The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’

May 8, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’

The habit of using general concepts such as ‘modern’, ‘achievement’, ‘goals’, ‘planning’ and so forth has given birth to a body of scholars’ literature (I refrain from using ‘scholarly’) comparable to Diner’s Club cards. They can be used everywhere. It is the preoccupation of the captive mind to indulge in the use of such imported concepts without a proper and meaningful linkage to the objective situation.

Inappropriate linkage becomes evident when we see how those attributed with Chinese privilege—whom Thanapal says are “beneficiaries of a system of racial superiority”—are, paradoxically, cast as inferior in relation to their white counterparts. Koh tells us in her article ‘White in one space, yellow in another: Being Singaporean Chinese’ that her sense of being white in Singapore is mediated by her sense of being a “person of colour” in the US. Koh acquires a renewed perception of what it means to be Chinese only after being in the US and not from awareness of other Asian perceptions of Chineseness in multi-ethnic Singapore or even in neighbouring, multi-ethnic Malaysia.

In similar vein, Rachel Yeoh, who says she was inspired by the Chinese Privilege online platform, writes:

…living in England suddenly forced me to be hyper-aware that I was a person of colour. The student body at my university was very homogenous, which meant that Freshers week comprised of me weaving my way through an endless sea of white students. I had never, up until that point, felt insecure about the way I looked – but in that moment, my nose was too flat, my skin was too sallow, my face was too round, my eyes too boring and brown, and my figure that of a young adolescent boy.

A Singaporean Chinese who supposedly grew up among Singaporean Indians, Arabs, Eurasians and Malays becomes conscious of her Chinese looks only in England? One wonders whether this awareness would have arisen had she weaved through a sea of black students. Why do Rachel Yeoh’s feelings of insecurity about her Chinese looks emerge only when she comes into contact with white students? Why, at all, should they even emerge?

Another instance of minority denigration is when Thanapal laments that “no minority person has won the English prize for fiction” of the Singapore Literature Prize. She does not lament that there are few or no Chinese winners in the Malay category (the Ministry of Defence website states that “the national language of Singapore shall be the Malay language”) or rejoice for those winning writers in the Tamil, Mandarin and Malay categories. English comes out as the superior language to write and win in, and the measure of success.

Koh and Thanapal see the Singaporean Chinese experience of racism outside Singapore as a way to make Singaporeans more sensitive to the ways they might be racist in their own country. It is here that I want to introduce the concept of ‘double captivity’ which, in some sense, is the opposite of W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of “double consciousness” invoked in the interview.

For DuBois, people with double consciousness are conscious of white perceptions of them; at the same time they are conscious of and maintain a strong sense of self. A captive mind, on the other hand, is “unconscious of its own captivity and the conditioning factors making it what it is” (Alatas, 1974).  Even someone who is “vehemently opposed to colonialism” may be a captive mind, for Alatas. “What defines the captive mind is the state of intellectual bondage and dependence on an external group through the operation of media such as books, institutions…” (Alatas, 1974).

Could Thanapal and Koh have spoken meaningfully about social and gender inequalities, racism—tacit and covert—and strategies for cohesive diversity in Singapore without resorting to the term Chinese privilege? Would there have been greater academic value in that? Koh and Thanapal are dependent on external sources for the formulation of the term Chinese privilege while at the same time they criticize Singapore for its ‘White is better’ mindset. So we have the captive talking to the captive in a conversation framed by assumptions and illusions of its emancipatory and mobilizatory potential, not to mention originality. This is what is meant by double captivity.

In the entire interview, Malaysia’s role in the formation of Singapore is not even mentioned once. If Singapore is an independent state today, it is because the island was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia. Malaysian novelist, Tash Aw got it right in his essay ‘Being Chinese in Singapore (New York Times, February 12, 2015). “In 1965, Singapore broke off from freshly independent Malaysia as a direct result of bitter disputes over the preservation of rights for ethnic Chinese and other minorities in the new Malay-dominated nation”.

Koh and Thanapal prefer to discuss Singapore Chinese privilege in connection to white privilege rather than Malay privilege right next door in Malaysia which, paradoxically, has produced a class of successful minority Chinese Malaysians who are, at the same time, victims of institutional discrimination. To bring Malaysia into the discussion might have been more meaningful politically, socially and academically because Malaysia provides the opportunity to study the intersectional effects of privilege that Singaporeans should closely engage with considering Singapore and Malaysia’s shared border, similar ethnic composition and common historical past.

Consider, for example, one gender issue—polygamy—which is not touched upon at all in the interview. How do the Singapore state—in this case tolerant of the religious practices of a minority community—Islam and feminism intersect here?

Also, the power of mixed marriage as a form of subversion rather than merely a manifestation of privilege has not been considered in the interview. Since the interview denounces the Singapore state for its alleged racism, can we in all seriousness agree with Thanapal that the Singapore government “would probably love it if many [non-Chinese] gave up our cultures to assimilate through marriage” with Singaporean Chinese? That would mean more Chindian looking children and the people of Singapore would return to look like the inhabitants that once populated the island when it was part of the Chola Empire centuries ago. Intersections of class, race and gender are never more subversive than when they reveal how the majority could potentially, by its own actions of marriage, undermine its own power if, as it has been argued in the interview, Chinese privilege rests on notions of whiteness which, it is assumed, it wants to preserve.

Forty-one years have gone by since Alatas’ Captive Mind thesis, but Koh and Thanapal have shown us that we are still in the era of the captive mind, one that seems much harder to emancipate because not only is it unconscious of its own captivity, it is also unconscious of the captivity of its captor. As Singapore turns fifty this year, double captivity invites us to interrogate the real nature of Singapore’s presumed intellectual and creative independence.

Masturah Alatas is a Singapore-born writer who lives in Italy. She is the author of the first biography of Syed Hussein Alatas, The Life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010).

Comments by the Writer

My main aim with this piece (above) was to introduce a new term (as I tried to do in my book withmasturah_alatas “spaghetti Westernization”) to see if “double captivity” works as an analytical concept. Is there any use in this as an intellectual exercise? There might be if it unmasks inferiority masquerading as superiority, or if it exposes when the blind is leading the blind, ie when pseudo analysis is mistaken as good scholarship.

Also, does double captivity work only in the context of Singapore or can it apply to intellectual and creative work in Italy, the US and elsewhere? And why would we even want to ask this question? Maybe because at a time when there is a lot of talk about global flows of knowledge and who is commanding in the so-called knowledge economy, double captivity might just be one of the many ways to identify what is, and isn’t, truly and refreshingly new and useful.

Others have responded critically to the line that Thanapal and Koh have been pushing regarding their work on Chinese privilege. Among the criticisms I have come across are: too many generalizations and sweeping statements, conflation of concepts, a ranting, hostile, emotional tone; denigration of Indian men and Chinese women re their choice of marriage partner, the choice of frivolous examples like beauty contests to talk about a serious issue like gender discrimination, use of terms without really understanding them etc.

Any term built on an already problematic and flawed concept like White privilege is bound to run into serious problems. Works such as Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish became White and Sander Gilman’s ‘Are Jews White?’ in his book The Jew’s Body show that there is no common or consistent understanding of whiteness as one thing to begin with. Nor is there a common sense of privilege.

It is also a language problem, what words do when they appear in speech. Of course privilege exists, some people may not be aware of its negative effects and it is useful to remind them. But the moment one drops a term like Chinese privilege into the discussion, the reaction is often ‘What does that mean?’, ‘What has ‘Chinese’ got to do with it? Many Malaysian Malays are like that too’, ‘Why not just use the term Chinese chauvinism?’, ‘Why only Singaporean Chinese…many Malaysian Chinese are the same way…’, ‘Why are academics always talking about China these days?’ and the discussion becomes very confusing, circuitous, inconclusive and unproductive.

There is good scholarship and good writing about Singapore, if you know how to recognise it. This is a challenge further complicated by the amount of material available online, on platforms that readers give credibility to.

One final thing. The interview carries the byline of its editor, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, which is unusual for an interview. We are not told how the interview, called a “conversation”, was conducted—whether face-to-face, recorded and transcribed, or via email. Lack of clarity is understandable and inevitable in spontaneous speech. But if responses were written, then edited, why is there still lack of clarity (and I am not refering to typos like “..think in terms of the language and social of the dominant group..”)? What are we to make of “…it places the blame for failure on those who did not work hard enough…” So they did not work hard enough, or they were perceived as not working hard enough? Here we have the return of the myth of the lazy native.

Moreover, why does the interviewer not ask for clarification or call the interviewee out in the face of her naive and troubling conviction that Singapore is the only decolonised state that “has a completely alien population control political and economic power, while the formerly decolonized indigenous people remain continuously marginalized”? Apart from the fact that Malays do vote in Singapore, and the Singapore government has always shared political power in a multiracial coalition, the notion of “alien population” is troubling. Are Singaporean Chinese still considered an alien population in Singapore today? When did they start to become one? And when, pray tell, will they stop? Do Native Americans still consider other Americans an “alien population”? For the record, the Chinese have been present on Southeast Asian territory since the tenth century, not just as merchants but also settling down and marrying local people.

If Adeline Koh chooses not to react because she is following her own advice to “shut up when a minority is talking about race”, then the question is: who is damaged in the end by this approach?

One of my readers has privately pointed out to me the connection between Du Bois and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the idea of ‘double consciousness’. My reader’s point was this: Ideas cross borders, and are borrowed and built upon all the time. But Du Bois was not a captive mind. His writing has a certain independence, a distinctive feel about it such that we do not see the figure of Emerson sitting at the back of his mind. So Emerson’s influence is not felt as bondage where a power imbalance can be identified. Du Bois’ is the kind of writing that makes it difficult to distinguish between internal and external influences. It is modernizing and modernist writing that shows it has understood the lessons of the teachers in a completely new manner. It is, to paraphrase A.A. Phillips on the cultural cringe, writing that shows it has mastered the art of being unselfconsciously itself.


Alatas, Syed Hussein, ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’, International Social Science Journal, 26.4 (1974), 691-700

Aw, Tash, ‘Being Chinese in Singapore’, The New York Times, 13 February 2015,

DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Classics, 1903)

Koh, Adeline, ‘White in one space, yellow in another: Being Singaporean Chinese’,

Koh, Adeline and Thanapal, Sangeetha, ‘Chinese Privilege, Gender and Intersectionality in Singapore: A Conversation between Adeline Koh and Sangeetha Thanapal’, The b2 Review, 4 March 2015,

Laurelinarien, ‘Comment, March 15, 2015’,

See for why the use of the term Chinese privilege is “unnecessarily combative”:

Ministry of Defence, Singapore,

Yeoh, Rachel, ‘Coming to Terms with My Privilege’,

4 thoughts on “The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’

  1. “The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’”

    Just to share this…

    “Masturah Alatas

    Photo of Masturah Alatas – was born and raised in Singapore. Since 1992 I have been living in Macerata, a medieval hill town in central Italy where I teach English and translation at the local university. I will be working on a novel set in colonial and post-colonial Malaysia. It will explore the theme of cultural conflict around child raising. Dr Jo Baker is my supervisor.

    Had I had not migrated to Italy and learnt Italian, I probably would have never discovered that literature about colonial Malaysia was not the sole dominion of Victorian writers such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Conrad. The Italians who visited and wrote about the country have just as significant a contribution to make to our understanding of the British colonial experience in Malaysia. Studying the two literary traditions together has opened up for me exciting prospects for creative adventure, in particular a new way of imagining post-colonial writing in English: one with a strong Italian connection.

    I write in both English and Italian. I have published a fable entitled ‘The Girl Who Made It Snow In Singapore’ and several short stories in Italian. I have recently completed a biography/memoir of my late father, a Malaysian sociologist and author of ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’.”

    Masturah Alatas –

    “…At the same time, a young Italian poet from Osimo by the name of Andrea Palazzo reminds us that an excess of “the so-called need to express oneself can be the mortal enemy of Beauty and Truth. Overshadowed by popular opinion, great art dies, or rather it disappears, or languishes in museums.” And for Palazzo, the prospects for Philosophy in some Italian universities, which he feels are “conservative rather than selective”, are not much brighter either.

    Syed Hussein Alatas believed that any process of change must necessarily be accompanied by a philosophical set of criteria for selection of what to reject, retain and strive for (see Erring Modernization, 1975). Quoting from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Use and Abuse of History, Alatas stressed the importance of having a horizon of thinking, “a line that divides the visible and the clear from the vague and shadowy” in order for an individual, a community and a nation to thrive. “We must know the right time to forget as well as the right time to remember, and instinctively see when it is necessary to feel historically and when unhistorically…”

    January 26, 2012 – University Ranking Watch –

    Syed Hussein Alatas (top right with a beard) was a founding member of the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), which performed relatively successfully in the 1969 general elections.

    President of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia

    Succeeded by Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu

    “…Syed was born in Buitenzorg (now Bogor), Dutch East Indies.

    His grandfather, Sayyid ‘Abd Allah bin Muhsin al-Attas (Arabic: سيد عبد الله بن محسن العطاس‎ Sayyid ‘Abd Allāh bin Muḥsin al-ʿAṭṭās), was a “Hadhrami from Hadhramaut”, Yemen and settled in Bogor.[1][2]

    Syed Hussein is the older brother of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas[3][4] and the father of Syed Farid al-Attas…

    Syed Hussein Alatas (Arabic: سيد حسین العطاس‎ Sayyid Ḥusayn al-ʿAṭṭās; 17 September 1928 – 23 January 2007) was a Malaysian academician, sociologist, founder of social science organisations, and politician.

    He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya in the 1980s, and formed the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan).

    Syed Hussein wrote several books on corruption, multi-racialism, imperialism, and intellectual captivity as part of the colonial, and post colonial, project, the most famous being “The Myth of the Lazy Native”…

    According to Bruno Fernandes, Alatas was a “sociologist, philosopher, academic and policy analyst” who “worked out a critical and reflexive work from the point of view of the ex-colonized countries”, and while Alatas was and is today well “known in the Malayan intellectual world (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines) – and (by) a “broad Malayan intellectual (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines) community”, he is “broadly ignored elsewhere….”[9]

    The respect for Syed Alatas and his influence is also discussed in “An Intellectual Life” in Asian Analysis by Asean Focus Group and Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University: “The late Edward Wadie Said, for example, whose book Orientalism recast post-colonial scholarship, acknowledged his debt to Syed Hussein whose critique of imperialism in his Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) and of colonial historiography in Thomas Stamford Raffles:

    Schemer or Reformer (1971) were pioneering efforts in Third-Worldist post-colonial responses to Western social sciences. He has been regarded as one of the founders of sociological investigation in Southeast Asia and as a mentor to many in the Malaysian Social Science and academic community, more generally. In the 1950s, he was already considering the significance of the contribution of Tunisian-born Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) to the philosophy of history and sociology.

    While undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam, Syed Hussein founded and edited the journal Progressive Islam (1954–55), fostering his links with intellectuals within the Muslim world, including Mohammad Natsir from Indonesia, Taha Husayn and Osman Amin, both from Egypt.”[10]

    Citing Syed Alatas as an opponent of corruption another writer wrote, “Syed Hussein’s pet domains had been Malay studies, progressive Islam and fighting corruption.

    Read his books if you have the time: The Democracy of Islam, Mental Revolution, Sociology of Corruption, and The Myth of the Lazy Native, among many more.”; as a supporter for multiracism,

    “To the young, you should be reminded that Syed Hussein laid the foundation for multi-racial politics, obviously ahead of his time…..”; as an academic,

    Syed Hussein is remembered as a man with a sense of fairness and integrity. However, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, who was a lecturer at Universiti Malaya when the Prof was VC, said: “His insistence on the principles of excellence, justice and fair play irrespective of race made him unpopular in some circles.

    For this he paid a heavy price.”[11]…”

    Syed Hussein Alatas –

    You be the judge.

  2. Wait is this that discussion which leads some people to declare that non white people can’t be racists ?

  3. “The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’”

    “…Prof Adeline Koh stands by this and says that the Chinese ought to shut up when the minorities speak up…”

    Just to share this…(What The Heck)

    “WTH is Chinese Privilege?
    September 18th, 2014 | by TISG

    WTH is Chinese Privilege?

    The way we see it

    In a recent article in the Malay Mail in Malaysia, Singaporean born Surekha Yadav portrayed Singapore as a racist country.

    Her article attracted much comments from Singaporeans who either agreed or disputed with her.

    In her article, she alleges that the Singaporean Chinese enjoy more institutional, racialized and systematic privileges compared to other racial groups such as Malay and Indian.

    This Chinese privilege, according to some critiques, is quite similar to the white privilege that is enjoyed by whites in Europe and the USA.

    The privilege works like a type of unseen opportunity of assets that are often unearned, but which the individual can depend on every day, even though they remain unaware of it.

    “If you aren’t Chinese you need to justify your ‘Singaporeaness’, and even so you’ll never be quite as Singaporean as a Singaporean Chinese,” says Surekha.

    One Singaporean Chinese, Prof Adeline Koh stands by this and says that the Chinese ought to shut up when the minorities speak up.

    She forgets that the minorities in Singapore are able to defend themselves. (Thank you Adeline, but there is really no need to stir the pot here)

    Surekha talks about the banning of drums at Thaipusam.

    Perhaps, she is unaware that the ban was recommended by the Hindu Endowments Board and not by the Chinese community.

    We should not take the racial harmony that we have in Singapore for granted.

    Racism exists in every country and the only place that may perhaps be devoid of it is in the moon.”

    You be the judge.

  4. “The Double Capitivity of ‘Chinese Privilege’”

    Masturah Alatas’s paternal great grandfather, Sayyid ‘Abd Allah bin Muhsin al-Attas (Arabic: سيد عبد الله بن محسن العطاس‎ Sayyid ‘Abd Allāh bin Muḥsin al-ʿAṭṭās), was a “Hadhrami from Hadhramaut”, Yemen


    “…This minority is more specific than simply coming under the rubric of ‘Arab’; most of the prominent Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans of Arab descent have their origins in southern Yemen in the Hadramawt coastal region. They are the Hadramis.

    As many as 4 million Indonesians are of Hadrami descent and today there are almost 10,000 Hadramis in Singapore.

    The Alkaff, Alsagoff and Aljunied families settled in Singapore in the 19th century and acquired most of the land in what is now Singapore’s central business district.

    Several prominent south-east Asian politicians are Hadramis, including Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s foreign minister under President Soeharto, Alwi Shihab, foreign minister under President Abdurrahman Wahid, and Syed Hamid Albar, appointed Malaysia’s foreign minister in 1999 and whose father was a founding member of Malaysia’s ruling party, UMNO.

    Zeti Akhtar Aziz, who was appointed the governor of Malaysia’s central bank, Bank Negara in 2000, is half Hadrami; her mother was an Alsagoff…”

    Now comes the interesting bit….!

    Another prominent Hadrami family has attained worldwide fame due to the activities of one of its members: the bin Laden family.

    Terrorist Osama bin Laden’s father was a Hadrami who emigrated to Saudi Arabia from Yemen in the 1920s.

    Indeed, the original core of the Al Qaeda terrorist network had Hadrami origins. International terrorism, like international trade, works best if the participants are cohesive, numerically not too large and are dispersed across borders…”

    The world’s successful diasporas –

    You be the judge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.