively less need for the melanin to protect us from the UV rays. Thus people in these regions have developed lesser melanin as they do not need as much protection from the UV rays. This is the reason why their skin is fairer. If you understand this, you will understand that after thousands of years of being bathed in sunlight in the tropical region, a person will naturally develop more melanin and become darker, while a person in the temperate region will develop lesser melanin and become fairer. The colour of our skin is thus an interaction of our skin with the climate. In other words, imagine that if you are suntanning and you decide to do it for the next 50 years without rest, your skin would become fairly dark by then (pardon the pun!).

Another reason for our skin colour has been suggested to be this – humans need Vitamin D for calcium. Vitamin D is made when our skin is exposed to UV rays. Since people in the tropical regions have darker skin, because of the melanin which absorbs the UV rays to protect them, they would take a longer time to absorb UV rays to produce Vitamin D. It can thus be explained that in order to produce enough Vitamin D, the people living nearer to the poles have developed fairer skins to be able to absorb more Vitamin D because of the shorter exposure and intensity of UV rays.

In short, the colour of our skin has developed according to how much sunlight it has been exposed to. Thus people in Africa, parts of the Indian subcontinent, the indigenous people of Australia and parts of Oceania have darker skin colours because of the amount and intensity of sunlight that they receive. And people in the northern parts of Asia and Europe thus have fairer skin tones. You can see a pattern emerge if you map the skin colour tones (Figure 1) to the climatic regions (Figure 2).

map of the world showing the distributiion of human skin color in about 1500 A.D.--darker skin colors are found mostly between 20 degrees north and south of the equator

Figure 1: Human Skin Colour Distribution (Picture Credit: Skin Colour Adaptation)

Figure 2: Climate Zones (Picture Credit: Green Bee Buzz)

Also, do you also know that the Red Indians of America had descended from the peoples of East Asia? So, in current terms, the Red Indians would technically be Chinese, wouldn’t they? And if they are Chinese, why do we call them Indians? Because of their skin colour? Something is not quite right when we label people according to their skin colour, and then realise thereafter that they are genetically from then same lineage. So, actually, we are not different races. We are one race.

To put it in another way, for the Chinese in Singapore, if your descendants are still around in the next thousands of years and still living in Singapore, they will become brown – they will become what we term as “Malay”. If you discriminate against other people of different colours, that means you would necessarily discriminate against your own descendant.


So, you might then say, fine. Maybe we are the same race. Maybe if I live here for long enough, my colour will change. And it’s all because of the sunlight. But they are different! The behave differently! They have different customs! They believe in different things! It’s weird. Well, it was weird when the Europeans colonised Asia and thought that everything the Asians did was weird. It was weird when the Europeans colonised the Americas and though that everything the indigenous people did was weird. In fact, whenever one group conquers another, the conquered will always be perceived as weird. Why? Because if I were to rule you, my culture would necessarily take precedence over yours, wouldn’t it? This is called power. We thus demonise the culture of the conquered and consider them as lesser or weird.

But is someone else’s culture really weird? Just because we don’t understand, does it make it weird? Actually, everyone thinks the same way. The Chinese thinks that some practices of the Malays and Indians are weird. The Malays think that some practices of the Chinese and Indians are weird. The Indians think that some practices of the Chinese and Malays are weird. Is it really? Or it is because we want to feel better about own practices, because it makes us feel better about ourselves? Is it because we need to justify our own importance? There are some thousands and thousands of cultures in this world. In fact, culture, practices and customs keep evolving with time. For example, in the present day, culture has evolved to one which has become more driven by consumerism. So, we will look down on cultures which do not act similarly. We think that people who want to lead a simple life or are rural or considered inferior. But is it so?

If culture is ever evolving, it must have necessarily evolved from one common point in time, thousands of years ago? Then necessarily, our cultures have evolved from the same common culture that peoples of that time had shared.

If we had shared the same colour, and we had shared the same culture, then why are we discriminating against one another?

The beauty of having different cultures is so that we are able to enrich one another. Different cultures have evolved from the different unique circumstances that people of the times had faced. And their cultures can teach us something about ours, just as well that ours can teach them about theirs. If they are able to do something better, so we can learn from them. Right?


See, thing is, we see differences according in relation to ourselves. To us, the world is only right if it abides by our rules, or if it looks the same as us. If someone is different from how we think or behave, it is weird. Why? Because this someone is different from us, and if they are considered to be “right”, what does that make of us? Wrong? No, no! That cannot happen. They have to be wrong. They are weird. I cannot allow myself to become second-class!

And, that’s why, in the past, when men saw women as being different, they thought to themselves. Women do not look like us. They are not equals. And thus when the whites first saw the blacks in Africa and Australia, they decided that the indigenous peoples were not equals. So, we keep looking at any identifiable visual trait that we can find to use to compare ourselves against another, and put ourselves on the pedestal. So, it can be colour, different body parts, mannerisms, behaviours, acts etc.

Instead of understanding and accepting differences as they are, and embracing the diversity that allows us to learn from one another, we have decided to identify these differences and allow our fears to overrule this appreciation.

Because we fear being considered as less important, we make others feel lesser before they have an opportunity to make us feel so. Necessarily, in a place where there is a majority of people with the shared visual characteristics, they can band together to make the other feel lesser. Thus in Singapore, the Chinese, as the majority, might seemingly feel that they have a say as to how to define the other “races”. Yet, even among the Chinese, they will also find different visual characteristics that they can identify to judge another – the clothes they wear, the homes they live in, their educational level, and so forth.

I am putting this out here because I want to be as honest as the situation in Singapore as we can. There is racism in Singapore. Why? Because we are ignorant. Like everyone else in this world, we do not understand what race is. It is not a biological marker. We are genetically the same – just that we have different skin colours. And we fear others – we do not know enough about them, so we fear them. Obviously, as a Chinese person, you cannot understand the life of a Malay, and vice versa. You are not them. But is this a function as race, or any visually identifiable characteristic? No, it’s not. Even a Chinese cannot completely identify with another Chinese – each one of us, as much as we are all humans, have different upbringing, lifestyles, beliefs and choices that make us who we are.

We are unique. And we should stop at that.

But when our insecurities act up, when we feel a need to preserve our being and importance, we start to look at these ‘unique’ characteristics, compare them and then use them to judge one another. And when we judge and place ourselves in a position of power, we then look at someone else as lesser, and discriminate against them.

This is plain silly. This doesn’t say anything about the person we are judging. But it says a lot about us. We are ignorant and we have insecurities. Instead of finding out more and learning more about the other person, we judge. Instead of finding out and learning to deal with our own emotional and psychological discomfort with ourselves, we judge others to make ourselves better. What this means is that in the process of discriminating against someone, we are already lesser as a person.


I would like to discuss a bit about the policies of Singapore and how it has also shaped the discourse of race. Because discussion on race and religious issue are not encouraged here, Singaporeans are not able to have an intelligent understanding on the issue of race.

However, if other countries are to be of example, even if we allow discussion on race and religious issues, will Singaporeans know how to be responsible and respectful in the way we discuss these issues? Even with an intellectual understanding of how “race” is not a real and biological construct, but one that has its sole basis on defining the power between individuals and groups of people, we continue to use it. Why?

People want power. You want to feel superior. You want to feel important. Can we let our ego and self centred ideals go away? Can we?

So, is the government right to restrict discourse on race and religious issues? Recent events has also shown that without open discourse, the issue will just be swept under the carpet. People continue to discriminate against one another, by visual distinction. They just don’t talk about it as openly.

Is it time then to open the discussion? Is it time for the government to take the lead in encouraging a responsible and respectful discourse on “race”?

Minister K Shanmugam has started taking to his Facebook to discuss racial issues. Perhaps the government is indeed exploring an approach on discussing about racial issues in a controlled manner.

For the rest of us, is it time we look within ourselves to understand ourselves instead of allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable, just because we don’t understand another person and their practices well enough?

I have very good Malay and Indian friends whom I respect and love. I honestly do not remember that they are Malays and Indians sometimes, only because we are having such a good time. Eventually, we choose to be friends with people whom we can “click” with. And we are not to those we cannot. Does that make them lesser? No, it just makes them different.

And if we start drawing lines and boundaries, because we start wanting to feel that our group of friends is better than the other, then it’s time to look at ourselves. Not at others.

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  2. vik

    Very insightful post! You really defined ‘race’ but not racism. To me, racism is defined as hatred based on perceived differences (color, nationality etc). By that definition, Singaporeans are NOT racist. The only thing Singaporeans may be guilty of is stereotyping.
    But hey, all of us do that irrespective of race, nationality or whatever. As George Clooney said in ‘Up in the Air’ – “It’s faster”. And if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’, its also subconscious. I’m not saying stereotyping is right. I personally don’t like being stereotyped, but it’s inevitable and I accept it. No point wasting my emotional and mental energy fuming about it.
    I actually feel sorry for Amy Cheong. Her comments were tasteless and insensitive, but I don’t think they were racist (by my definition). It does, however, reflect her character. Anyone who thinks the divorce rate is linked to how much money was spent on a wedding, is both shallow and stupid, but definitely not racist.

    P.S. I’m an Indian national working here for more than 5 years and I’ve never had a racist experience…yet.
    P.P.S Your other posts are quite insightful too. Gonna follow.

  3. SM

    Exactly! Race is a social construct based on the biological differences that exist between people. People become more homophilous as they get together, so they create more and more people who are like them. These people then share the same culture and norms, which further divides society – these categoriesare what we call ‘ethnicity’. But because those who share the same culture also tend to look alike, it becomes a catchall term – race.

    By saying “Jane is Chinese”, “Ahmad is Malay”, or “Siti is Indian”, what we’re talking about is the ethnicity (ie. culture), not the race.

    After 3 years of being a sociology major, I’m always very careful about the term ‘race’. I don’t think I’ve ever used it to describe people – I use ‘ethnicity’ instead. (:

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  5. Shelter

    This is a good, sharp post. I like your analysis on the co-relation between skin colour and geography.

    Like SM, I feel it doesn’t hit the nail on the head completely though. Because Amy Cheong’s remarks are pretty much aimed at the culture (ethnicity) of a group rather than their race (biological features). In the furore over her comments, I think everybody just called her “racist” because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do: call people out for disrespecting one of the four “races” in S’pore.

    I personally feel its these misconstructions (the CMIO categories) and the inability of the authorities to move from “race” to ethnicity” that is preventing a wholesome, healthy discussion on “race and religion”.

    Because having a discussion on “ethnicity” (or ethnic identity, whichever way it works) will be much more complicated (i.e I might be of Chinese ethnicity, and Muslim, and therefore being a not-so well known about group with specific cultural markers that distinguish me both from my Chinese, Malay and Indian friends – or not). The good thing, however, is that a well thought out discussion on ethnicity would encompass both racial and religious identity .

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