Navigating Race And Other Pitfalls Of Online Dating In Singapore

Is it 'just a preference' or are you really a racist, wonders Ryan Starr

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Here’s how the conversation always starts: You get a notification on your phone that someone has just sent you a message on one of the dating apps you’re on. You click through, and it is a pictureless profile with a one-word message: “cute” (sometimes you get lucky and receive a “Hi” or “hello” instead).

You thank him, greet him hello (yes, we are polite), and then wait for a reply. 

“Seek?”, comes the next question (seriously, a man of few words). You give a generic and vague answer about having a good chat and seeing where that will lead, and he responds with his stats (“35/Chinese/seeking fun here”). You acknowledge, because your profile is pretty complete, and again another question comes, this time more pointed. “Chinese?”, he asks. 

“No, I’m Malay”.
“Oh.”
“Why?”
“You don’t look Malay. Sorry, I’m not racist but I’m not into Malays.”

And that’s the end of the conversation. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of dating apps. 

Let’s make it clear: I’m a tall, educated, dark-skinned Malay. In a sea of pictures with scant basic information, my profile shows a cute smiling picture of me with my face in full view as well as the basic information one needs to get to know me.

And, no. This is not a ‘woe is me’ rant. It is just stating some truths. But before I continue, here’s a shout out to my Indian sisters who, by all accounts, have it way worse than us Malays. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to dating and cultural capital, brown people are left holding the short end of the stick. And no one likes the short end of any stick.

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Photo: 123RFSo, when news came out recently that a popular networking and online dating app is removing its ethnicity filter in the next app update, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will removing a filter prevent dating discrimination in Singapore?

For the uninitiated, the decision to remove the function, the app developers said in its official Twitter page, is meant to show solidarity with protests in the US over police brutality against black women and men. The ethnicity filter allows you to sieve out certain ethnicities. However, since Asians and South Asians have a category of their own, therein lies the problem. Because in Singapore, where there are many different types of Asians, one really does not need the filter function to exercise one’s biases. 

So it always baffles me whenever someone tells me I don’t look Malay—how does a Malay person look? Maybe this is all Tyra Banks’ fault. Years of watching America’s Next Top Model has taught me how to find my best angles for pictures, how to catch the light (making my skin tone slightly fairer than it actually is), and how to smize (squinting slightly to smile with one’s eyes). I wonder if putting those lessons into practice has caused this misunderstanding. I’m kidding. Perhaps in photos I do look ethnically ambiguous. 

When I was much younger, I would pursue the matter further and ask what they meant by that. Oftentime, I’m either ghosted and then blocked, or they would attempt to explain how they thought I was a “very tanned Chinese”… before blocking me. This brought me back to a time when an acquaintance I’ve had a crush on for years told me that he won’t date me even though he thinks I am good looking—wait for it—for a Malay. Quite honestly, I don’t even know what that means. 

Today, calling out such biases has taken a back seat. After all, will it magically stop picture-less profiles from discriminating against you? Not really. 

I remember relating this story (and other instances) to a friend, asking him why race matters when it comes to dating. “It’s just a preference,” he says. “They’re just not sexually attracted to you. It’s just like how you are also on the lookout for guys who are tall”. While I fully recognise that some people are just not attracted to me (as is the same with me and other people), I thought that answer was a cop-out. Because while tall guys exist in all races and with different skin colours, stating you don’t date a specific race (or races) excludes everyone in that community—tall or not.

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Preference is a positive that some turn into a negative, often a racially fuelled one. In the UK or the US, I often see profiles that clearly state “No rice, no curry, no blacks” in their bio. In Singapore, while this may not necessarily appear in the bio, people do use “preference” as a way to keep certain guys out of their dating pool.  

Look, if that’s what you want to do, fine. But at least own it by acknowledging what it is—you’re biased. 

Yes, I recognise that I, too, have some form of biases. For instance, I prefer dating men of colour, especially if they’re Malays, because we share similar backgrounds. I also have my own sexual preference. If you ask me, my ideal type is someone who is tall, dark, intelligent, and stable. He should also possess the right mix of the romantic determination of Noah from The Notebook (played by the handsome Ryan Gosling), Michael B Jordan’s smooth talking and overall sex appeal, the aloofness and sartorial style of Park Saeroyi from Itaewon Class (played by Park Seo-Joon), the macho bravado of Malaysian actor Redza Rosli, as well the political and social “wokeness” of Hasan Minhaj.

Meanwhile, everyone I’ve dated thus far is nothing like that. Am I asking for the world here? Perhaps. Of course, my “ideal type” does not exist (but if you do actually exist, hit me up!). 

That, however, has not stopped me from dating guys from all walks of life, and each with their own stories (read: emotional baggage). I mean, I’m not boring. Just because we have a preference for one thing doesn’t mean we automatically close the door to trying other things. That’s what differentiates preference and prejudice, and dating people from other cultures will inevitably open our eyes to, and widen our knowledge on, different perspectives on things. 

So how about we also not generalise an entire group of people and say that you will never date one of them? Because the heart may want what it wants (thank you, Selena Gomez), but if desire is dictated primarily by race, I think we need to dig deeper and figure out why that is so. 

Till then, here’s to me trawling the many dating apps I’ve downloaded on my iPhone for that elusive life partner—wherever, and whatever, he may be. 

*Ryan Starr is not the contributor’s real name

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