He had waited patiently to be served. Foreign workers from India have largely resigned themselves to be almost invisible to Singaporeans, unless when Singaporeans wish to make an issue of their (unwanted) visibility.
But today, he was alone, and not a threat to our beloved racial model. And so he was ignored even though he had actually come to the coffee counter before three other customers — construction supervisors who perhaps came from the same worksite as the Indian guy. The difference was that the supervisors were Chinese, with at least one of them from China, judging by his accent.
The three women behind the counter — Chinese Singaporean, middle-aged — engaged the men in banter as they prepared their orders. There was an easy familiarity, possibly because the men had become regular customers from working nearby.
Several minutes and jokes later, the men left. The women returned to their usual stations, still chattering among themselves, the broad smiles and good humour lingering on. The one whose job was to stand at the cash register and take orders turned to the Indian guy, asking him what his order was.
I wasn’t really paying attention, and for a while was just glad that the loud, mirthful chattering from the counter had ceased.
But only for a while. The peace was soon disrupted when the first woman foghorned: “Dteh aw, not day war. You donno, ah?”
She then turned to her colleagues and, as if they had not already heard all that, repeated to them how hysterically funny it was that this dark-skinned guy referred to tea without milk by mispronouncing its Hokkien name. They all laughed, in easy continuation of distracted banter from just moments earlier with the Chinese men, and tried to teach him how to say it correctly, intonation included. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, what a scream, he just can’t get it right, can he?
Welcome to another example of Singapore’s sterling service standards — make fun of our clients.
But as you would also have guessed, this incident speaks of more than just customer service levels. Woven in here are issues of race, class, language chauvinism and nationality. The man himself might not be invisible to the women, but his feelings were.
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On the matter of race, there was an interesting letter in the Straits Times, 31 December 2011.
I refer to Jeffrey Law Lee Beng’s letter, Put Locals In Ads (Life!, Dec 24), where he mentions ads are “promoted . . . by Caucasians” and “not Singaporeans”.
This implies that there are no Singaporean Caucasians. I know a few who have become naturalised Singaporeans. Does Mr Law not consider these Caucasians Singaporeans?
— Straits Times Life! Mailbag, 31 December 2011
It was interesting because both sides had a point. Pointing out that commercial advertisements all too often use lighter-skinned models, Caucasians particularly, is nothing new. It’s true in many countries too, from Brazil to India to Thailand, playing to widespread bias against dark pigmentation, and a tendency to see Caucasians as higher-class.
Without contradicting this, Gary Ow also had a point: Why do we instinctively see Caucasians as non-Singaporean? Why do Singaporeans have such a race-delimited notion of nationality?
Is this equally true of other countries, or is this phenomenon unusually pronounced here? I honestly don’t know. One day, my opinion swings this way, another day, it swings the other way. Perhaps, our history has something to do with it. Ever since independence, we have spoken of Singapore as “multiracial”, an expression that only serves to highlight the “racial”. Moreover, we define what races constitute the “multi” — Chinese, Malay, Indian and “other”, with the last, despite sounding like a catch-all term, usually understood to be quite specific: predominantly Indian with a small mix of British or Iberian blood.
Seeing our society in such rigid terms must surely have an effect, I tell myself. Yet, it is not hard to name other countries that have a similar race-delimited view of nationality. In fact, countries that have moved some distance away from it are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Nonetheless, I personally look forward to the day (not that I expect to see it) when we get over this. As I have said several times in the past, I think we’ll be a happier place when skin colour ceases jerking from one tone to another as one crosses a race boundary, to become a smooth continuum. This will come from interbreeding and more immigration. Breaking down the Chinese-Malay-Indian straitjacket through an infusion of Filipino-, Burmese-, Persian-, Kazakh-, Hungarian- or Bantu-Singaporeans will be blessing.
* * * * *
Yet, at least when it comes to race, society is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Most of us have stopped being proud of chauvinism, even if we’re hypocritically guilty of it. Most of us speak well of breaking down barriers, even it it is lip-service.
When it comes to religion, however much we keep speaking of the two in the same breath (“regardless of race and religion”), people quite often adopt a rather different position. There is no shame in being exclusivist.
About a month ago, at a philanthropy fair, I overheard one young woman greeting another like old friends. It soon became apparent that they had been in the same church. Out of politeness, the first woman introduced to her friend a twenty-something guy who had been standing next to her; he was Malay with a typical Malay name. She introduced him as a fellow volunteer with the Red Cross. Pleasantries over, he soon moved away to give the girls some space.
The second then asked the first: “Is he Christian? He’s not, right?”
Replied the first: “I don’t think so? Why do you ask?”
“Then how come he’s volunteering at Red Cross?”
After a bit of to and fro, it dawned on the first woman (and myself) that the church friend thought Red Cross was a Christian organisation — something to do with the cross, I suppose. I had to suppress a shriek. The first did better than me, keeping her poise and explaining that it wasn’t, whereupon the second asked, “So why are you volunteering with it? Why don’t you volunteer with a Christian organisation?”
The shriek got much harder to suppress. I had to physically move away.
Let me hasten to add that I do not think she was representative of Christians in Singapore. Yet, I seem to come across people like this from time to time and it worries me if there is a significant minority who think the way she did.
* * * * *
The Arab Street quarter was in the news lately, and reminded me of an incident about one or two years ago. An American friend was coming to Singapore, and together with some other Singaporean friends, we arranged to have a meal together. I can’t recall whose idea it had been initially, but the group seemed happy to go Middle-Eastern at a restaurant in that district.
On the evening itself, we were a little surprised that the American had brought his Malay-Malaysian boyfriend along. The two of them had come down from Kuala Lumpur for a few days. None of the Singaporeans had met the boyfriend before, but no matter. It was a casual evening, and asking the restaurant to add one more place to the table was the easiest thing in the world. It was fortuitous though that we had chosen to eat where we did (or at least we thought it was), considering that he was Malay and probably Muslim.
However, as we left the restaurant, I overhead the guy whisper to his American beau something along these lines: Did you notice that the restaurant was not halal? They served beer at the other table. I wish I had known beforehand. Why didn’t you ask?
I pretended not to have overheard. Good thing I did too because I might have responded poorly had I been asked. Mixed feelings were swirling within me. On the one hand, I felt somewhat guilty that we hadn’t been careful to ensure a halal place. But like him, it didn’t really occur to us to ask, since it served Middle-Eastern food. On the other hand, I felt imposed upon. We had agreed in advance and had informed the American who offered no objection. We had made a reservation. We didn’t know the boyfriend was tagging along. Were we expected to shred our plans on his say-so? Added to that, I felt resentful that I was feeling partly guilty. Why should I be feeling that way?
* * * * *
Imposition can come from various angles. Just a week ago, the New Paper reported that the Education Ministry was amending its sexuality education package in deference to the Catholic Church. It will now stress abstinence and tone down the parts about preventive contraception. I shall want to write about this, but first I need to calm down.