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How did we become so racist?

by Dr Lee Siew Peng

Grace, not race

All this talk about race and race relations, culminating with a president elected on the basis of ethnicity, troubles me.

An indelible memory of mine is Mrs Jalleh (Primary one, Tiong Bahru Primary School) teaching me to read about Osman and Kew Teng. They have different types of names, foods and religious practices but hey! they are Singaporeans. Add to that the pledge which we had to recite every day.

Like many of my generation (I’m in my mid-fifties), I grew up not thinking of myself as a Chinese. I was simply a Singaporean. My ‘Chineseness’ had never been an issue till I heeded the call to missionary service in Amsterdam (1991), ministering to ex-prostitutes, ex-prisoners, drug addicts, and others on the fringes of Dutch society. There were many economic migrants then, mainly men from East, West, and North Africa, Latin America, other parts of Asia and Europe, and refugees from Yugoslavia which was falling apart.

I was accosted by these strange men who would invariably shout some contorted Mandarin phrases at me or make propositions of a sexual nature. At five-foot-nothing, alone in a new country, these unpleasant experiences caused me to reflect on my new membership of a visible minority.

Is it because I is Chinese?

Imagine my shock when, years later, I found myself at the receiving end of racist behaviour in my own country. Sales people either ignored me or marked me like a potential shop-lifter. We were, however, often greeted with warmth when I entered a shop with the non-Chinese husband.

It led me to ask him to enter a shop only after I’ve been in the shop for a minute or so. If we were both warmly greeted, we would stay. If he was the only one who got a welcome, I would tell the staff exactly why we were walking out. ‘Chinese privilege’? Hardly.

A multicultural sandwich

My parents’ generation carried some stereotypical ideas about the non-Chinese. Yet we got on so well with our neighbours who were Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. Mum taught us to use polite terms when referring to our neighbours. It took me some time to work out the reference ‘APNN’ in social media. The fact that my father sold pork upset our Muslim neighbours initially, but we all became good neighbours and exchanged festive gifts every year.

I miss that Singapore. Very much.

It appears that mine is the privileged ‘sandwich’ generation who not only benefitted from incredible social mobility, based on meritocracy, we were also averse to racism. Younger Singaporeans are different. The following analysis on how racism has resurfaced is based on my observations and internet research (for what it’s worth). Make of it what you will.

Service and servitude

Though ‘service’ and ‘servitude’ have the same root word, they have rather different connotations. ‘Service’ can be an honourable form of serving (eg ‘Civil Service’, ‘National Service’). In contrast, ‘servitude’ implies a loss of personal freedoms (ie slavery).

For decades, many Singaporean children have been cared for by foreign domestic carers. Nobody expected this to morph into a ‘race’ issue. I will hypothesize that what these children witness in most of their homes is not service. They see, or at least interpret it as, servitude, with these domestic helpers being at their beck and call.

Servitude is encapsulated in the way these human beings are not free to use their bodies as their own. Legislation controls these bodies – with a clear blue line of sex and pregnancy that cannot be crossed – thus rendering them sub-human.

Some employers require them to work like (inhuman) robots, even stipulating when and what they can or cannot do on their official off-duty days. Too many believe they ARE robots and inflict unspeakable pain on them.

Monkey see monkey do

Is there any wonder that our children refuse to consider any service-related jobs (eg catering, sales, plumbing, etc)? It is then a mere hop, skip and jump to transferring this idea of servitude to the thousands of imported workers who perform the lowliest tasks on our building sites and rubbish bin centres.

Water-tight legislation ensures that these gastarbeiter (‘guest workers’) will never become citizens. They were in the country, but not of the country.

It became acceptable to despise all foreign workers. Call it a ‘boomerang effect’ if you will, because of shared external markers, racist attitudes were transferred to some local-born Singaporeans.

Our Indian compatriots, no matter what their personal attributes and achievements, became ‘collateral damage’. They find themselves having difficulties even in hailing a taxi due to such racist attitudes.

We did nothing to reduce this dependence on foreign workers. Instead, we invited even more foreign workers into our schools, hospitals, shopping centres, restaurants, and so forth.

Us vs Them

When foreign workers started filling PMET vacancies, the backlash came.

I don’t think I was the only one who felt that Singapore had become a victim of her own success. The ‘us-them’ phenomenon was due to the fruition of a national identity.

“We, the citizens of Singapore ….”

If we had not gelled as a nation, we would not have cared any less.

We should have confronted the big question of integration then: the cooking of curry, noisy Chinese funerals and Malay weddings, sons (and daughters?) serving National Service?

We did nothing to assuage the anxieties of local-born Singaporeans. Instead, we were told that lazy Singaporeans should wake up and smell the coffee.

Nowhere to hide

Actually, no-lah. It was that our spurs are not stuck into our hide. But our skin is not hide. We felt/feel the pain, totally humiliated to be described as working animals.

Overnight, Singaporeans became second-class citizens in their own country, the country for which our fathers, brothers and sons have (had) risked their lives during National Service.

Meanwhile, those guests we welcomed into our homes, they got the memo: they started to re-arrange our furniture.

Speak Mandarin

Being Cantonese I could not tell the difference between Hokkien and Teochew, and was teased mercilessly at school. I welcomed the ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign. Somehow, somewhere, something went awry.

Though English is supposed to be the business language, it was Mandarin that got you places. And food. I was not best pleased when a server chided me when I ordered “chendol”. Miss Smug told me that I should have used some Mandarin transliteration (zhen ru?) that no Singaporean would recognize.

With respect, I do not call the Terracotta Army ‘clay soldiers’. Chendol will always be chendol to me.

The ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign inadvertently legitimized the primacy of foreign workers who speak it rather better than local Singaporeans, giving them a sense of ‘superiority’.

We did nothing to level up the standard of spoken English amongst these. Instead, we let this drift into a situation where Singapore-born non-Mandarin speakers were shut out of jobs because ‘putong hua’ IS the only ‘common language’. 

My home, my rules

When I visit my friends, I don’t re-arrange their furniture. If I feel that my friends might appreciate a pot plant, I would bring one as a gift. But I don’t tell them where they should put it.

Just as I won’t re-arrange their furniture, I don’t expect my guests to re-arrange mine. It is different if we were housemates. We will share responsibility in security, checking the burglar alarm is set and the doors are locked, and household bills.

Sometimes, after negotiation, we might decide to invest in or move a piece of furniture for mutual benefit and happiness.

Chinese vs everyone else

I see at least two types of racism in Singapore.

  1. The first is the perception and experience of racism by the non-Chinese, perpetrated by the ‘Chinese majority’, hence ‘Chinese privilege’.
  2. The second stems from the experience of différence between the different types of Chinese (born in Singapore, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, etc). Each considers himself/herself a victim of the superior/racist/invasive attitudes of the other Chinese groups.

This begs the question: Are all Chinese in Singapore guilty of (1) above if ‘the Chinese’ are not in fact a homogenous group, given (2) above?

(Is there a similar kind of division/racism within the Indian and Malay communities that we can only understand if we spoke those languages?)

I suspect that the racism I faced in shops is the result of ‘Boomerang effect v2.0’: resentment against anyone who looks (a different type of) Chinese. 

Whole picture thinking

If our power brokers were aware of such problems, it appears that all they did was to order a new carpet, citing the lack of manpower to do the sweeping under!

The huge intertwined issues concerning education, manpower, housing, transport, language, old age, healthcare, retirement provision, etc. cannot be resolved by piece-meal tweaking of policies.

I have learned, “If you do not set a goal, you will hit it.” Singapore needs ‘whole-country planning’; a re-boot.

We need a new vision that all Singaporeans can aim towards; a realistic end-goal that fires our imagination and which we can aspire to attain by a certain time. Such as “a Swiss standard of living”.

Many Singaporeans have been to Switzerland. They knew exactly what to aim for. But someone kept moving the goal-posts.

Here’s my vision:

Every child, a gift to the nation.
Every retiree, a source of wisdom.
Every worker, a talent to be valued.

Or simply: “the end of CMIO classification” because we are “one people, one nation, one Singapore” (credit: Aitchison and Monteiro).

Heritage matters

We can advance towards this goal by speaking a common language, preferably one that also connects us with the rest of the world. My vote is for English.

The Dutch understand that few people will have reasons to learn Dutch. As a result, most of my Dutch (and Slovenian and Finnish) friends are fluent in English as well as one other European language.

I get it that speaking Singlish is ‘intimate’. But for education, global business and communication, let us speak a high standard of English as educated Singaporeans of my parents’ generation once did.

I teach English as a Second Language as a volunteer. Some of my learners have a far better grasp of grammar than native English speakers.

The British government has re-introduced the teaching of grammar in primary schools. So must we.

This is not to say that the other languages AND dialects that citizens speak should be side-lined. We must also give place to our heritage languages, be it Mandarin, Hokkien, Tamil, Malay or Kristang.

After all, our history, our collective DNA, is written in those languages as well.

While we are talking about heritage, let us be bold in preserving the few pockets of heritage spaces we still have left. Get rid of those and we will lose whatever physical history (roots) we and our children can talk about, forever.

History cannot be built or grown overnight, especially not with a bulldozer. 

Grace, not race

Ultimately, I wish Singapore to be a country where one’s skin colour is but an accident of birth and which no one cares about because it does not impact on that person’s education and choice of career or life-partner.

“Grace, not race” marks our sense of graciousness towards others, no matter what our ethnic, racial, national or even socio-economic origins.

Do to others what you wish others to do to you. Love your neighbour as yourself. The result? GRCs will be redundant!

Let us set ourselves that political goal. “No more GRCs by 2030”?

See also: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4960188/Pakistani-women-UK-shockingly-badly-integrated.html