Racism in Australia

Even though I have not encountered any racism issues in my 2 years here so far, I considered myself lucky and will not assume racism is a myth in Australia. This is a never ending debate. Everyone has their own definition and tolerance about this issue. Some of us cannot see beyond themselves and the fingers will always be pointing towards the others. For example, I've read a Singaporean cited a racism incident after he received a dirty look from a Mac Donald's staff in Esperance, WA, after he asked for chilli sauce over the counter. I believe till this date, he had no idea why he got that reaction from the staff and concluded he was a victim of racism...

I'd like to thank Yoda for another contribution. This time it is about racism. Enjoy.

20 January 2013

Racism in Australia

Most Singaporeans moving to Australia would have this topic quite close to their heart, or at least have formed an opinion (or have had an opinion forced upon them).

Note: After starting to put together my draft, I realize this topic is much more complex than a blog post can ever do justice to – so, for the sake of parsimony and entertainment value, I will just provide you with my personal opinion, experiences and rants.

Yep, racism in Australia. The classic doomsday proclamation by those well-meaning aunties when you tell them you are going to work/live in Australia, “Wah, isn’t Australia very racist?”? This whole story of racist Anglo-Saxon Australians asking “Fucking Asians with their pigtails to go home” (this is a real quote my mother told me when I first told her I was applying for jobs in Australia) has been propagated by our dear yellow supremacist leader Mr. Lee, and enforced by half-illiterates like Ms. Pauline Hanson. Even my peers, young Singaporeans from their 20s to 30s, some educated overseas, some only having travelled as far as Chan Brothers would bring them, tell me the same thing.

I won’t paint a pretty picture of the grass being greener on the other side. There is racism here. Racism exists here in Australia. It exists everywhere. It exists in Malaysia, and it exists in Singapore. It exists when you said, “Little India all the smelly ABNN”, “Chinatown all the Ah Tiongs”, “Malays are lazy,” and (ok, last one before ISD catches me the next time I touch down in Changi Airport) “You Chinese Singaporeans are all a soft and pampered bunch”. And yes, of course it exists when that Ang Moh tells you to “go home on your fucking boat”.

You know what? We Singaporeans are as racist as them. Sometimes (most of the times), we are even more racist then them. Be honest - I cringe at the things I used to say to my friends in school, and I still cringe at the things my parents say when they visit me – much less the know-it-all Singaporean, who doesn’t command much empathy nor sympathy anywhere he goes. 

The things we say, are things that Ang Mohs here would never dare to say to your face – sometimes for fear of getting sued, but the uncomfortableness on their faces when an Asian says something equally racist about another Asian ethnicity suggests otherwise (like when I made a joke about our small Asian eyes).

The only reason we haven’t realized we are racist, is because Chinese Singaporeans are the majority race who only realize how being stereotyped and judged based on your ethnicity feels after you just become another Ah Tiong or Pinoy migrant in some Western country. Just ask that Malaysian Chinese colleague, or your Indian / Malay friends about racism.

But I won’t pull the wool over my own eyes – racism does exist no matter where we are. Just like sexism, just like elitism and many other –sms. How Peter Tan from RJC won’t talk to Tan Ah Kow from Bedok Secondary because he thinks he is an Ah Beng (or the other way round – Ah Kow won’t talk to Peter because he thinks Peter looks down on him) – we all judge people by appearances, and you are probably lying (or an SPG) if you told me you didn’t open up to the first Asian you saw when you were in Australia because you had more in common.

In my opinion, Singapore is going through that stage which Australia went through 10 years ago – being faced with growing immigration and competition, leading to xenophobic reactions from people like Pauline Hanson (Gilbert Goh, anyone)? I won’t begrudge them – these are usually well-meaning people who put up an automatic defensive reaction when faced with competition, but just don’t have the eloquence or critical thinking to come out with a well-balanced argument. 

Besides, riding on emotions often brings popularity much faster than a boring but well thought-out essay (trust me, my photos of me downing a tower of beer get many more likes on Facebook than my thoughts on why Singapore should have a minimum wage – unless I throw in a snide remark about a minister, of course).

Personally, as of 2014, I think Australia has come a long way in terms of racism – sure, when I first arrived in 2011, I had a fat angmoh woman shout at me from a cafĂ©, “Go home you fucking Asian!”. I shouted back, “Get off your fucking chair if you can, you fat lump of shit”, to the amusement of my ABC friends. Well, tit-for-tat – she was really fat. What I’m trying to say is, it really depends how you react to it. If you are going to be Mr. Sensitive about every little comment, then you are going to find offence anywhere. My reply to my Angmoh friend insisting (in jest) that Chinese people eat sushi during Chinese New Year was to make a joke about bogans beating their wives – please, learn to know when people genuinely mean offence and when they don’t.

As a relatively new migrant, it is probably too early to tell you if the glass ceiling they tell me about in the corporate world exists. But I was watching the news yesterday, and one of the nominees for Australian of the Year, was this China-born guy who taught ballet who spoke with a strong China accent. Imagine the outcry in Singapore if they nominated an Ah Tiong to be the face of Singapore on National Day. And talking about a glass ceiling, the CEOs of Singapore companies are mostly ex-army personnel or people connected to the Familee – now you tell me, where is the glass ceiling?

Australia has a changing Asian face – not only were most of my classmates in uni Asian, but most of my colleagues (in a large Australian organization) are also Asian. And yes, this includes Directors, high level managers etc – things change and people don’t succeed by following the safe paths set by others.

To end this post, all I can say is that racism is a much more complex topic that encompasses many different personal views – but it definitely exists and is here to stay. The ways I have found to cope with it, are to keep an open mind, and not give a shit about what people think about me. Importantly, don’t let what others tell you shape your view – experience it yourself, try to see things from all points of view – and you will realize that the race that causes the most problems are the humans. 

Regards, Yoda


  1. Singapore is the most racist country in the world! Thank you for admitting because most Singaporeans either deny or justify this.

  2. Funny how this things come about since I was thinking about something similar last night going home from work.

    Came across a few people behaving poorly and badly around the hospital which I thought to myself "white trash" and then I was immediately embarassed that I was thinking like that.

    The irony about this is that I learnt the term not when I was in Singapore, and not in my first year in Oz, but from the second landlady (had to save money moving places frequently looking for cheaper rents, at the time less than $100 per room in share accommodation)

    Toni, as it was her name, was a high school teacher living with her partner a few km away but had rented out her house to a few of us, me and couple of students from China on separate arrangements as share accommodation but she keeps one room for herself for tax purposes (so she is the typical middle class working gal in Oz).

    One day we got talking a bit more since she was hiring a workman to improve the backyard so that she can sell the place in a year or two (didnt have enough money to do everything in one go) and she mentioned that us Asians are usually good tenants and don't usually trash the places we rent and don't complain too much about the arrangement (she did warn me about possible repair works being done over the next 12 months before I sign the lease) and she was more comfortable to rent to us than to the white trash she deals with some time (the place was in a dodgy industrial suburb, pretty bad actually)

    I was taken aback since I have never heard the term before, and certainly not from a white woman who is a teacher. I actually thought I misheard her and sought to clarify.

    But no, "white trash" is what she did say. And she was very unapologetic about it as she pointed out this is not just refering to the vagrants on the street in the area but many unemployed or poorly educated people living in the suburb and in the far west of Sydney with their Red-neck simplistic racist view of the foreigners. She said for these people there is no hope since they survive very well on the handout from the government (those were the pre-Howard years) and can even save up enough money to go for a holiday in Bali while working people like Toni have to slave very hard and may not even get a overseas holiday trip for years.

    So certainly I learnt very quickly how these "white trash" operate since you can more or less spot them very quickly in how to behave and think.

  3. The more difficult part is the actually trying to beat the system in the white-collar world, where people are more educated, learn to be politically correct and yet discriminate against the foreigners since they don't tend to fit in as well as a local. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, jobs are plenty and they have no qualms getting the foreigners since these people are hard workers and likely to carry most of the bulk of the work of the rest of the team, so that the local workers can wayang a bit.

    When the jobs are less to come by, and the government introduce more restriction to hiring foreigners (some employers for the first time in history are required to explain why you need to sponsor a foreigner over a local) then the glass ceiling materialise.

    It is a bit similar to the glass ceiling for Aussie women who tend to get less pay and lower level position compare to men of similar abilities. But in this case the employers can quote government restrictions as the reasons.

    Even though you may be a local PR or naturalised citizen, or OZ born and bred 2nd generation migrants speaking with Aussie accent, there is a real chance you will experience a genuine racist remark and comments (and not as part of a joke) at least one every month depending on your workplace.

    How people in a position of power discriminate is different individually and depends on their previous experiences when may or may not be fair to you. But regardless of what actually happens, all of us is guilty of using stereotypes in how with interact with other people even of the same race/ethnicity. The key is not to make too many assumption and give others an opportunity to correct your views of them.

    The trouble is the corporate world in Oz is so PC that it is difficult to detect people who are either consciously or unconsciously racist. In both circumstance it is near impossible to change their views since conscious racist will deliberately refuse to change, unconscious racist will deny they discriminate.

  4. BTW

    I am not sure you should have realised the Li Cuixin the Ballet director for Queensland Ballet company and QLD 2014 nominee Australian of the Year, is actually the protagonist of the famous book and movie, Mao's Little Dancer

    Despite his international fame, he gave up opportunities to direct famous Ballet companies in the US and Europe to come to Brisbane to built up Queensland Ballet, one of the lesser known Ballet company even in Australia

  5. Racism is everywhere because people are naturally insecure.

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    1. Well then let's agree to disagree, because I think there is probably just as many people who can be racist in Oz as in the US, except like I said many Aussies (especially the white collar and well educated lot who is often in the position to affect your employment) are very good as appearing to be politically correct since they are very aware of the Australian anti-discrimination laws but will not hesitate to be racist when they know they can't get caught.

      I do agree that how sensitive you are to certain comments can colour your reaction to racists, but put it this way: when you are some remarks being made, the person who said it is either very stupid or is really racist or both.

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    3. So.... you got her fren's phone number???

      I always make time for choi bu.

  7. Great piece, Yoda! You articulated everything I've thought about racism in Australia. When we have our Aussie friends over, my husband (Indian) and I (Chinese) sometimes crack Indian/Chinese jokes at each other just to see how discomfited the Aussies can get. Makes me laugh everytime because you can see that they aren't sure if it's kosher to laugh or not.
    Nope, we haven't encountered racism at all since we moved to Newcastle 4+ years ago. My kids have been given every opportunity in school and have friends from all backgrounds. If people hesitate to talk to us at first, it's because they aren't sure if we speak English and don't want to get into an awkward situation, but once they realise that language is not a barrier, they are really friendly. We don't have a chip on our shoulders about racism and I think that really helps us not be quick to assume racism everytime we encounter someone unpleasant. Friends and family from Singapore have discarded their pre-conceived notion that Aussies are racists since they also encounter goodwill and friendliness from Aussies whenever they visit us.
    And I agree with the comment from XYZ about how the white Aussies view "white trash". Our Aussie friends and acquaintances have no issues with us (so no discrimination based on race) but won't even buy their groceries in what they consider a "white trash" area despite the fact that it is conveniently located. We know that it's not due to considerations of safety because we shop there all the time and it is safe. So discrimination exists, but it is based on socio-economic stratum and educational levels rather than race. But isn't that the case all over the world?

    1. Having lived in Newcastle NSW for about 4 years in the mid 2000, I have to say that Newcastle is a strange place. Probably 70% are working class blue collar and similarly I expected red-neck behaviour from the locals but the feeling is that it still lives in the 1980s or 1990s inspite of BHP pulling out for more than 10 years ago know.

      I guess that the Asian population is really quite small and more or less scattered and integrated in the local community, with no enclaves of Asian families like Sydney. Generally Asians living in Newcastle/Maitland area are professionals or shop owners or run takeaways just like the 1980s/90s Sydney. The locals have some stereostyping of Asians but they rarely mean to be deliberately offensive or racist. I suppose that's because they don't see us as threats.

      The recent arrivals of Somali refugees, however may change their perception since they tend to concentrate around Wallsend area (? cheaper rent) and is at risk of forming enclaves and they have a very high rate on Newstart pension and unemployment, many lacking any working skills that is useful in areas like Newcastle, often they have single parent household as well.

      I suspect I may be overcalling it but these refugees stand out from the local crowd so much such that they may tip the balance of the close knit community of Novocastrians (as they like to call themselves) and their opinion of foreigners in the next 5 -10 years so I suggest you keep a look out for that (even though you may not even see these Somali-born people in your-day-to-day life)

  8. i felt, the new refugee migrants from africa area are usually very agressive. funny thing is they had to leave africa due to genocide, yet they throw the racist/discriminating comment on passerby.

    I was staying in sunshine, vic, for short period of time. that are had alot of refugee migrants from Africa, AND i often get racist phases from refugee migrants school gals. Not going to go into details. but they are really what they get.

    sometimes i feel, it is the migrants who brought in the racism rather than the actual racism that is embedded by white aussie.

    On a personal note, there are alot less racism or discriminating words and actions in SA compare to sydney and melb. i cannot comment for the rest of australia as i haven stay there at all to comment.

    1. Sydney got to see where you are.

      Some places like Chinatown, Chatswood, Cabarmatta, Eastwood, Carlingford, Hurstville, Ashfield, Kensington, sometimes you think you are in Hong Kong or something.

      When people live in enclaves like that, it is no wonder you get comments like "foreigners are coming to take over my suburb"

  9. Nix,

    Not sure if you can remember me and having read your recent post I can definitely relate to this on a personal and intimate level.

    Having moved over to Melbourne been inspired by you a while ago, it's only when the tables are turned that we start to examine ourselves and how our actions in the past seem to haunt us today. I remember when I was back in SG the "indirect discrimination" that society had towards the other races, simple because as Chinese we were the dominant majority and our behavior never came across as insulting or derogatory. Why not try asking our friends from other races how they feel about being marginalized and stereotyped? How it feels like when they are passed up for roles in National Service and jobs in companies because of their race, how since young we have been indoctrinated by society to form the mental stigma that drunk fights are almost always caused by Indians, how many complaints do you hear about parking around mosques on Fridays or label Malays as lazy?

    One such personal example, stems from during the 70's my mother who is indonesian chinese constantly berated and subjected to insults from my Dad's side (singaporean) of the family, asking why he chose to marry a 'maid' and someone of lower social standing. Our family was always looked down upon and were the outcast at every family gathering. I've never had any experience of the sort when I returned to my maternal side in Indonesia, they would always treat us like blood and never saw us anymore than family. My paternal side seemed to forget that Grandpa came from Fujian, China and was a migrant himself, having been through the same discrimination that our former colonial masters and the Japanese dished out to him. So why the hypocrisy?

    In my 18 months here in Melbourne, I've never felt as racism as much as I would have felt if I'd imagine myself to be a minority in SG. Perhaps I've been lucky, or perhaps I've always remembered to deal with stupid people the same way I've dealt with family ; which is to leave ignorants and bigots as they are, for soon enough they will either one day realise their ways, or do themselves in.

    “What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
    ― Albert Einstein

    1. maybe that's because you are not living in places like Dandenong.....

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    3. Hi flo,

      Racism exists everywhere, including Singapore. Some say especially Singapore. In Afghanistan the Hazara people have been harassed, marginalised and even killed by the Pashtuns even though they are countrymen. In Singapore, the minority has suffered racism for years. As a Chinese majority, it is easy to ask 'where got?' Some even cited Australia is 'much worse' in terms of racism. Try asking the white majority if they think so. I believe their answers will be identical to the Chinese majority in Singapore. That's my reason to believe most of us Singaporeans are deluded that there is low racism in Singapore.

      When we are racist against our own minority, what about the foreigners? Again, I read some Singaporeans believing Australia's racism against foreigners are 'worse' than Singapore because they do not see Singaporeans abusing foreigners in the same manner and frequency as they perceived in Australia. Again, why don't we try asking the foreigners in Singapore instead of looking at this from the point of view as a majority race?

      Imo, it's about the same for both countries. It's only that Singaporeans are so used to treating foreigners shabbily that they (subconsciously) fear the prospects of living in Australia because of racism. For those who understand the situation, the fear is a manageable troll, not the gigantic shadow that fool the confused.

    4. @ XYZ

      Au cointraire, I have lived in Dandenong South for 4 months when i first arrived and I experienced first hand the interactions with African migrants and I remember vividly going to the ATO office there, there was a gentlemen who could barely walk and you could tell he was obviously under the influence. On the hand, I live 10 minutes away from St Albans and Sunshine, and every weekend there it feels as though I am back in Asia.

      @ A Blessed Singaporean

      I do agree and have seen the history textbooks about the racial riots during the 60's, and also my wife being one of the lucky few who escaped during the 98 racial riots while my maternal family were still living in Indonesia. As a chinese myself I have been both the recipient and the provocateur as well and my point is simply before anyone casts the first stone, one should examine the ways and behaviors of oneself's actions in the past. It just seems to me that we are quick to accept these unacceptable acts to other races when it has socially acceptable to live with them, but as soon as another new 'group/species' enter into our habitat we are equally as quick to react aggresively and remove them out of fear . As Yoda once said," Fear leads to hate, hate leads to anger, anger leads to suffering"

      @ Nix
      Couldnt agree more. Animals have always reacted strongly when they feel threatened, when they're faced with extinction and being displaced, so I completely understand the xenophobia and the nature of the aggression. I am not deluded enough to think that there's nothing of the sort here in Australia, but where I am coming from is that before we call the kettle black we should see how charred ourselves are, and my point is simply this: you can either choose to cotinue to whinge and live with the bigotry and ignorance of some people as part of parcel of life, or you can stand up and be the change that you want to see and deal with the prejudice starting with yourself.

  10. Flo, sometimes i'd liked to think is the money that inserted those negative racism thoughts

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  12. Singaporean Aussie Citizen here living in a big Oz city for the last 8 years:

    There are racists in every country; Australia is no exception. But the sort of racism that exists in Australia that say my 70+ years old aunt imagines there to be is well...... I haven't experienced it at all; and I have been visiting the country since 1995 and moved here when I was in my very late thirties.

    In general, I find Australians (either white or of any other ethnicity) absolutely welcoming. The whole 'fair go' principle is still pretty much alive in the majority of the country.

    The white Australians (Anglo, Italian, Greek, S. African, etc) I have come across in both work and personal life have truly been colour blind - they respect the individual and the individual's integrity. And I have been to many diverse parts of this great land. Yes, you do unfortunately do read or see the odd poorly educated types who strike out at 'foreigners' (you can blame TV programmes like Today Night / A Current Affair for milking these incidents for all their worth); but they are pretty much equal opportunity rascists; i.e., they tend to hate all foreigners equally ;-) (not just because we're yellow.............)

  13. Make sure you outperform them and prove that you are capable. Not many top management are Australians and not many Engineers are Australian too. Is that a surprise? Australians are mainly blue collar workers where they are good at what they are doing. Simply be their "Boss".

  14. The past and present Asutralia PM and not Australian Born. Everyone has equal opportunity. Unlike Malaysia where I come from that promote Ketuanan Melayu and worship the prince of earth.

  15. And you still call all caucasians Ang Moh?....

  16. i am a filipino (aus PR) living in perth. i've been called a "cockroach" by Singaporeans. a lot of Singaporeans in EDMW forum are happy that typhoon haiyan killed a lot of us "cockroaches". at least you people now know how a "foreigner of lower means" feels living in Singapore. not so pleasant eh?