Excerpt published in the print and online edition of Today newspaper on the 14th of October 2013.
Yesterday, someone took a look at me and heard my accent… and figured I wasn’t from the UK.
I tried to explain my Singaporean-ness in a straightforward, simple way:
“Where are you from?”
“I’ve been there. You don’t look Singaporean.”
“That’s because everyone thinks Singapore is a chinese country.”
“You look Indian.”
“That ship sailed in the 1900’s and arrived in Singapore.”
“Can you speak Chinese then?”
“It’s not a chinese country. We all can speak english. I can speak Malay though. There are three core races in Singapore which was originally part of Malaysia before it’s independence in 1965. So it’s just a really big migrant population.”
*the guy gives me a confused look*
It’s tough to explain being Singaporean. We’re not really Chinese. Nor are we really Malay or really Indian as we left the “motherland” a long time ago. So where exactly does that leave us?
THE MODERN WORLD IS CONSTANTLY MIGRATING
The earliest classification of race began in the 17th century, used to categorise people of distinct language and national affiliations. That made sense when migration was unheard of. I guess it would have been pretty novel back in the day to discover a whole new “race” of people living in isolation, 7,000 miles away by boat.
However, the world is moving, a lot.
In 2010 alone, over 214 million people were living outside of their country of origin. That’s 3% of the world in a single year. Not including those who have successfully migrated and achieved citizenship in new countries, in search of better economic and social opportunities.
And that’s exactly what all our Chinese and Indian forefathers did. They migrated.
Our history dates back to migrant chinese and indians moving to set up trade opportunities and/or better lives. Which essentially makes us a country of first- and second- generation migrants (with exception of the indigenous proto Malays).
And we’re all trying establish a new hybrid identity of a country that is only 48 years old.
That’s half the age of my grandmother.
LEARNING A THING OR TWO FROM THE MAURITIANS
Over the fruity course of my 29 years, I’ve met many Mauritians. My first reaction was that they looked distinctly Indian and Chinese by features and skin colour.
But if you asked any Mauritian if they were “Chinese” or “Indian”, they will vehemently exclaim with pride that they are Mauritian. They both spoke native Creole and English.
But above all, they were one.
THE BATTLE OF LANGUAGE: THE PAST VS THE PRESENT
In Singapore, we’re made to speak two languages. One that embraces our newfound nationality – and the other, one that still attaches us to our pre-migrant “racial identity” of the past.
But it gets complicated when one “race” outnumbers the rest. Language, for one, becomes a barrier.
The current “racial” majority lies with the Chinese, making their “mother tongue” the dominant second language. Being a “minority race” Singaporean myself, I do know first hand that not knowing Mandarin puts you at a disadvantage. Something that’s not felt by the 80% majority race.
This has resulted in many Singaporeans of my current generation who are “Malay” or “Indian” sending their children for “Chinese” language classes in school, instead of their actual “mother tongue”.
Many say it’s a platform towards equal opportunities in the future, based on the language barriers they had to face growing up.
This cross of wires with “Race”, “mother tongue” and dominance of Mandarin-speakers made me look at the world “Indian” on my Singaporean identity card wondering what it meant.
Was it to signify the food I ate? Or the colour I was? Or the religious path I followed? Or my allergies to pollen?
It defined nothing.
RACIALLY SPEAKING, I LEFT INDIA 3 GENERATIONS AGO…
This umbilical cord of mother tongue was permanently cut by circumstance when my parents, both 2nd generation Singaporeans, decided to enrol me into my first Malay class in Primary 1.
It made total sense to them at the time. They were both “Indian” by racial classification, but they both spoke different second languages. So the word “Indian” meant nothing as they were pretty much a “mixed race” within the “race”.
Both of them learnt Malay as a second language in the 60’s. And naturally, if I followed suit, they could help me with my homework.
So I began Malay class two points down. I was the only non-malay kid and I didn’t know a single word.
THIS WAS HOW I BECAME A LITTLE BIT MALAY…
Over time, I gained acceptance from the Malay kids. They endearingly called me mama-keling. I was down with the homies.
But my newfound acceptance came along with a few lifestyle changes.
For example, I had to assume responsibility as a part-time muslim. This meant I would get told off for eating babi (pork). So I stuck to the green plates. Which was great, because I couldn’t get enough of ayam masak merah (Red Chilli Chicken).
However, the culinary greatness of green plates would halt abruptly during the fasting month. I’d hide in the toilet and wolf down fishballs to avoid being cast out of the circle of trust.
My Cikgu was a big fan of my terrible essays that never surpassed the standard of a Primary 3 student. This earned me a dazzling C6 in my O levels. I also performed in many dikir barats (traditional performance). I even wrote one in English for an anti-smoking campaign and got my whole class involved.
My first crush was on a boy called Azeem. He was hot. I was 8. I bought him lots of country rubbers with my lunch money.
Pretty swell for everyone’s favourite mama-keling.
DESPITE BEING A LITTLE BIT INDIAN…
Not knowing tamil was a barrier at times. As the real mama-kelings would be judgemental because I couldn’t speak the language.
Or maybe it was because my mother didn’t braid my hair in pigtails. Ok that was a joke.
Eitherway I ended up hanging out with “indian”, “malay”, “chinese”, “eurasian” and “other” less racial kids who unknowingly, were actually trying to be racially-free Singaporeans too.
But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t ditch my fellow brownies. I have plenty of Indian friends… who all speak impeccable english, and some, tamil too, in different degrees of proficiency. They mostly introduced me to Tupac, Far East Plaza and free flow nights in Boat Quay.
I earned the nickname “Ramba”. A tamil movie actress with thunder thighs like mine.
But my Indianness, like the rest of us, was highly contradictory. We’d eaten the holy cow thrice over (medium rare on a gluten-free bun please) but I went vegetarian for a month to partake in Thaipusam. #what
BUT I’M ALSO A LITTLE BIT CHINESE…
My grandmother can converse in Hokkien and Cantonese to name a few. It’s quite a sight to see her talking to the neighbours.
She makes really good fried rice with lap cheong (taiwanese sausage) which I used to love eating as a kid.
It’s probably the reason why I turned into a little bit of a Chinese.
I watch more subtitled korean and channel 8 mandarin dramas than most of my Chinese friends, who endearingly used to call me “Apu” until I threw a massive hissy fit.
I am also quite pan-tang (superstitious). I bought a luohan (lucky fish) to add luck to my driving test. I passed. First time. 6 points. #fuh
And I am quite a fan of ban lak (blackjack) and mahjong. Just that I never seem to win.
But enough with the stereotypical things we all enjoy, it’s sometimes about making a little bit more effort to understand people around you. I google-translate english to Mandarin just so I can chat on Facebook with my best friend’s mum.
SO WHAT RACE DOES THAT MAKE ME?
Being the privileged few to be a “racially free” Singaporean, it really left me unnerved at the idea of double-barrelled race.
I spent my entire childhood being independent of the word “Race” and turned out fine. No love lost, no filial piety lost, no culture and heritage lost.
So what is the real need in today’s world to continue “classifying” people and forcing attachment to their migrant past?
Do we really need to sit categorically in groups with this invisible barrier of “Race” diving us between the stereotypes of minority and majority? Reminding us of watered down cultural bonds to home countries that we left two or three generations ago?
Perhaps it’s about time we dropped our preoccupations with race – we’re not as cut and dry as we were when we first got on that boat headed toward Singapore.