Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More on Singapore

This gem was sent by AsianRacism3 (as they will be called very shortly). Highlights some problems in that country.

Original can be found here

I walked out of the house this morning and feared I had become a racist.

I passed by a newsstand and a magazine tells me about 50% of the world's most beautiful people are from the West, 10% from Singapore, 35% from Hong Kong and Taiwan and 5% from India and Malaysia. A JC Decaux billboard says that a lot of people read their ads and they have faces to prove it: Chinese people of various ages and occupations and genders. There are some which show non-Chinese people but they don't have the dignity of individual names, and they are put under the heading 'The Changing Face of Singapore'. This can mean that perhaps the media is using more non-Chinese people in their ads (which I don't see) or that Singapore's demographic makeup is being altered by the arrival of other races (which I am not aware of, historically). I take a bus and TV Mobile is screening a Taiwanese variety programme. A Singaporean beauty contestant wears a cheongsam as her national costume and asks for an interpreter to translate her replies from Mandarin. The Speak Mandarin campaign informs me of what assets are missing from my life.

Tanya Chua's music video comes on and I unconsciously tally the number of Malay people that appear; I have been doing this for some time now, when I was in JC there was a 'My Singapore' music video which showed images of corporate-looking Chinese women walking through the CBD and Malay women in factory uniforms walking through a bus interchange. Tanya Chua's 'Where I Belong' shows three instances of Malay people populating the landcsape: a husband and wife riding a scooter; a father and son on a bicycle, the son carrying a box one presumes is filled with curry puffs or goreng pisang, and a group of Malay youths playing soccer in a housing estate ghetto so run down, it looks like an opposition ward being denied of upgrading, or one of those satellite towns built when Jurong swamps were still being filled.

But perhaps this is an improvement over other images: the satay man, the songbird owner, the mee rebus Makcik, the Malay bride and groom getting married in gold-embroidered finery (and situated on a dais, we Malays like to call them 'royalty for a day', playing the illusion of being king and queen in a country where the royal bloodline has been evicted from their home and told that the ruins of their palace will be converted into a museum). I think about what Sang Nila Utama really did when he threw his crown into the sea to calm the raging storm; whether the gales spoke to his inner ear: 'if you want to live on the island you must surrender all memory of having once been a prince'. At the Sentosa Merlion there are signs that say that Sang Nila himself saw the Merlion rising from the waters, a fact that the Sejarah Melayu, the Malay Annals, failed to mention. Evidently there is someone called 'Sang Nila' somewhere in the executive committee of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.

At the foot of the Raffles statue in Boat Quay there is an inscription that says the man's genius transformed a 'sleepy fishing village' into the modern metropolis it is today, this at the foot of a man who recorded in his journals how he saw the tombs of the Malay kings, and inscriptions on a fortress wall, when he first landed: evidence of an empire, of civilisation. In an interview a doyenne of Singapore theatre laments that all Singaporeans are 'cultural orphans', including the Malays, because they migrated from Malaysia and Indonesia, and that makes them immigrants too, no matter that one can take a sampan from Johor to Singapore.

I walk through a park in Tampines and see Chinese boys playing basketball at the court and Malay boys playing soccer on the field; I am comforted that my complete uselessness at ball games has prevented me from taking either side, has by default made me a conscientious objector to such disturbing polarities. In the army a sergeant major never called be by my name; I was called 'Melayu', which I suppose was better than 'Ah-Neh', used to address the Indians in the platoon. I remember a fellow Malay platoon mate who told me to give it my all when I was fasting, this was to prevent anyone from saying that we could use religion as an excuse for our weakness. He was eventually posted to the infantry (not logistics or engineers, much less the Navy or Airforce) and I used to imagine him burning up his pre-fasting morning meal to be the first to charge up the hill, yelling the pain of hunger and the pain of being different. The Malay staff sergeant in Officer Cadet School gave me a lot of shit just to overcompensate, to show everyone that he was not into any form of racial favouritism. I became a victim of the sidelong glances he made as he watched me doing my pushups, those eyes constantly seeking approval from the eyes of the majority.

I see a schoolgirl from a madrasah wearing a tudung on the MRT and she is filling in the pictures in her colouring book. There are many choices among her colour pencils which she can use for skin, but she will use orange, and colour lightly, not brown or black. I have seen her schoolmates before, eyeing branded scoolbags at pasar malams, wearing branded sports shoes, like every other kid. I want to go up to her and hug her, and tell her how her tudung is not just a symbol of modesty, but a symbol of inscrutability. That layer of cloth makes her suspicious to others, it can be used to smuggle in a grenade or an agenda, so she will never get a frontline desk job, she will be expected to hang around with other tudung-wearing women in the university. I think about the fathers who sent their daughters to schools in tudung and reflect on how the media has framed them as shit-stirrers rather than citizens who practised their right to civil disobedience, the same way Gandhi fasted, or Rosa Parks refused to sit at her negroes-only seat on the segregated bus. If I can tell the girl one thing, it is 'integration is not assimilation', or 'tolerance is a failure in understanding' even though it is something she will take time to understand.

I think also of the men who filmed different locations in Singapore with the heinous intent of planting bombs. Did they not consider the various innocent Singaporean lives that could have been claimed by what they were about to do? And I wonder if they had already chosen another country to live in; a country in which they do not have to face a creeping sense of alienation, of redundancy. And I am not talking about an Islamic country, not Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, but an afterlife paradise, where everyone is equal in the eyes of God, where wearing a sarong or having a beard does not immediately make you a proto-terrorist. Or perhaps a country that exists in their minds, nurtured by a growing sense of insularity and isolation, where they walk the streets and everyone else is just a ghost, in whose dead eyes they cannot find any light of empathy or understanding.

Once someone told me: 'But the government is bending over backwards to accommodate you Malays.' I smiled and wanted to ask him if it wasn't the other way round, that the Malays are made to bend forward to be fucked senseless. Another time a journalist asked if the statistical evidence of 'progress' shows that Malays are being given the same opportunities as everyone else. I told her that statistics don't do shit for me, as someone who has to live day by day as a Malay person in this country. I told her one Malay Air Force pilot poster boy, and a few bar charts and graphs, don't make me feel more at home. The only thing they do is to convince non-Malays that the country they live in is truly multiracial, that there are no tensions beneath the veneer of newsprint and newscasts and the rosy speeches of Malay MP's.

I have always believed in multi-racialism. I can say with utmost confidence that I have more friends who are non-Malay than those who are. And I mean real friends, who I confide in, who I've shared many things with, who I do love dearly. And yet, of late, I have the feeling that a lot of the things I'm saying, a lot of this talk about alienation and marginalisation, only feeds subconsciously into their sense of how fortunate they are to be born into the status quo. I have written a poem before where I say, 'But more than that we prayed for ourselves,/treading the rosary of our blessings,/for what is pity without thanks for/the opportunity for such pity?' And sometimes I feel as if the more my voice is raised on the fast-eclipsing fate of the minority, the more it feeds into the majority's smugness and arrogance about their assured place in the sun. And this only makes me feel more powerless than if I had kept silent.

So I say now, forgive me if you think my desire to work with my own people marks me out as a racist. Forgive me if you think that my preferences are actually prejudices. Forgive me for retreating into something one can so easily call 'cultural chauvinism'. And I will forgive you for thinking that this person writing this isn't the Alfian that you know, that he has always been moderate and liberal, and I will forgive you if you look at me differently the next time I meet you. For some time already I have felt that as a Malay writer writing in English I have had to carry the burden of articulating so many unvoiced concerns. And the responsibilities associated with this are frightening. I just think it is time I pass on whatever skills I have to other Malay people, so we may tell our stories to those who want to hear them, even though they are stories of loss and loneliness and accidents of birth.

I have been upset since. I don't think i am ever coming back home to work. Not if my race is going to be portrayed that way and especially not when i am respected first by my intelligence and merit here before my race comes into play. I sat in the Bell Canada Board room with my Executive Director for 8 hours on Saturday. My EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR. a man who made 7 billion dollars for his company in one year and he sat there actually paying attention to my ideas. I thought to myself that no one at home would have ever paid attention to what a 21 year old Indian girl would have had to say, but here they did. WHY THE FUCK THEN WOULD I WANNA COME HOME AND WASTE MY TALENTS?


Anonymous said...

and what do u think can be done to Singapore so the situation for Malays can be improved?

AsianRacism said...

Many things, but some simples ones are as follows:

1. Implement a tri-lingual policy in all schools: English, Malay (still the official language of Singapore), and either Mandarin or a "mother tounge" - which should include Tamil, Hindi, Hoikken, Cantonese etc

2. Affirmative action policies on a sector-by-sector and industry-by-industry basis. Given the dominance of GLC's in Singapore, this would be a powerful tool, but Singapore must learn from California and other places and not allow affirmative action to lead to long-term over-representation. Whilst affirmative action is a good policy to break inter-generational disadvantage, it has its limits.

3. Stop the pro-chinese migration bias

4. Realise the economic benefits of a being near one the worlds richest English-speaking countries (Australia) the largest democratic Muslim country (Indonesia) and the historical links with Malaysia - IN ADDITION to the natural cultural and linguistic links of the Chinese majority to China and Taiwan and a substantial Minority with links to Southern India. Embrace an economic vision that places those links at the centre stage, rather than China as the centre-stage. Diversity brings resilience - ever wonder why Australia didn't sink into recession? I think it might be to do with their diverse trading linkages - they are not shackled to the west or east alone. Something to be learned perhaps?


Chin Yee said...

I feel for the complaints of alienation and the difficulties of being a minority. And agree that preferential migration should be stopped.

However, I am wondering about her dreams of Malayan princes, how is that making the world any fairer. She wants her own culture to dominate, when Singapore was in fact thrust upon her by Malaysia, as a result of Chinese-Malay conflict over preferential treatment for ethnic Malay, and ejected from the Malaysian federation with no natural resources to sustain itself. (Even food is imported). Lee Kuan Yew did not seek independence or separatism, yet he needed to take on the responsibility of a fledgling country.

The ejection was aimed at punishing Chinese people, yet they prospered. Now, Singapore is becoming too Chinese?

Perhaps affirmative actions would help, but would this not create more resentment in way of neighboring Malaysia? How would it also affect Singaporean competitiveness in its free trade agreement with many nations? That's the major competitive advantage that Singaporeans have.

JosephK said...

AsianRacism's comment on the immigration bias was interesting. I work for a Chinese company in China, and we have at least one Chinese who has got himself (or is on the way to getting) a Singaporean passport. I hate to say this, but he exhibits many of the worst attributes of less-educated Chinese people -- categorisation of people and their loyalties according to who hired them (if he didn't hire them, they aren't his people), extreme preference for using Chinese workers over locals in overseas operations (even where it is illegal to do so), a tendency to look down on ethnic minorities, and a cynical lack of respect for either the letter of the spirit of the laws of other countries. I fail to understand why Singapore would want to reinforce its Chineseness by encouraging the immigration of people whose mindset is so opposed to the multiracial ideal.