Hello, I am Singaporean.
I know that going just by my name, a fellow Singaporean who doesn’t know me wouldn’t think it. They always expect someone “lighter” in colour. After I open my mouth, theirs drop. Because, hey, I speak better Singlish than they do! I explain that I am Eurasian and I see the gears in their brain working, figuring out what part of my face/body belongs to which side of the family.
Then comes the inevitable “So your parents are….?”. I tell them my ancestry. Sometimes, they go further and ask for country of origin. These days, I wonder if I should be flattered that they are interested in my origins or offended that they should presume to ask me for such personal details. I think that if I had asked the same question of those same people, they would give me their parents’ occupation rather than the dialect group (it’s usually the Chinese who are curious by the way). I wonder also how many can give an answer if I ask which province in China their ancestors came from.
Race is a topic that has been increasingly pushed to the front of my consciousness in recent years. I would have shrugged off any queries about my race in the past but I am starting to look at it differently. Have I become (yikes!) more sensitive?
I know a lot of people hark back to the “good ole days” when races live in peace and harmony and everyone could speak a bit of Malay and Hokkien to get along. But I think we’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. My first experience of outright racism was when I was in primary school. My Chinese mother was publicly taunted by some Chinese men for being with an “ang moh”, that is, my father. She was close to tears. He was dreadfully angry. I was so damn frightened. There was nothing “casual” about it.
But for the most past, I am ambivalent about my race. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed some sort of “double consciousness”, knowing that I am “different” yet inhabiting the world of the majority and adopting their world view. People can laugh at my race and I laugh along – unconsciously. Is this a right response from a member of the minority?
My “lived experience” might have much to do with it.
I wasn’t discriminated against in school but actually treated like a precious flower (positive discrimination) because I seemed so exotic to my fellow schoolmates, mainly Chinese. The fiercest types always took me under their wing. Out in the workplace, I was admired for being able to speak Mandarin, even of the half-past-six variety.
Of course, people ask me questions that reflect their stereotypical image of a Eurasian, like whether I was educated in a convent school. (I wasn’t). I have even been told to my face that I must sing and dance very well because…Eurasian. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how to cook feng.
Again, I shrug off such comments. Now I wonder if I should be offended at people’s presumptions, such as more inane questions like “how come your hair so dark?” (my mother’s overpowering genes?) or “why your name so funny?” (yours isn’t?), or “you have what kind of blood? (red?)”. The worst one: “you must be very havoc” (no, but I can cause some).
Over the years, we’ve been treated to complaints about casual racism. With the Internet playing its megaphone role, I’m left wondering if more people are getting more easily offended or whether it’s always been the same – but louder. And I’m wondering if I have been wrong all these years about how I “feel” about the race.
The movie Crazy Rich Asians, for example, provoked a minor controversy here because the minorities are being cast in subordinate positions while the Chinese took the “privileged” parts. I followed the comments, arguments and counter-arguments with interest but I couldn’t decide how to “feel” about it. Non-plussed is a good word methinks.
I’ve written about the NETS E-Pay ad and the video that was produced in response. You can read it here. What I didn’t write about was how conflicted I felt. Should I get angry about the ad because minorities are angry and even some intellectual members of the majority Chinese are speaking up for them? If I am not angry even though I am a minority member, should I search deep into myself and ask why?
Should I get angrier/equally angry/less angry/not angry at the video that was produced in response? Should I understand that they are entitled to express themselves because their feelings were hurt, as some quarters have tried to explain?
In hindsight, I think my response wasn’t that of a minority member but of an “older” person. I am more surprised than angry that the ad made it from conceptualisation to distribution. And I cannot get my brain around statements that the video is “just a rap” or how “f***ing it up” is just a phrase, can be excuses for vileness and vituperation. Then I also see comments about how old fuddy duddies should get up to speed with the new thinking and new phrases of the new age. I wonder if I can turn the comments around: Old fuddy duddies aren’t dead yet and is it too much to ask that the younger people respect their norms on civility?
The episode has raised some interesting questions for the individual (of any race) to ponder over, to examine the depths of their attitudes towards each facet of the issue, including whether the G is a good neutral arbiter of racial issues and how heavy a hand it should have. I wonder, for example, if social media is making me feel inadequate as a minority member because I am not speaking up louder about injustices (perceived or real). I wonder if I should be embarrassed or thankful that I don’t feel I’m treated differently on account of my race.
Frankly, it is easy to play the victim card and indulge in the politics of outrage because there is an expectation that the majority should sit down and shut up when we speak. We can turn ourselves into champions for a cause protected by the idea that nobody should deny me “my feelings” especially those who have not “walked in my shoes”.
I think it’s good to confront such questions as an intellectual exercise rather than give vent to our emotions. When we engage the brain, we end up with a cooler head. We see beyond our own feelings, see the feelings of others and see what is in the best interest of all tribes. We do not say or do what is expected of us, or what is fashionable. We take a step back and do not let our emotions rush us into judgment.
I have concluded that I should be comfortable in my own skin, and be the individual (regardless of race) that I am. This is not to say that minority races do not face discrimination; they do. It is also not to say that the majority hasn’t made some forced sacrifice for inter-racial harmony; the loss of Chinese-language schools, the near complete erasure of dialects being some examples.
The truth is there has always been casual racism of the unthinking variety and it’s too much to expect that everyone will be “sensitive” or “politically correct”. But the important thing is we have set up formidable barriers to prevent institutional racism from setting in.
On my part, I will not let comments that begin with “You, as a member of the minority, should know better” affect how I feel about myself or about my race or my place here.
Hey, I am Singaporean.