Almost every night, from around 9 or 10 p.m. on, there is a group of three to six Indian men hanging about outside a 7-11 convenience store near my flat. They talk animatedly among themselves in Tamil with the occasional English or Malay word thrown in and by midnight, they are at least half-inebriated. I don’t go to the 7-11 often enough to know if they’re always the same men; all I can say is that I cannot remember any evening when, should I go to the 7-11, a group is not there.
It is obvious why they’ve chosen that spot. The 7-11 is the only place in the neighbourhood where they can get booze after the coffeeshops have closed.
One should not read into the scene any more than what I have described. It is very easy to infer that the men are disturbing the neighbourhood by talking too loudly, or getting into drunken fights, or posing a hazard to young women walking by. Not at all. I have never seen them being troublesome to anyone walking past. In fact, some nights, the convenience store is manned by young female employees through the midnight shift, and they seem to have no concerns doing so.
And yet, I know I had to take the trouble to remind anyone not to infer too much. I know that in Singapore, we continue to hold stereotypical views of various racial groups, often with imaginations of threat.
I have a feeling too that what I have described is possibly repeated in front of many 7-11’s around Singapore. If you have a similar scene in your neighbourhood, do drop a comment; I’d like to know how common or uncommon it is. Other than that as a statistical curiosity, I’m not really interested in what Indians do, or what Indians are like. Any attempt at such judgement will surely be simplistic and unfair.
Why I described the scene was just to make one point: If we look around Singapore, particularly our heartlands, mono-racial groupings are almost the norm, be they Chinese, Indian, Malay or whatever. What does that say about “integration”, a controversial topic that Lee Kuan Yew touched on in his book Hard Truths?
There was a chorus of objection from People’s Action Party members of parliament to Lee’s opinion, a chorus so strong, Lee had to issue a statement to say that he stood corrected. But see that chorus for what it was: not reality, but political necessity. Simple observation will indicate what the reality is: socialisation in our heartlands is very much correlated with race.
Lee focussed particularly on the Malays, saying that they were inhibited from greater socialising because as a community, there was a religious revival over the last three decades. Today, there is a greater demand for stricter religious observance which creates a gulf between them and other racial groups.
Actually, the same can be said of the Christians, especially those in the megachurches. There is the convention to be bound to a cell group and spend disproportionate amounts of time in cell-group and church-related activities; there is peer pressure to donate a large chunk of one’s income as tithe, leaving little for other causes (thus contributing to the impoverishment of non-religious civil society in Singapore through lack of donations and volunteers). One sees in revivalist Christianity the same demand for exclusivity as a religious community as in revivalist Islam. The differences are that (1) Christianity does not map over race in any precise fit, and (2) religious observance in Christianity does not have dress and diet dimensions like Islam, thus making the Christian quasi-ghetto less visible than the Muslim quasi-ghetto. But quasi-ghetto it is.
This alerts us to oversimplification of the social issue. Is it really race? Or do people clump together for reasons other than race, but those reasons happen to map over, to coincide with race?
I think the dimension of language is just as important as religion, if not more so. Language explains the clumping pattern better than race or religion, though the latter two doubtless play a part. As I have often told anyone who has asked, I think what we see are not racial divides but linguistic divides. The group of Indian men hanging about in front of the 7-11 are just more at ease with each other because they are more comfortable with Tamil. The ah peks and ah sohs (Hokkien for “uncles” and “aunts”) who sit for hours drinking coffee at the hawker centre are there because they share a familiarity with Hokkien. Sure, other factors come into play. The Indian men look like they belong to the same economic stratum, as do the ah peks and ah sohs (who also have age cohort as another common factor).
Language also explains — and I guess this is somewhat depressing in terms of Singapore’s future — the way even schoolkids clump. The Chinese kids tend to mix with other Chinese kids, because Mandlish (a mix of Mandarin Chinese and Singapore English) is the most natural language among them. Under the same bus shelter, standing two meters away, the Malay kids, from the same school (maybe even the same class) form their own group because Malish (a mix of Malay and Singapore English) is their comfort tongue. Chances are that these socialisation patterns they form in their adolescence will apply for the rest of their lives, which is why I said it’s quite depressing in terms of our future.
The vocal elite tend to ignore or dismiss these observations. They are probably the ones who rose up against Lee Kuan Yew for pointing out a hard truth, even if he did so in a rather skewed Malay-centric way. Singapore’s elite is generally English-speaking, and they themselves clump by language, with little interaction with other clumps defined by other languages. What is relatively unique about the English-speaking clumps is that they do not map over race well. There are among them, Chinese, Malay, Indian and no shortage of “others”, a mix which in turn informs their view of Singapore society. They generalise from their own social circles and believe: there is good social integration; Lee must be talking cock.
Anything to be concerned about?
Yet, everything I have described here is mirrored in every country around the world. People clump as a result of several common denominators, race (which is associated with culture) being only one of many. Language, religion, economic class, age and interest (e.g. sexuality, alcohol, mahjong) are perhaps just as important. So is there no reason to be concerned?
Yes and no.
No, because there is very little we can do about the fact that people choose their own friends and societies have always been granulated thus. Even so, what we can do as a matter of public policy is perhaps to soften the dividers. For example, we could ask ourselves: To what extent has three decades of schizophrenic language policy in our schools contributed to the perpetuation of linguistic ghettoes even among the young? To what extent should the state intervene to counter religious leaders’ promotion of exclusive religious communities?
Yes, because while it is not so much segregation per se that presents a problem, there is a tendency for negative attitudes towards other groups/clumps to crowd out positive attitudes. It is the nature of bonding that negative aspersions against outside groups are happily circulated, while defending an outsider among one’s peers is seen as disloyalty. The Chinese keep reinforcing among themselves stereotypical views about non-Chinese; the mixed-race upper middle-class keep reinforcing among themselves stereotypical attitudes towards those who are not so well-off (e.g. subconsciously seeing the less well-off as less intelligent or lazier, therefore deserving of their poverty); and there is an unending discourse about how superstitious and primitive Taoism is within evangelical Christian circles.
Such negative attitudes fracture society; in times of crisis, one discovers there is very glue. Instead, the blame game is resorted to.
And so I come back to two important tasks for the state, tasks which I think have been badly neglected: (1) put more emphasis on creating a common language, because without this platform, there is no common conversation that all groups have access to; (2) work harder against exclusivist religious teaching while encouraging, funding and allowing more space for non-religious, non-communal civil society groups to flourish. Civil society, whether a boardsailing club, dog-lovers club, feed-the-homeless campaign, human rights advocacy or a Sengkang Residents’ Chorale can be remarkable bridge-builders. But for that, we come back to (1) again — everybody must be comfortable speaking the same language, otherwise they’d never even contemplate joining.