As Singaporeans, we spent more than a decade reciting the national pledge before the start of each school day. We know that in all aspects of our lives, we should judge people on merit, “regardless of race, language, or religion”. But when it comes to our personal life – or more specifically, our romantic life – race, language, and religion can be a deal-breaker. But is that OK?
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“Have you dated a brown guy before?” Ned*, my friend’s date, asked me over drinks one night. I was stumped. I ran a mental list – my exes were Chinese and Eurasian, and the boys I’ve went out with over the past year were mostly Chinese dudes, with a couple of Caucasians thrown in. In the past year of being single, I’ve only went out with one Indian guy I met from Tinder. Well, sh*t.
To give it some context, Ned is a Western expat of Indian descent. I can’t remember what prompted the question. There was another Indian guy at our table, a friend Ned had just made. Maybe they were talking about how Chinese girls here don’t seem to want to date Indian boys. I don’t recall. But what I do remember is turning around to my friend and asking, “Am I racist if I’ve never dated Malay or Indian boys before?”
A recent study on ethnicity done by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Channel NewsAsia revealed that when it comes to dating outside of our ethnic group, most Singaporeans prefer their children and grandchildren to date Chinese and Caucasians. According to IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, this indicates that we are “still not the multicultural nirvana that some would expect.”
So back to my question. I don’t like to think I’m racist (who does?). I like to think I’m inclusive in both my work and personal life, and very open to learning about the practices and beliefs of other cultures. But the choices I’ve made in my romantic life seem to say otherwise.
“Yes,” says Dr Norman Li, a Lee Kong Chian Fellow and Associate Professor of Psychology at Singapore Management University, without skipping a beat. Ouch. “Discrimination against someone of a different race is racism, so yes, by definition, that’s what you’re doing.”
But where does this come from?
Studies have shown that we’re more likely to be attracted to someone who’s similar to ourselves. So, subconsciously or not, when we’re sizing up potential partners, we’ll be looking for similarities in things like education, social status, attitudes, beliefs, and even looks.
When I talked to my friend, a Chinese girl around the same age as me, about this, she told me that she wouldn’t want to date a Malay boy because she could foresee religion being an issue should they become serious.
Another friend of mine, a Caucasian expat, felt it might not be entirely fair to brand such personal preferences as racism. “So you might swipe left on an Indian guy on Tinder, but if an Indian guy approaches you at the bar, you wouldn’t say no to him just because he’s Indian, right?”
No, I wouldn’t do that just because of his race. But why is it that if I were to judge his compatibility with me just based on superficial appearances alone (i.e., Tindering), I’d be more predisposed to say no?
Our personal preferences when it comes to dating are very much shaped by our surroundings and experiences growing up, Dr Li explains. So if your social circle isn’t racially diverse, that will have an effect on your dating preferences. The same goes for what you see in the media. “Western media makes up a large part of our media consumption, so that’s partly why the survey findings showed that Singaporeans find it preferable for their offspring to date Caucasians if they were dating outside of their own race.”
Dating agency Lunch Actually did an online survey earlier this year involving users of their dating platform and found that only 21 percent of Singaporean singles didn’t have race-based preferences when it comes to dating.
On a deeper level, we cannot ignore the fact that inter-cultural romances can potentially come with their own set of problems, like getting along with other family members, getting used to new customs, and deciding what second language your children should pick up. Can you fault someone for not wanting to bring that into their personal life?
“It’s not necessarily that they’re not open to dating other races,” says Ms Violet Lim, co-founder and CEO of the Lunch Actually Group. “Most of the clients who join us are looking to settle down and find someone who will fit in the family… and they want to date someone their family will approve of – usually someone of the same race, who shares the same culture, and can understand the language.”
This is supported by their survey, which found that 55 percent of respondents indicated that they wouldn’t mind dating someone of another race, but would prefer not to.
On the other hand, Violet points out there are many successful interracial couples and marriages. And the number of such marriages in Singapore has been increasing – in 2015, inter-ethnic marriages made up 21.5 percent of all marriages here, compared to 14.9 percent in 2005. But they’re still the exception rather than the norm in a multi-racial country like Singapore.
According to Dr Li, research findings like these, as controversial as they are, bring us one step closer to a more inclusive society by showing us that we need to overcome our biases. “You need to study it to understand it, so you know what you’re up against,” says Dr Li. “Then you will be in a better position to deal with and change it.”
I can understand why religion can be a deal-breaker for some people. Another friend of mine, a Malay guy, thinks it’s not necessarily wrong to have preferences when it comes to dating.
“It’s only racism if you associate a negative trait with a certain race, and that’s your reason for not dating someone of that race,” he argued.
In her experience as a dating consultant, Violet observed that both women and men have an idea of what they want their “ideal partner” to be like. “A lot of ladies tell us, ‘I’m looking for someone who’s this tall, at least 1.75m.’ If you ask them why, they don’t even know.”
“Similarly, for guys, if you ask them ‘Why do you like girls with long hair? What’s wrong with girls with short hair?’ They’re not sure as well.”
(Although, if you ask Dr Li, evolutionary psychology can explain these preferences, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
What Violet said struck a chord with me, because if you asked me to picture my other half, my mind automatically conjures up a man of East Asian descent. But if you asked me why, I can’t give you an answer.
What Violet tells such clients is they shouldn’t just look at the superficialities of their matches, and to look at what would make them happy in a marriage. “For example, whether a guy is 1.75m or not, has nothing to do with whether he’ll be a good husband or a good father,” she adds.
So maybe this is the question we should start asking ourselves: would you date a man from [insert another race here]? And most importantly, why? Or why not?
*Name has been changed.
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