The topic of race relations has come up again in Singapore's landscape. A few days ago, PrimaDeli had to appologise when one of its top hiring managers openly refused to hire someone to decorate cakes because that the lady in question happened to be Malay and had to good sense to place the reason her not getting hired onto social media. Much later on, Ms. Grace Fu, our Minister for Culture, Community and Youth had to make some comments in parliament about how we need to keep the racial balance secure in order to keep society secure.
The internet is filled with comments on the topic and I guess one has to ask, how racist is Singapore? For me, the question is both an optimistic "not really" and a depressing "Yes."
Let's start with the optimistic scenario. On a certain level, Singaporeans have shown that they are incredibly open to people of all sorts of colours. I often find myself going down to Waterloo Street to say prayers because I find one of the most Godly places in Singapore over there - the Hindu Temple. While the decor is obviously Indian, you'll find that the devotees for the most part are ethnic Chinese who found something with them to cross the cultural barriers and worship with ethnic Indian Priest. As one friend of mine on Facebook says, "This is as it should be."
The spirit of intercultural worship has even hit home. When I first started out with Huong, I noticed that she was very clear where she saw the divine - with Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) in the nearby Taoist Temple. She once got upset with me because the string I wear across my neck, which was given by a Tibetan Rimpoche was not quite in line with the Chinese/ Vietnamese divine system. Huong ensures that our home has a shrine to Kuan Yin but these days, she also ensures that she pays the necessary respects at the Hindu temple whenever we go down to see Kuan Yin on Waterloo Street.
Food and language is another example of how Singapore has merged cultures beautifully. Singlish, our local version of English has borrowed shamelessly from Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. You find members of the Tamil minority here, who speak fluent Chinese dialects without thinking anything of it. My course commander when I was on my basic gunner course back in the late 90s, spoke Hokkien as if it was his natural language. This is even true of Chinese dialects. In Cantonese in Singapore, we call the cops "Mata," after the Malay word for eyes - in Hong Kong they are "Jeng Chak" (closer to the Mandarin word for "Jing Cha")
You also find Indians munching always at Hainanese Chicken rice and Bak Kut Teh (Herbal Pork Rib soup) and Chinese guzzling on roti prata as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
When you look at the basics of life in Singapore, you see the beauty of letting people live and let live. Somehow people find ways of cooperating together and various aspects of culture get exchanged and enjoyed. I look at people of my father's generation. Somehow everyone managed to pick up everyone else's mother tongue and somehow everyone got along. On the personal front, my daughter, Jenny, has made a Malay girl her best friend.
I believe that if you let people find the opportunity to know each other, you create the opportunity to create diversity and unity at the same time. I am a living example of that - ethnically Chinese and culturally British. On a normal given day, I don't feel particularly close to ether culture. I am merely both. There are aspects of British and Chinese culture that I like and dislike to adapt accordingly.
What depresses me about the race issue, is that in many ways, we have institutionalized it. Let's go back to the case of PrimaDeli. I agree with the company for sacking the employee. You should never NOT hire someone based on their race or your previous dealings with them and if you are stupid enough to tell someone that you are not hiring them based on that, you deserved to be sacked. No business should ever want its customer base to know that it discriminates against a certain portion of the community.
Having said that, I sometimes wonder if the manager in question was fired for stupidly expressing an opinion rather than because this is what the Company believed in. I've tried to recommend people for jobs and was told,"Ai ya, Malay....don't want ah." One of my favourite Englishmen tells me about the time his son applied for a job at the annual FI event. Anyone who happened to be White or Chinese got jobs in catering and guest relations. Anyone who happened to be black or darker than pale became a cleaner. I'd love to hear how anyone with a rational mind would argue that this is merely a coincidence.
You can find plenty of examples of how racism in Singapore is accepted by the general population and you can either love it or leave it. Once again, it was a European customer of mine, who told me that he's noticed how customers who are exceedingly sweet to me, treat Rafe (my Pinoy colleague) and Yvonne (my Malaysian Chinese colleague) like crap. Admittedly, I am more outgoing than Rafe - hence he does the general work, while I front the customers. While he's a permanent staff at the restaurant and I am a part-timer, everyone assumes he works for me.
While there are personality differences, I believe there's something deeper in the way he gets treated and I get treated and I don't think this is right. I may be the more popular showman, but he's the man who does the real work. The main difference here is that I happen to be the right colour and speak the right way. It doesn't speak well of people who treat my colleagues badly and never dream of saying a cross word to me.
Politicians adore being seen as defenders of multiculturalism. Government had good fun arrest a few bloggers who posted nasty things about the Malay Community. However, I also believe that politicians need to keep racial divisions simmering. How else can anyone be seen as a defender of a race if that race does not feel that I might be persecuted?
Policies like quotas on public housing had a good purpose in that it prevented ethnic ghettos from forming. However, I question the language policies, where the government went on an all out war against Chinese dialects and tried to define race on its own terms - which only became problematic when you had an influx of non-Tamils coming to Singapore - suddenly your average Singaporean needed to understand that Tamil was only part of the term "Indian" rather than the only part.
Rather than trying to keep the "racial" balance to what it was in the 60s, surely we should be making it even more diverse. I don't have an issue if I was ethnically no longer in the ethnic majority as long as I could still make a decent enough living.