The Trial of Subhas Nair: Race, Class, and Ideology in Singapore

Image of Subhas Nair,

Image of Subhas Nair, Wikipedia Fair Use.

On Tuesday, July 18, 2023, Subhas Govin Prabhakar Nair, the Indian Singaporean rapper more commonly known as Subhas, was found guilty on four counts of “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of race and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony” under section 298A(a) of the Penal Code 1871. On September 5, 2023, Subhas was sentenced to six weeks in prison. Subhas had previously been issued a two-year conditional warning by the Singapore Police for a satirical rap video he released with his sister Preeti Nair, commonly known as Preetipls, critiquing a Havas advertisement for Nets, a Singaporean electronic payment service provider, which featured a Chinese Singaporean actor, Dennis Chew, portraying an Indian Singaporean man by darkening his face with make up and a Malay Singaporean woman by wearing a headscarf. This was not the first occurrence of brownface (or blackface) in Singapore. Subhas and Preetipls’ rap video gave voice to the often-quiet outrage that many brown-skinned Malay and Indian Singaporeans experience in response to daily indignities, ranging from mundane affronts to personal dignity in interpersonal interactions to inequities and inequalities in housing, employment, and the criminal justice system.

Before his conditional warning expired, the same Singapore Police Force (SPF) that is currently in the news after an Indian Singaporean policeman committed suicide following years of racist workplace abuse— is it worth noting that the SPF has cleared itself of any and all wrongdoing following an internal investigation?—deemed Subhas to have reoffended three more times and proceeded to charge him for the initial and subsequent offences. These subsequent charges relate to public comments Subhas made pointing out how Malay and Indian Singaporeans are treated differently than Chinese Singaporeans by the State and the media (its ideological apparatus). Since the written judgment has not been made publicly available, we must rely on media reports on the judgment to get a sense of how the judge came to his decision. Channel News Asia summarized that the judge explained that “it was clear that Nair’s words suggested that some communities are targeted unfairly while others get preferential treatment.” At Subhas’ sentencing, the judge was quoted stating, “sowing racial and or religious discontent by alleging that law enforcement in Singapore discriminates based on race or religious grounds is just as serious as the casting of racial slurs.” It was enough to prove that Subhas had suggested the existence of inequality for him to be convicted of “promoting enmity” between races. It was enough to prove that Subhas described a Singaporean reality of systemic racism for him to be deemed racist.

In other words, Subhas’ conviction revealed that the state and its repressive apparatus, i.e., its criminal justice system that coerces through violence or the threat of violence, considers the mere suggestion of existing inequality—in this case, racial—to be dangerous to the social order and “the maintenance of harmony.” We must understand the judge’s framing of Subhas’ critique of racism as racist as a part of the Singaporean state’s coercive efforts to control the definition of racism in order to neutralize antiracism and, more subtly, anticapitalism insofar as any serious understanding and critique of racism requires an understanding and critique of capitalism. To foreclose any possible discussion of systemic racism that might have been brought up by legitimate critiques is to set the very terms of discourse, which is why Lee Kuan Yew’s son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong simultaneously pinpointed casual racism as a problem, while denying the existence of “Chinese privilege” and declaring that “all races are treated equally in Singapore.” In other words, the Prime Minister informed the country that prejudice may remain a problem in Singaporean society, but institutional or systemic racism simply does not exist. But how to understand Subhas’ conviction that required the judge to contort reality to the point where an anti-racist could be deemed racist?

CMIO and Hierarchies of Race

Not unlike other postcolonies and former imperial metropoles, race is a central organizing feature of Singaporean society. Every Singaporean is assigned Chinese (75.7%), Malay (15.2%), Indian (7.5%), or Other (1.6%) at birth. These percentages, through racial immigration quotas, have remained relatively unchanged since the 1960s. In 1985, Singapore’s first and longest serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared in Parliament that Singapore was a success only because the majority was Chinese: “had it been 75 percent Indians, 15 percent Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked.” More recently in 2013, Minister Grace Fu reaffirmed the need to maintain “the racial balance in Singapore’s population in order to preserve social stability.” A few months ago in 2023, Minister K Shanmugam, referring to Singapore’s immigration policy, stated that the State is “publicly committed to keeping our percentages more or less constant,” while claiming that the real reason for doing so was to benefit the Malay community who “want to be the second largest community in Singapore.” For several decades, then, key government leaders have publicly stated their commitment to maintaining a specific racial order that, as other scholars have suggested, can only be described as hierarchical.

This hierarchy relies on a pre-existing racial framework, often dubbed CMIO, which was established by the British colonizers who, by the 1891 Census of the Straits Settlements, began to group diverse ethno-linguistic groups (Malayali, Tamil, Hokkien, Teochew, Bugis, Boyanese, and so on) into “Chinese,” “Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago,” and “Tamils and other Natives of India.” By the 1921 Census, the CMIO framework would be established as a fundamental fact of everyday life and racial governance. We were all henceforth primarily Chinese, Malay, or Indian on our birth and death certificates, and, in between, these categories have possessed the power to determine our life trajectories.

But the hierarchy that we observe today in Singapore is a far more recent one. The British had no more interest in elevating or securing the well-being of the Chinese in Singapore than that of the Malays or Indians. Whatever our political and economic utility at any given moment, Asians, in the eyes of colonial administrators and British, European, and American (let’s just say white) anthropologists and, yes, zoologists, were members of inferior races. What they had interest in doing, however, was policing the boundaries of race and dividing the colonized population in order to stave off cross-racial solidarity as long as possible and maximize profit through the exploitation of land, labor, and resources.

Today’s hierarchy originates in Lee Kuan Yew’s post-1980s fusion of Confucianism, capitalism, and so-called “Asian values,” which is why arguments of Chinese privilege or Chinese supremacy tied directly and teleologically to our colonial history are, at best, insufficient to understanding the present manifestation of racial governance in Singapore. In fact, a singular focus on Chinese privilege may blind us from a recent anti-communist past, particularly from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, amidst a global red scare, that, in Singapore, was articulated through a discourse of so-called Chinese chauvinism, promoted by politicians like Lee Kuan Yew who sought to limit the broad popularity of socialism, robust trade unions, and left-wing politics more generally in post-war Singapore. (The “Chinese chauvinist” label was also used more recently in the run up to the 1997 general election to pejoratively delegitimize opposition politicians such as Tang Liang Hong of the Workers’ Party—a party whose leader had been, since 1971, the Indian Singaporean politician J. B. Jeyaretnam.)

The Function of Race in Singapore

Yet, it is hard not to see that, at least since the 1980s, Chinese Singaporeans have had a certain set of real, systemic advantages that are the direct consequence of government policy, for example the HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy, which prescribes residential racial quotas to putatively prevent the formation of racial enclaves, but which has the dual impact of forcing racial minorities to sell their flats at lower prices than the Chinese majority and ensuring minimal political representation and accountability in Parliament for non-Chinese minorities. As such, this policy represents a clear form of institutionalized racism since it provides the Chinese majority an unfair advantage over minority groups in accruing wealth through higher sale prices of their properties, while also ensuring that every neighborhood and voting constituency is de facto majority Chinese.

Unlike some academics based in Singapore, perhaps with an interest in providing acceptable criticism of the State that ultimately serves to bolster and legitimate state power, who argue that “racism should be recognised as no more than irrational prejudices against immediate differences in physical traits such as skin colour,” we must understand the construction of race and the politics of racism as institutional or else we lose all hope of understanding racism at all. It is not the irruption of interpersonal irrationality, but the manifestation of a system working as it was designed. The interpersonal is not unimportant, but, if we lose sight of the institutional, we lose sight of the how and why of racism. This is not to say that Chinese Singaporeans are all privileged and Indian and Malay Singaporeans are all disadvantaged, but that the State derives a number of benefits from its CMIO framework. The State can admit that interpersonal racism remains an issue, but it will not allow for the possibility of institutional racism. Thus, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat can declare, without proof and without punishment, that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister (police reports were filed against him for this statement, but the Police announced that he had not committed any offense and that his remarks “do not evidence any intent to wound anyone’s racial feelings or promote enmity between different races”). Subhas, however, cannot be allowed to highlight the possible existence of institutional racism.

In Postcolonial Melancholia (2004), Paul Gilroy notes that “‘race’ refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause.” Race as a tool of governance, has been and remains central to the formation and maintenance of modern nation-states and racism, as a system of human organization, is shaped by dominant class relations in a given society. It is therefore not a coincidence that governments and dominant populations, from France and the United States to Singapore often claim that they have moved past the problem of racial discrimination and, in some cases, the very notion of race. Such forms of post-racialist discourse turn the very mention of race into a taboo topic thereby aiming to ward off discussions and critiques of racism. If we understand racism to be a central feature of existing structures of exploitation and oppression, then post-racialism’s role is to deny this reality by denying the salience of race and reducing racism to exceptional, irrational societal aberrations or unfortunate individual manifestations of prejudice.

Now, the big question that remains is as follows: why was Subhas convicted for pointing out demonstrable social inequalities tied to systemic racism in Singapore? And why Subhas and not any number of academics and writers who have made similar arguments? One important function of racism is to divide the working classes against themselves by ascribing differential, hierarchical value to one group of racialized workers over another. Early in the last century, W.E.B Du Bois described this as the “public and psychological wage” afforded by the ideology of white supremacy to white workers who are otherwise economically exploited. This wage affords them a level of metaphysical privilege, while maintaining their suppressed working conditions and obtaining their consent and support. “We might be poor, but at least we’re not banglas,” one can imagine a Singaporean worker today thinking about migrant construction workers.

In essence, Du Bois’ analysis of this particular wage afforded to some workers reveals that at the heart of capitalist oppression lies the simultaneous, mutually exclusive devaluation of so-called inferior races and valuation of so-called superior races. This not only serves to hierarchically divide the worth of different workers and prevent the kind of class consciousness and unity that would seriously threaten capitalism’s very survival, but also plays an important material role in driving down wages for all workers, thus maximizing surplus value, which in the Singaporean case is over S$2.2 trillion (the estimated total size of Singapore state reserves). As Michael Leibowitz writes, “an essential aspect of the logic of capital is the tendency to divide workers by turning their differences into antagonism and hostility.” To acknowledge this is not to believe that race is merely something that maps onto a pre-existing category of class. Rather, race and class come into existence together in a co-constitutive process that scholars such as Cedric Robinson have termed racial capitalism. For Cedric Robinson, capitalism was and is racial because it emerged out of a feudal Europe that was already well practiced in racialism. We have inherited all of this—the racialism, the colonialism, and the capitalism. As such, a class-only analysis misses the centrality that race plays as an organizational category of human beings, while a race-only analysis cannot sufficiently account for the reason why, in the first place, human beings were to be organized and divided hierarchically. Subhas’ critique of racism in Singapore extends to the city-state’s inhumane exploitation and treatment of migrant workers. If Subhas’ critique of racism had remained purely focused on so-called casual racism and overlooked the contemporary plight of racialized indentured labor, he may very well have never been excoriated and punished by the state. Nothing threatens to unravel the order of Singaporean society more than undoing the racial boundaries dividing labor.

1969 and 2023: Hidden Hands Reappear

In May 1969, amidst the latest spate of racial violence between Malays and the Chinese, this time in Kuala Lumpur, the Malay Singaporean writer, journalist, and poet Said Zahari (1928–2016), then imprisoned without trial by the Singapore Government since 1963 (he would only be released in 1979), composed a poem that regrettably remains relevant in both Singapore and Malaysia, not to mention much of the postcolonial world:

Once again
Colour, race, religion and language
Become sharp blades
To use in the carnage

It has happened
Hidden hands reappear
Spilling the blood of the poor
To cling on to power…

The outbreak of violence, Pak Said keenly understood, did not reflect inherent racial differences or ancient hatreds, but the consequences of a colonial and postcolonial history that created, entrenched, and weaponized racial ideas in order to organize and manage labor and capital for profit. In these hidden hands, be they British or Asian, skin color, religion, language, as part of the matrix we have come to understand as race, ultimately became useful tools to ensure maximal profit for governments and the capitalist class through the appropriation of surplus value and a race to the bottom for the rest. It is indeed these hidden hands who create the seemingly insurmountable differences between yesterday’s Chinese and Indian coolies and the ‘lazy’ natives or today’s so-called migrant workers, a euphemism that disguises the similarity between their labor conditions to that of indentured workers, and Singaporean working classes of all races.

Indeed, Singapore’s success story is built, to a large extent, on the continuation of racialized indentured coolie labor (euphemized as “migrant workers”) that is central to a range of industries, particularly construction. Singapore is less a post-colonial state, in the sense of having moved past colonialism, than it is a neo-colonial one, in the sense of reforming colonialism for its own benefit, that, to quote Kehinde Andrews, forms part of the non-white West that has mastered the “codes of colonial logic” and whose wealth “is also based on the brutal exploitation of their own poor, whose bodies are sacrificed on the altar of progress.” Those who have spoken out the most loudly against racial capitalism, whether it was Lim Chin Siong or Said Zahari yesterday or Subhas today, have found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of the State. Like the former, Subhas, through his powerful music and his strident activism for migrant workers, is currently facing the inevitable consequences of speaking unvarnished truth to absolute power. Absolute power tends not to like that.

Adi Saleem is an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His work can be found online at