By Kokila Annamalai
So this issue of how we talk about/report on issues along lines of race/ethnicity/culture has been on my mind since the original article on food habits and risk of diabetes in Indian and Malay communities was published. But I am not satisfied with the assertion in this response that we shouldn’t highlight issues with a race perspective. I think, rather, the conclusion should be that good journalism needs to be rigorous, scientific and guard against unconscious biases and simplistic assumptions about race/ethnicity/culture. The letter seems to suggest that this is in large part an issue of diplomacy (maybe I’m interpreting something that’s not there, but this is how it came across to me) and not hurting the sentiments of Indian and Malay people. But the issue isn’t about choosing a different lens (than race) to look at the issue. If the data shows that Indians and Malays suffer higher instances of diabetes, that is relevant and useful knowledge if the inquiry into *why* is done and reported on properly. No one took offense at the suggestion that our communities are at higher risk of diabetes – it was the ludicrous reasons given for this that were offensive.
An article on, say, how Indian populations are at higher risk of diabetes because of how our bodies adapted to generations of under-nutrition would, to me, be welcome. That *is* highlighting an issue with a race perspective, but it is not racist or ignorant. To the contrary, it’s quite fascinating to understand how embodied our histories are!
There are major issues with how the lens of race is adopted in journalism in Singapore. For starters, as many have raised before, there is the problem of seeing issues as national concerns when they affect the Chinese majority, and stigmatised as cultural deficit when they affect minority groups.
Framing issues that affect minority groups as cultural deficit comes from at least two kinds of racism. (1) An unwillingness to recognise how systemic disadvantages, discrimination, etc lead to greater vulnerability and poorer outcomes across multiple indices and (2) writing from a eurocentric/sinocentric perspective whereby the cultures, lived experiences, family and kinship structures, values, history, heritage and traditions of minority groups are seen as alien, backward and dangerous/detrimental. From whose standpoint do we decide what is good/bad, harmful/helpful, weakness/strength? This kind of racism leads to the framing of non-issues – or what the community might indeed consider a strength – as a deficit/issue. For example, in this context, ghee and coconut milk are considered by our communities, and by science, to contain many health benefits, but this is completely rejected by the original article.
Other ways in which the original article was rubbish (on top of points that have already been raised by many others) are assumptions about where Chinese, Malay and Indian people eat (apparently only at Chinese stalls if they’re Chinese, Malay stalls if they’re Malay and Indian stalls, if they’re Indian), and that hawker food represents what we cook at home (when was the last time any Indian person made roti prata at home, I want to know??!!), and just how terribly infantilising and sanctimonious it was towards our communities and extremely complex, rich food traditions.
This was first published as a Facebook post and has been republished here with permission.