culture, race, differences

Exclusion by Language

Watched HOTEL and GRC, both amazing plays which shed light on race issues in Singapore. I felt incredibly isolated and left out when watching the play in Malay – forcing me to reimagine myself as a minority, to face what Malays face, everyday such as when the Caifan auntie chats happily with her Chinese customers but looks at you with uneasy detachment. I remember when I felt unhappy when an Old Chang Kee Malay auntie smiled and greeted a Malay customer in front of me, only to treat me with a less than friendly disposition when I tried to smile at her. I don’t think I blame her now that I can see how there’s so little of them who she can identify with.

Makes me wonder if Esperanto, or a world language would help. But then again, visible differences can highlight cultural differences anyway. But reducing one barrier by increasing intelligibility can’t hurt, now can it? In reality of course, we have English. But while using English to communicate, it lacks the sincerity of say, a Chinese approaching a Malay and speaking in Malay or vice versa. While English is supposed to be unifying and it is by far the most pragmatic choice for multi-cultural communication – it does not promote solidarity as well as our Mother Tongues, which we tend to metaphorically code-switch to because we actually feel that it forms a crucial part of our identity. Of course, it is changing because many Singaporeans, especially the younger generation (some of my friends included) don’t like speaking in their Mother Tongues (most of my friends are Chinese, and this is indeed more endemic in the majority race. Which is another issue altogether). For now, English is great for that initial encounter. Singlish is even better. But after that, I believe strongly in picking up bits of each other’s language, if only to increase the solidarity amongst each other.

What it means to be Singaporean

I also got to chat with some students who were Indian. It’s interesting how most of them have strong ties to India, regardless of whether they were born there or in Singapore. They speak of India fondly, as if it is a colourful place full of wonders. It is reminiscent of how I would consider Indonesia as a place where I feel happier, as a place to escape the stress of Singapore – not necessarily as a place I would like to live in, but a happy place you are glad you have ties to.

Recently, a FB friend who was Malaysian born but has come to identify as a Singaporean asked the question “What does it mean to be Singaporean?”. I couldn’t think of an answer there and then. But I think that I would define the Singaporean identity as people with ties to other lands and cultures, glad to live in Singapore for all its opportunities and modern life, but proud of the parts of the identity that connects them elsewhere. Singaporeans always had a thing about ‘exotic people’ – everyone is interested in the Korean-mixed boy in school, or the British-Chinese mixed girl. When I was growing up, I always thought being Indonesian Chinese made me that much cooler. And today, I heard a secondary school girl converse in Teochew on the phone – I was going to cry because I felt so touched.

And I remember watching this Ted Talk, which gave me a different perspective on what how we forget that we are complex people with complex and layered identities. And we only find out when we are truly interested in the people around us, when we talk to them, and share with each other our experiences.

Labels and Categories

It is thus somewhat a pity that our leaders think that plonking us into CMIO model is a good idea. It makes us easier to manage (manage what though? What is the exact relevance?), but does not celebrate diversity when it is probably the most defining feature of Singapore. And no, stock photos of multi-racialism or hawker food simplifies diversity and waters it down to cultural symbols – and at the same time marginalising minority communities like the Peranakans and the Eurasians (coming back to Schooling, I think it’s great that our first gold athlete is an ‘Other’). The official narrative smooths out the nuances in the cultural landscape, muting discussion and thus understanding of each other’s culture.

A Majority-Minority Issue

GRC also shed light on the issues surrounding governance in a country with majority-minority. And every country faces this problem actually. I was naive enough when I was younger to think that we had different races and we were treated equally. As much as the play made me incredibly upset and guilty, I realised that the majority-minority problem is as intractable as it is regrettable. How we treat our minority will be what defines our quality as a nation – and I think we can do better. But it is one thing to acknowledge the issue and another to expect equality in its absolute sense. It was a sober look at the issue at hand, and for those who belong to the majority to understand their privilege, to increase empathy.


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