Minority Voices' Sharvesh Leatchmanan on racism, ignorance, and social media activism in Singapore
Use your voice
"I feel like I have a much more angry side. I'm much more frustrated when it comes to racism. But maintaining a voice of objectivity on our platform is necessary if you want change to happen. It can't be emotionally charged, it has to be based off people's experiences and based on facts, " explains Sharvesh Leatchmanan over our Zoom call. The co-founder of the online platform Minority Voices appears bright-eyed, jovial, and even younger than I imagined.
I remind myself he is after all, just twenty-four, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Alongside his co-founder Veena Tadikonda, Leatchmanan has led one of the most impactful Instagram accounts last year, hoisting the flag of social media activism up high in our small country. In a monumental year where violence and outrage ran amuck, tipping over into crucial protests like Black Lives Matter against racism, discrimination, a true outcry for change. Oh, and don't forget the outbreak of COVID-19 as well.
Coincidentally, Minority Voices emerged just before the BLM movement took place. It was an idea that Leatchmanan had already been toying with, but not without apprehension, with the fear of getting into trouble with the authorities. The ultimate trigger happened to be during the surge of COVID-19 cases amongst migrant workers in the dormitories, which led to the outpour of countless racist responses targeted towards them. Call it fate, he also made a new connection during that time — Tadikonda, and found that their visions were very much aligned. Together, they decided to set up what is now, a key platform for minority group representation in Singapore.
In his years growing up Indian in Singapore, Leatchmanan didn't exactly recognise racism during the early days of education. "I was always the only brown or Indian person in the classroom. So when there were remarks thrown around, I could never identity those as racism. It was always a joke. And because everyone else around you is laughing about it, you're conditioned to think that it is a joke and it's supposed to funny, and it shouldn't hurt. When it started affecting my mental health when I turned 17, that's when it all clicked for me. I was exposed to more things in Laselle — out of the typical Singaporean education system, where I was given more space to speak up and my voice was heard. But even then and after, I still faced racism. It was just in more blatant and overt forms."
Hence the Instagram account, Minority Voices. Mainly highlighting experiences shared by various individuals surrounding issues of racial prejudice, discrimination, and the "innocent" stereotyping, the account has racked up over 12.5k followers since its inaugural post in May 2020. And if this interview had been conducted a few months earlier, things might have been turning out very differently.
The reason? Minority Voices recently went on hiatus in light of a recent threat to report Leatchmanan to the authorities. Unfortunately as with all things social media nowadays, alongside the rapid success and wave of support their cause has been building, also come the ugly DMs and hints of complaint not often visible at top of the inbox. The accusatory keyboard warriors that can't help but feel offended by the shared experiences of minorities. Some would call them an inevitable part of the wider good, others a necessary inconvenience.
Leatchmanan smiles as he faces me across his room on our call, where vibrant band posters of 'The Beatles' adorn the background. He shares he used the break to take time to focus on himself and not the platform alone. His passion for it after all, stems from his own very deeply personal experiences.
"I am currently working on myself and the trauma that I've faced. Not just mine, but also vicarious trauma, from running Minority Voices and hearing everyone's stories on a day-to-day basis. From not being able to draw my own boundaries and letting my own emotions get in the way," he remarks. As he majors in professional counselling, the undergraduate notes that his absence via the platform does not signal a negative end to where it's going. Rather, he sees this very much as a break and credits it for being a part of his own healing process.
"It (Minority Voices) has become a community of its own. I think the platform was very validating for myself. I finally felt seen, even though I've never personally shared my own experiences on the grid. Just by reading everyone else's stories and messages, it's helped me feel comfortable and seen in my own country. Because for the longest time, I didn't feel like I belonged here."
Below, Leatchmanan shares his thoughts on recent pivotal events, racism in Singapore, and social media's role in the grand scheme of things.
On Black Lives Matter...
I have to say the Black Lives Matter movement definitely did spark a wider conversation among Singaporeans about racism. And that's great, but if you want to show solidarity then why are we not looking at what's going on in Singapore? With BLM, I think a lot of people started thinking that racism is only racism when it's violent. But I think they need to understand that racism isn't physical attacks but it's also what happens everyday. There's interpersonal racism and structural racism in our system.
Racism and ignorance
I think it's okay to be ignorant, but it's not okay to be ignorant and not want to learn and improve and be better. There's a need to educate yourself but I think in Singapore, because of the status quo, everyone is very comfortable. Because of the ethnic population and how the numbers are. Which is why it should start from education. To teach people that perpetuating these stereotypes are wrong. But then, that boils down to the higher power. So the best thing to do is to impact the people around you and your own social circle. It creates a ripple effect.
Not being a racist isn't enough
In Singapore, if you say you're not racist, it's not enough. Because if you are not racist, that means when you see a racist incident happening anywhere around you, you are not going to do anything about it. Even though you're not racist, you're still complicit in that racism. To be anti-racist, is to constantly call out and intervene whenever you see a racist incident happening in school, at your workplace, in any management in your daily life, amongst your family members at the dinner table, etc. If you don't constantly challenge the status quo, then it is going to be the same forever. Because what is equality? It's not just, you know, you get three quarters of the pie and I get one quarter. We are not asking to get three quarters of pie, we're asking to get equal amounts of the pie.
What goes behind Minority Voices
It's a lot of work, there's no 9-5, and boundaries do need to be in place. I feel some people think I'm the racism police and I don't want to let them down because they view the platform as a positive outlet. So I end up responding to them even after hours. I have learnt that as much as I'm a vocal person who's angry and mindless at times, I have to be mindful while managing a platform like this. We have to maintain an objective tone and voice because we are a public platform.
What I've also taken away from Minority Voices is that in Singapore, there is a need for more people to come forward and do what they want with their voice. You can use your voice for some sort of change because it can impact. No one knew me before this, I wasn't an influencer, I was just a random person who's frustrated with what's going on and wanted to do something about it. People with a following should be using their voice to speak up about everything that's going on in Singapore. We haven't really been seeing much of that in Singapore.
On social media activism accounts...
Sometimes I do feel like it can become like an echo chamber, where you're only preaching the same fire. But I would say a difficulty would definitely be facing people who are always going to be against what you're saying. There's always going to be someone who does not agree and finds your content unreasonable. It used to affect me in a way where every time I post something, I would get very anxious and read the post over and over again to make sure nothing I put out there can be used as a trigger. But even then, people will also have something negative to say. I think at the end of the day, you just need to be honest with what you're doing. We're not putting anyone down in the process and we're not doing anything wrong.
On social media not being enough
I think racism has always existed in our society. And because of COVID-19, it's just been amplified. There are hate crimes that aren't reported or documented. Because of the current situation of the term Indian variant going around in Singapore, I can visibly see people distancing themselves from me, my family, and my friends. People are saying "Stop Asian Hate", but it's happening here. Everyone on Instagram is sharing about racism that is happening, but where are you when things happen in person? It probably has something to do with our culture in Singapore where it's a "don't ask, don't tell" mindset. In these videos that are being shared where racist attacks happen, you realise not one person is stepping up to do something to stop the act. I think that needs to change because it just takes that one moment of courage.