Monday, November 28, 2011

The Beautiful Racist

I'm so grateful to the Prime Minister for making the point that there must be no compromise on the issue of multi-racialism and multi-culturalism. Singapore has always taken pride in the fact that it's a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Yet, if you believe media reports, our so called tolerance for racial and cultural diversity has taken something of a knock. It seems people have been flocking to cyberspace to revel in being ugly racist and its necessary for the government to get involved in legislating away our racist tendencies.

So, here's an interesting question – exactly how racist are Singaporeans? Do we really need the government to teach us how to be nice, tolerant people? Like everything in Singapore you have to look beneath what you see to get the real answer. If you ask me, I would say that after a decade of living in Singapore, the answer is – it depends on who you are talking about. If you talk about “official” Singapore or the Singapore that the powers-that-be you would like you to see, the answer is that Singapore talks a good talk but manipulates racism to suite its political needs.

Let's look at the “official” position. As far as officialdom is concerned, Singapore is a harmonious society that has somehow managed to keep people of different races living and working together in peace and harmony. All our senior government officials make the right noises about race and religion. How can you argue against the Prime Minister when he says that we will NEVER compromise on the fact that we are a multi-racial and multi-cultural society? I personally think the Prime Minister is right when he says that we need to be open to people from all over the world. Singapore does need skilled and hungry people to keep things moving.

The powers-that-be have reacted well in managing race-relations on many of the key occasions. Our most recent example came when a member of the ruling party's youth-wing posted a rather crude but provocative poster about young Muslim Children on his Facebook account. The young man was made to resign and he issued a public apology. The government has on a few occasions clamped down on bloggers who have written disturbing things about “other” communities.

The government also uses “carrot” measures as well as “stick” ones when it comes to the management of race-relations. I remember attending a conference on crime and terrorism prevention. One of the speakers couldn't stop praising the way Singapore's government worked with the Muslim community in rooting out terrorism suspects and avoided creating the “us-versus-them” atmosphere that became common in the West after September 11, 2001.

So, on the surface of things you can't fault the Singapore government for its management of race-relations. Or has it?

If you scratch beneath the surface, things are not as rosy as they look. Let's start with the fact that there are policies that are exceedingly questionable. The most obvious example can be found in the armed forces. Everyone knows that being Malay is a handicap if you want to have a career in the military. If you are a non-Malay and you want to kill off a promising military career, all you need to do is to date a Muslim girl and habour thoughts of marrying her and converting to Islam.

Perhaps this policy had a use in the early days of independence when our most likely opponent in a military conflict were predominantly Malay-Muslim nation states. However, as we move away from the possibility that future conflicts will be against nation states but “non-state” actors, we need to ask ourselves if this policy is justified. One might even argue that open discrimination against promoting Malay-Muslim's in the uniformed services is detrimental to National Security as our security focus shifts from a potential conflict with predominantly Malay-Muslim Nation States to working with Malay-Muslim Nation states to defeat the “non-state” actors like terrorist groups.

The most ridiculous example of this open discrimination against the Malay-Muslim community can be seen whenever a production-house is selected to shoot a commercial for the armed forces. My Dad used to lose out on this business because his crew were local Malay who had served National Service. My father remains a respected director and in his day was considered the best within the region (excluding India and China). Leaving aside the fact that he was and in many ways remains pricy, you would imagine that the Singapore government would have given the job to a regionally recognized local director who hired local Singaporeans who served their National Service. Despite my father's contributions to Singapore, he and his film crew were denied entry into military facilities while foreign directors with on many occasions a lesser reputation than my father and their foreign film crews (usually Hong Kong) were given open access to military bases.

That is unfortunately not the only example of “official” racism. My favourite comparison is in the police presence in Orchard Towers (Pink Blotchies contributing to the economy by selling things to Darkies) and Geylang (Darkies sponging off the economy and Pink Blotchies by working for Pink Blotchies and buying things from them). If you look at the way the police behave in these areas, you'd get the impression that a group of darkies sitting by the roadside having a cup of tea constitute a greater threat to the peace than a group drunken Pink Blotchies. I'm not sure how they worked that one out?

Wait for the season when the government decides it needs to do something about the vice-trade. The police will round up a group of girls from a “darkie” country and deport them. The press will then announce with great fan-fare about how the government is cracking down on vice. There's only one problem – the Blotchies who are contributing the most money to the trade and therefore the reason why “Darkie” girls from other parts of Asia are the trade are left untouched by the law. As such, the vice-trade in Singapore remains a highly lucrative business.

Officialdom doesn't see anything wrong with being obviously racist. I like my White South-African friend who only got his employment-pass when he visited Immigration and showed that he was obviously a Pink Blotchy. My friend was asked “What do they call you?” The question was asked several times and he finally got what they were alluding to when the guy asked the question and pointed to his skin. You got to laugh at the situation here. My friend is from South-Africa, a country that was officially racist and proud of it. Yet when the country decided that it didn't want to be racist, everyone came out and said they saw themselves as “South African.” By contrast you have Singapore, a country that talks about “regardless of race or religion” yet sees nothing wrong in having its government officials rubbing their skin while asking, “What do they call you?”

The law as they say is colour-blind – that is if you have the misfortune of being a darkie who has a employer who decided to hire a “repatriation company” to send you back home at you expense when you get injured on the work site. Its somehow not illegal for the “repatriation company” to hold you against your will in what can only be described as a cell and then bundle you out of the country and then send you the bill.

So, let's ask ourselves, how serious is the government about multi-racialism? It might be worth asking ourselves how “un-racist” we are since we don't seem terribly disturbed by this.

I suspect that the government knows it can allow certain things to happen because the public is oblivious to certain things and lives in fear of darkies from other parts of Asia.

If you talk to the average Singaporean, you'd be shocked by some of the attitudes that they hold. My ex-wife comes to mind. This “graduate” Singapore Chinese girl couldn't bear the thought of me having Malay and Indian friends. Despite being on the generous end of a local Indian crook, she once declared, “I can't work for Indians for the rest of my life.” The woman had been to school long enough to get a degree. She had obviously worked with people from other races and yet she couldn't accept that I might friends beyond my own race. I remember she objected my interactions with a sales girl because I was “Flirting with a MALAY.”

I suspect the blame lies somewhere in the teaching of languages in Singapore. Gina's father, Yong Koon, the egg seller wasn't immune from bouts of chauvinism. However, he belonged to a generation when people of different cultures mingled together and somehow had to find a way of getting along. The end result was everyone had to pick up everyone else s languages.

Anthropology teaches that language is culture. So if you work on this idea, you'll see that when you have a situation where people pick-up each others languages they also pick up each other. While the pre-independence generation had its prejudices their unity was more natural. They worked together and understood each other because they could relate to cultures beyond their own.

Then some bright spark in the Ministry of Education decided that they would reorder people's ethnic identity. People were told – if you are Indian you learn English and Tamil, if you are Malay you learn English and Malay and if you are Chinese it's English and Mandarin. The government got especially stringent on eradicating Chinese dialects. According to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister – the human brain isn't large enough to learn Chinese dialects in addition to English and Mandarin (though its OK to learn Arabic and Hindi).

The result of this policy was an end to natural integration. The only language people had in common was English, the language of to coloniser. Having English was a good move in the sense that it allowed Singapore to connect to the rest of the world. However, having English as the ONLY language people had in common reduced the things people had in common. Instead of creating a situation where everyone has a bit of everyone elses culture it was you have your own culture and an imposed culture and the only means of communication was through the imposed culture.

One only needs to go across the Causeway to Malaysia, a country that has laws that discriminates against one ethnic group in favour of another. Officially there is a preferred race. Yet race-relations in Malaysia seem to work more naturally. Malaysian politics is messy when compared to Singapore's and race does play a role in politics. Yet when you interact with Malaysians, you'll find they're race-relations work better than in Singapore.

How is this possible in a “racist” country? Answer – the minority Indians and Chinese accept that the majority Malay-Muslim population gets certain perks but by and large people are left alone. People have to mingle and pick up various languages between various communities as well as various cultures.

On paper Singapore has done a better job of managing race-relations than Malaysia. However, Singaporeans are struggling to reconcile their national and cultural identities because its been defined for them. By contrast people are comfortable with their National and Cultural identities because it's grown from the ground up. Integration is a natural process rather than an enforced process.

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