Sunday, September 22, 2013

Of Class and Race

I’ve just written an article for the Independent Singapore, the latest hot news website, launched by my former boss, Mr PN Balji, the former editor-in-chief of the Today Newspaper. The Independent Singapore’s premise is that it is, “Responsible, Intelligent and Robust.” Hence, unlike the usual websites, the Independent Singapore is not “anti-establishment” for the sake of it but it won’t be afraid to take on the government’s point of view.

Thanks to a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which found that while Singaporeans were quite willing to accept a colleague of another race, they were less so when it came to having a spouse of a different race; I was asked to write an article on “race relations.”

Given my family background, I guess I was the natural person to write this article. Both my parents remarried Caucasians and had children with them. A cousin on my Dad’s side is married to an African-American and I had a relationship with one too. My sister dated someone of Bengali decent and my aunt on my mother’s side married a Jew.

One of the most prominent parts of my family is that we’ve lived very comfortably in Western Societies. I spent my formative years in England and the article that got published outlined my unusual experience of having to adjust to being part of the “ethnic majority” when I came back to serve National Service. More details can be found at -

Reactions to the article were positive. I had a few mates from my school days remind me that I was “one” of the good guys. My mother’s best friend has been off promoting the article. I even got a comment from someone on Facebook to tell me he agreed with me.

While it’s exceedingly gratifying to know that people liked what I wrote, I feel that one of most crucial elements in the debate interracial relationships is sorely lacking – namely the issue of class and economic status. As ‘heart-warming’ as my personal story of being a ‘liked’ member of the ‘ethnic minority’ may be, I don’t think my situation can be used as a reference point.

Let’s start with the obvious – I am from an ‘educated’ family. In my mother’s words – “We are professional middle class.” As such, English was the language that was spoken at home. I grew up in a household where it was understood that one would eventually head off to university and take on a “career.”

Although I went to school in a different country and in a place where everyone else was racially differently from me, we all similar backgrounds and aspirations. I spoke the same language as everyone else. Hence it was not issue for me to be able to join in. If anything, I was probably a bit of a “let-down” to my school mates who were probably expecting to meet someone a bit less like them.

By comparison, entering a Singapore Army camp was like landing on Mars. I had spent the first two-decades with people who were expected to have some form of higher education. Suddenly I got thrown into an environment where people considered it a privilege to finish school. I didn’t speak “Hokkien” (the dialect of Fujian Province in China and the majority dialect of Singapore and Taiwan), which was what everyone else spoke and even when we did speak English – people found my English a “bit-funny.” Although my Dad tried to tell me not to think of it – I was “The Rich Kid” in the camp – my address was in a private condominium and not an HDB block.

So, while I was an “ethnic” minority at school, I was part of the cultural and social majority. By comparison, I was only part of the majority in looks – I was in a very strange cultural and social minority when I joined the army.

So, if you look at things in this way, it was only ‘natural’ for me to fit into “English Middle Class” Society and to struggle when dealing with the “average” Singaporean.

The question that should be asked is whether my experiences in both the UK and Singapore had been different if I were a different person. In the UK, I was a “rich” foreigner – Daddy earned his money elsewhere. Would things have been different if my Dad and I had been “fresh of the boat” and he had struggled to make ends meet by setting up a “Chinese take-away.” More importantly, my command of English is good – would I have had the same experiences if I had to struggle with English because the language we spoke at home was something else?

Likewise, the same question should be asked about settling into the army. Would it have been any different for me if I started life out in Singapore and spoke the expected array of dialects?

Issues of race and inevitably tied up with issues of class and economics. I take the social status of Singapore Tamils as an example. The stereotype of South Indian in Singapore and Malaysia is that of a drunk or as a former senior reporter said, “Show me an Indian who does not like to drink.” By contrast, the stereotype of a South Indian in India is that of a “Nerd.” What accounts for this difference? Simple – the South Indians who came settle in Singapore and Malaysia were from lowest rung of the social order.

Something similar can be said of “Negros” in the USA. Bill Cosby is funnily enough disliked in many “African-American” communities because his portrayal of a “Black Professional” family is considered pandering to “White” society.

When an ethnic community improves its fortunes, it also improves its social standing. Suddenly people no longer notice the colour of your skin when you start to sound like them and can afford the things that they do. Once again, let’s look at the way the South Indian are viewed in Singapore and Malaysia. For many South Indian men, one of the greatest social achievements is to marry a Chinese girl – or in the case of our Finance Minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a girl of Chinese-Japanese ancestry. One of the key reasons for this can be seen in one of the common points raised by Singapore Chinese on this topic – “Those who marry Chinese girls – they’re thinking is very different – mor


Anonymous said...

How come your article is truncated?

Anonymous said...

"For many South Indian men, one of the greatest social achievements is to marry a Chinese girl"

You are absolutely wrong with the above comment. To the Chinese girl, color of skin does not matter compared to the color of money. Take a good look around, the only south indian guys married to Chinese are those making big bucks.