The last time you touched someone of Indian ethnic origin, did lizards grow out of his or her (or your) legs? That was what the grandmother of a primary school student had warned her about physical contact with her Indian classmate.
And the next time you try to pay a back-handed compliment to a Malay colleague — “Oh my, you are so smart and hardworking. Are you sure you don’t have any Chinese blood?” — know that you’re far from being witty. On the contrary, you could come across as downright rude and vicious.
These are just some of the stories available at Minority Voices, where minority communities share about everyday experiences of racism and discrimination.
Counselling grad Sharvesh Leatchmanan, who co-founded the online platform with law student Veena Tadikonda, confides: “We launched Minority Voices in May last year. It was the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, which led to a lot of discrimination against migrant workers from South Asia.”
“I was especially upset to read about a letter in the Chinese newspapers, which attributed the rising number of cases in Singapore to the migrant workers’ culture of eating with their hands and holding hands with one another. Being Indian, I felt as if I was being attacked too.”
The 24-year-old, who curates, edits and uploads the stories on Minority Voices’ IG account, says social media has made it easy for people to build a community where they can share issues with and support one another. It hasn’t been as easy in real life, as he points out.
“I’ve always experienced discrimination for being Indian and for being gay. And for most of my life, I’ve always been the only brown person at school or at work.”
Minority Voices, which has a 21,000-strong following, achieved more than 12,000 shares for its post in early June. Referring to a video in which a woman disrupted her neighbour’s prayer ritual by banging a gong, the post asked, “What’s the point of mocking religious activities? How intolerant has this country become?” Impressive numbers aside, Leatchmanan gets his real kick from knowing that his work helps make the going better for those who are hurting and struggling.
“I have followers who are Chinese, and they texted me to say, ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to make these jokes about the Indian community. I’m learning to become more aware about racist behaviour and how negative it can make my Indian friends feel’,” he says.
“Everyone thinks it’s funny but such comments can cause huge emotional and mental distress. So it’s important to exercise empathy. For example, I have friends who have been called smelly. Whenever they showered, they’d scrub themselves until their skin started to peel.”
Leatchmanan has also received his fair share of critics — “they accuse me of disrupting racial harmony” — who have threatened to report him to the police.
He admits he was worried initially: “I thought if I end up in jail, it’d affect the rest of my life, my job prospects, my family! But after consulting a lawyer, I now better understand my rights so I’m more confident to steer Minority Voices forward.”
“I feel Singapore has a very, very long way to go in eradicating racism,” he adds. “We need to admit that it is an issue. In a news article I read, Law minister K Shanmugam was quoted as saying racial harmony was not at ‘knife-edge’. So when does it become knife-edge? And do we want to wait until knife-edge to do something concrete?”
Art direction by Catherine Wong; photography by Darren Gabriel Leow; hair & makeup by Angel Gwee using Davines & Shu Uemura