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Silent Racism Exists In Singapore’s Rental Market, But I’m Hopeful Things Will Change

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Racism In The Rental Market Is Un-Singaporean And A Disgrace

“Renting a home is tougher for people of certain races than it is for others.”

This might sound like a statement from the pre-Civil Rights south in the United States — but what if we told you that it aptly described the rental situation in Singapore as well?

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But sadly, that’s what MustShareNews discovered when we dug into the experiences faced by some races as they try to rent a house here.

In a nutshell, most Indians and people from China bemoan the fact that finding rental accommodation in Singapore tough.

But a Japanese might disagree completely, adding that it’s far from a sluggish process.

This is no coincidence or conspiracy; but most likely the result of a racial bias that has creeped into Singapore, despite itsfacade of religious harmony.

This is silent racism in the rental market.

What is silent racism?

Silent racism is defined as discrimination against a certain race that is characterised by a lack of outward discriminatory behavior.

This could mean being friendly to people of other races but harbouring toxic thoughts about them nonetheless.

Much of these thoughts stem from preconceived notions about other races.

 

These were on full display when we talked to landlords, who told us what they really thought about prospective tenants of different races.

Warning: You might find the next few lines deeply offensive.

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Some said, “We won’t rent to…

  • Indians because they ‘smell and are messy’.
  • Some Westerners as they ‘can’t discipline their children’.
  • Malays because they have ‘problems paying on time’.
  • Mainland Chinese (PRCs) as they are ‘loud, uncultured and disruptive’.”

But they also said, “We prefer renting to

  • Japanese because they are ‘neater’.
  • Germans as they are ‘punctual and structured’.
  • Nordics because they are ‘minimalist’.”

When being Chinese helps

Such perceptions make it harder for tenants to find a roof over their heads, as they describe.

This Thai-Chinese male tenant in his 20s recounts his encounter with racist practices.

He says,

My two roommates (a Malaysian Chinese and a fellow Thai) and I were not particular about the condition of our home, as long as we could find a roof over our heads. I would respond to multiple listings on PropertyGuru but didn’t get a reply. Maybe it’s because my name can be confused for an Indian name.

My Singaporean girlfriend told me to include a picture, since I have Chinese features. Another option was to use an English name as an alias or state clearly that I was Thai-Chinese.

Surprisingly, this worked and I was invited to view properties.

Funnily, my Malaysian roommate who responded to the same ads got responses–I guess that’s because his name sounds like a ‘typical Chinese name’.

But the next incident proves that tenants aren’t just victims of discrimination. Sometimes, they perpetuate it too.

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This Singaporean Chinese couple was looking to shift into a new neighbourhood with their family. But they were very picky about who lived near them.

They share,

We usually tell the property agent that we prefer neighbours of the same race or to be east Asian.

Because same culture so easier to connect with them.

Also because we’ve lived next to PRCs and Indians before and they were very noisy. They would talk loudly even in the middle of the night.

It’s nicer to live next to more considerate people, especially if you have children and old people at home.

But as MustShareNews found out, it was more likely that landlords — not tenants — that practise silent racism.

Landlords deny racism, cite ‘rights’

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This Chinese man lets out a condominium in the central region and justifies his discrimination by saying,

As a landlord, you are looking out for people who can keep your home in a good condition.

 

I’m not indiscriminately racist, I just follow the behaviours displayed by each race and filter them out.

A Chinese woman who lets out a condominium in Choa Chu Kang feels the same way.

I usually prefer the same race. We just seem to get along better.

I tell the property agent, it’s never listed, because it’s illegal to specify a race in your listings.

But at the end of the day, us landlords always have the final say.

I don’t think that’s being racist, because I have the right to choose. 

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It’s easy to see why property agents like Mary feel like they’re stuck in the middle.

However, Mary shares that these cases are not that common. She says,

They happen about 10% of the time.

However, it’s not new. It has always been like that and I don’t see any shifts in attitude taking place in the near future.

The landlords usually tell me verbally they prefer East Asian expatriates to PRCs and Indians, because they can take care of the place and payment is more punctual.

I think these preferences are not right, but I am just trying to do my job and deliver.

I never told them that such actions are wrong, and I’m not sure if they know that such practices are actually against the law.

A bigger problem

But their personal discomfort hasn’t stopped agents from carrying out their client’s requests–and explicitly stating racial ‘preferences’ in ads.

PropertyGuru revealed that 1% of its listings had objectionable ‘discriminatory’ content.

And such content still exists.

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We did a simple search for ‘no Indians no PRCs’ and were directed to 14 listings.

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Take this listing for a 5-room HDB flat that welcomes “all races, except Indians and PRCs.”

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You might think that 14 out of hundreds of thousands of listings is a small figure.

But remember the case of the Thai-Chinese? How many other landlords immediately disregard rental applications from tenants of a certain race without explicitly stating so?

Or the landlords who verbally communicate their racial ‘preferences’ to their agents?

In reality, we feel that many listings practise a ‘No Indians, no PRCs’ approach but are just too ashamed to admit it.

A sad state of affairs

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Growing up, we pledged repeatedly to build a society free of racial and religious discrimination – ‘regardless or race, language or religion’.

It’s something enshrined in our Constitution as well.

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Hearing these stories made me wonder if some Singaporeans did not actually mean the words they said in the Pledge

I questioned whether the years spent celebrating Racial Harmony Day were nothing more than a stunt.

Because let’s be frank, racial harmony is more than just donning each other’s ethnic costumes and indulging in the cuisine of other cultures.

A true multi-ethnic society wouldn’t have such discriminatory attitudes thriving under its surface.

This isn’t the Singapore that anybody wants, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

And then I found something that made me hope again.

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Yes we can

Because not every Singaporean is going to let this discrimination slide.

Some have already begin to lead us towards change for the better.

Take property listing portal 99.co, which launched its REGARDLESS-OF-RACE campaign in 2016.

The campaign hopes to create a positive property-hunting experience for minorities.

The Indian wife of 99.co’s founder can attest to the distress caused by landlords who practise race-based rentals.

So to fight this, her husband’s company allows clients to select “All races welcome” option on their property listings.

These listings would then be featured prominently on the portal’s home page.

Clients can also pledge to show that they oppose such questionable practices and share their own experiences with rental racial discrimination.

Yes YOU can

But fighting silent racism cannot be a job for the silent minority only.

Because until property agents stop acting on their landlord’s verbal requests, the problem remains difficult to solve.

No one wants to be ‘a snitch’ or ‘the petty one’, but if we continue to allow such acts of discrimination under our noses, we are only reinforcing the narrative that silent racism is okay.

And silent racism isn’t just a thing in the rental market.

It’s high time we confront our thoughts and actions that are laced with discrimination.

We might not even be conscious that might clutch our purse tighter when a person of a certain race walks into a room.

Such toxic thoughts can’t be rid of overnight, but the first step to change is acknowledging the problem.

Only then can change actually come.

And here’s my message to biased-landlords: Stereotypes aren’t representative of an individual or community. Don’t assume the worst — or best — in your prospective tenants.

Because everyone deserves a fair chance of consideration beyond their skin colour.

Would you ever want to be treated like that?

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Featured image from Mariana Harnandez

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