By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib
Sometimes, luck has it that you got a really memorable conversation with a taxi driver.
Knowing that I’m heading to a mosque in Braddell Road, the middle-aged driver of a blue Comfort Sonata taxi posed a question: “Sir, you know if mosques take donations? I want to give some money to Malay children.”
It’s not often that you hear a Chinese man asking if he can donate to a mosque. Curious, I asked him if he wanted to make a general donation or specifically for disadvantaged children. “Can I specify to the mosque that the money is for the children?” I told him yes, but also gave the option of donating direct to orphanages or children’s homes.
“But I want to give the money only to Malay children,” he insisted. After a short pause, he continued, “My grandfather told me that you must always help the Malays.”
The conversation got me curious and as he went on with his story, I cannot but felt a sense of hope for what we can be as a nation. It was unfortunate that despite our professed status as a “multicultural society” (some would call it “multiracial” instead), we are in fact a deeply racialised people. And this has been the result of at least 4 decades of post-independence racialisation process that struck deep into the hearts of our social policies and national institutions.
“Chinese or Malay, what does it matter?” said Mr Leong Kim Meng who had been driving taxi for many years now. But he will always remember his grandfather’s word: “As long as you live, you must help the Malays.”
His grandfather was from Hainan. Driven by poverty, he came to Singapore to work as a coolie. Mr Leong recalled how his grandfather had suffered for two years working like a slave without any pay under a Chinese towkay. It was an oppressive condition. Eventually, he brought his 12-year old son (Mr. Leong’s father) to stay with him in Singapore. They settled in Pulau Tekong, in a village named Kampung Pahang, which was a settlement linked to the Malay royalty in Pahang. (A civil war broke out in Pahang from 1857-1863, causing mass relocation of the followers of Tun Mutahir to Johor and Singapore.) But it was during the Japanese Occupation that Mr. Leong’s grandfather felt deeply indebted to the Malays.
“The Japanese were hunting the Chinese. And my grandfather was caught and hung upside down from the tree. But as they were about to kill him, it was the Malay penghulu (village headman) who pleaded and persuaded the Japanese soldiers to release him. From that day onward, my father swore to help the Malays in return for saving his life.”
This is a story that we don’t often hear in our National Education narrative. It is unfortunate that our schools continue to teach our young about the “faultlines” between the different races and how we will pounce on each other if given the opportunity. And there is always the imagery of the racial riots to remind us how perilous our situation is – something told over and over again like a bad dream.
Mr Leong’s testimony flew in the face of those who continue to monger the racial riots as “proof” of what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew described as the “fundamental primeval differences”. The truth is, when it comes to basic humanity, people do not resort to race. Even during the racial riots of the 60s, we found testimonies of Chinese families sheltering Malay families and vice-versa. We must allow these counter-narratives to surface and shape a new discourse for our multicultural future. And I found Mr. Leong’s story as testament to what have been buried in our social memory, while we construct a racialised society based on segregation of the races – a continuation of what our former colonial masters engineered in their attempt to rule over a burgeoning cosmopolitan trading post.
As I arrived at my destination, Mr. Leong drove his point home. “We must always remember that Malays and Chinese don’t naturally hate each other. It is because we (Chinese) have come to your (Malay) home and somehow occupy a privileged position now. We fight over resources, not because you are Chinese or Malay. My father taught me this history. Therefore we must remember to always be good and help each other. My grandfather came from China and was helped by the Malays. Now, it’s our turn to help the Malays.”
The taxi ride took barely 20 minutes, but it was worth every second to listen his story. And it is a story that must now be retold. As I alighted from his taxi, it came across my mind: who says we will only help our own races and think ethnocentrically when it comes to providing assistance to another fellow human? Mr Leong’s testimony proved that. And I thanked him for sharing his story.
Yes, there is hope.