How Singapore can progress as a multi-racial country, from the eyes of a minority.
I don’t recall the first racist encounter I had as a child. I was a tall, fat, Indian kid growing up in the heartlands of Bedok. I studied Malay and played football. I got called “Babu Singh” and “Keling kia” among other things. But I also made fun of the other kids who would be mean to me.
I ended up spending enough time with Chinese kids, mostly on Fridays after noon when all my Malay friends would leave early for prayers, to understand if and when anyone was insulting me in Mandarin, and what potential funny retorts could be.
Many years later, this practice of using humour, sport and language would turn into a defence mechanism to survive as a minority in Singapore. Like I said, I don’t recall the first racist encounter I had as a child. I just have a blanket memory of being made very aware that I was different because of my race.
You could say I found comedy as a means to deal with racism. But why, in the first place, did I have to activate a defence mechanism? Was it because I was different? Or was it because I was being attacked?
With the benefit of hindsight, I am able to ask these questions in a mature manner today. I am well aware today of the importance of inclusivity and multiculturalism, perhaps because I have felt what it’s like to be excluded and also to be welcomed by those of a different race than I.
The youths I interacted with on the Conversations of Singapore Spirit conversations seem to have a firm grasp on this concept, and unanimously agree that being inclusive is not only a very crucial human trait, but also key to ensure peace in the nation and allow everyone a life of dignity.
We discussed a quote by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong who said that in any multicultural society, it is harder to be a minority than it is to be a majority, and so we must “take the extra step” to make minorities feel comfortable.
I highlighted the unfortunate incident of a Chinese neighbour disrespectfully banging on a gong during her Indian neighbour’s Hindu prayer ritual, and this drew vehement disapproval from the groups.
It is quite obvious that even to young people in secondary schools, that this is not the Singapore they want to live in.
On the flip side, we shared an image of a neighbour who respectfully folded her hands and bowed as she passed her neighbours religious ritual, and again, we all agreed that we would like to see more such behaviour, which clearly exemplifies a small, but meaningful “extra step” that Mr Wong refers to. Also, “don’t be like the Gong lady” is something we might hear for a long time now.
How do you deal with racism? Can you fight racism with racism? Is there a way to do it respectfully? But how can you be respectful to someone racially attacking you? These were some uncomfortable, but important questions we dealt with at the sessions.
National Youth Council senior member Mr Brian Liu referenced the case of Mr Tan Boon Lee, who was caught on camera making racist remarks to an interracial couple in Orchard Road last month.
How do you deal with this? Mr Dave Prakash, the unfortunate recipient of these comments, could not have done it better. He called out the reprehensible behaviour on a public platform, was measured in his response, and in a lot of ways, turned it into a constructive exercise for the whole nation.
Before you knew it, the case, and his response, turned it into a national discussion, about how this behaviour from Mr Tan was unacceptable and how we can all strive to be better. Furthermore, after Mr Prakash called this out, further investigations revealed that Mr Tan was previously found to have made Islamophobic comments to students in a class in 2017.
This bigoted behaviour would probably have gone unchecked if not for the constructive approach Mr. Prakash took. While not every situation lends itself to an outcome like this, the participants were in agreement that it is definitely one very good way to move forward to address the racial issues in the country.
There was a clear consensus that we are living in an imperfect situation, where there are imbalances. But we cannot sweep these issues under the rug to preserve an image of a multicultural utopia. Work needs to be done. Effort needs to be made. Uncomfortable discussions need to be had, inconvenient questions need to be asked, and in some cases, drastic actions need to be taken.
The reason I feel the young people of Singapore, at least the groups I interacted with, are ready to take us into the future, is that they are not shying away from those realities.
I was asked about what I think embodies the Singapore spirit, and it is largely summed up in this personal experience I had a few months ago.
I stopped by an Old Chang Kee as I had cravings for a Curry’O. There was nobody at the counter. Just a small bell saying “Tap to be served.”
I was about to tap the bell but, before doing that, I peeked into the kitchen, to see if there was anyone around. Through a small opening, I saw two tudung-clad aunties eating.
I looked at the time; 7.20pm. It was the fasting month. Iftar.
No need to tap the bell.
Just then, a Chinese dude joins the queue behind me; and stood exactly one metre away.
Looks like he had the same craving.
We made eye contact and I made the universal Indian hand signal saying they are “eating.” And he got it.
There was an unstated acknowledgment that their meal was way more important than ours. But also, I think he stood there patiently because there was a certain beauty and simplicity of the image.
With the year we’d all had, I guess it was a refreshing sight to watch two Mak-ciks break their fast with fruits and kuehs; as they chatted and laughed, as they inadvertently shared a moment of hope and joy with two unassuming bystanders.
And, for a split-second at least, it seemed like life was normal; no COVID-19, no circuit breakers, no in-and-out of phases; no pandemic.
It was then I realised that it wasn’t a Curry’O we were craving. It was hope. Hope is what we are all craving.
Tell us what you think we can do to strengthen the Singapore Spirit! Share your thoughts here.
Find out more about the sessions of Conversations on the Singapore Spirit here:
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Meet the Chinese dancer who overcame cultural barriers to show her love for an Indian classical dance
Miss Universe Singapore finalist Lila Tan shares her love for the beautiful game