Starting the new year with race and religion

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.

* * * * *

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?

Gary Ow.

— 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?”

“Why not?”

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.

32 Responses to “Starting the new year with race and religion”

  1. 1 ricardo 1 January 2012 at 05:58

    Why do you use the word “Caucasian” instead of more traditional terms like “Ang Moh Kwee” and “Gwai Loh”[*]?

    The fact is that racism is built into our language(s) and hence our very though processes.

    My mother thought all Malays were lazy so & sos. But she had many Malay friends whom she considered fine, upstanding people, worthy of emulation by us youngsters. If you pointed this out to her, she would say, ” but they’re different”.

    Was she racist? I like to think racism becomes a “sin” (a “problem” for yus atheists) when our ingrained prejudices prevent us from seeing persons as individuals.

    But that’s not condoning these prejudices in the first place. They affect how we behave when we don’t see people as individuals but as an unwashed mass. eg. when we are legislators and policy makers.

    We have our Lord LKY’s example on various races & Venomous religions.

    And all must love the human form
    In heathen, Turk or Jew
    Where Mercy Love & Pity dwell
    There God is dwelling too – Blake

    [*] for yus Westerners .. “Red Haired Devil” and “Devil Person”

  2. 2 news - johor 1 January 2012 at 10:49

    in Singapore, have you ever been “served” by filipino service workers before ? when there are two or more of these filipino workers together, it is almost 100% certain that they will talk amongst themselves in their own native filipino language. also, the accent of the filipino brand of “english” is so strong that most of the times S’pore locals have great difficulty in understanding what the filipinos are actually trying to say.

    • 3 yawningbread 1 January 2012 at 14:22

      Er… why are we begrudging the Filipinos for using their own language? When two Chinese get together, more often than not, they use Chinese between them. As for accent, what makes our brand of English the yardstick to measure others by?

    • 5 Dee 2 January 2012 at 03:17

      Look, if you talk to some of those Ah Lians and Ah Bengs or some of those who’re only fluent in Mandarin or dialect, you’re bound to get the same results. Besides, many Singaporeans’ accents are rather thick since we sometimes tend to mix up our Rs and Ls(flied lice), use hard sounds when pronouncing somewhat soft sounds like “this = dis”, “that= dat”, use certain words/phrases or add on words in strange ways like “lah”, “lor”, “yah lor”, “one”, “aiyo”, “a bit the”, “wah biang”, “confirm”, “die die”, “meh”, “blur sotong” and so on.

      We’re hardly understood by foreigners at times!

  3. 6 XL 1 January 2012 at 11:59

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe what the boyfriend meant was that if he had known that the place was not halal, he wouldn’t have come? So perhaps he wasn’t expecting you to change your plans.

    • 7 yawningbread 1 January 2012 at 14:23

      Indeed, there are many possible interpretations, which in turn gave rise to many mixed feelings.

      • 8 yuen 2 January 2012 at 00:21

        surely you ought to respect the BF’s desire of not patronizing non-halal restaurants, and for his fortitude in not complaining until the party finished? he could have walked out, taking his partner with him, thus spoiling the atmosphere for everyone else; my guess is he surprised you because you thought gays are less rigid about religion and related issues; I have no idea whether this is correct or not, but it would be a kind of stereotyping too

  4. 9 The 1 January 2012 at 13:39

    /// ricardo 1 January 2012 at 05:58

    Why do you use the word “Caucasian” instead of more traditional terms like “Ang Moh Kwee” and “Gwai Loh”[*]?

    The fact is that racism is built into our language(s) and hence our very though processes. ///

    I hope you are in the minority. Gwai Loh is used more in Hong Kong than Singapore, and I personally have never heard it uttered in Singapore. And Singaporeans, if they do use it, use Ang Mo (red hair) more commonly than Ang Mo Kwee (red haired devil) or Ang Mo Kau (red haired monkey). The derogatory bit is actually in the devil or monkey than in “Ang Mo”.
    Racism is not built into any language – it is the racists that coined racist words. And that can be in any language – just translate any racist terms into any language of the world. Chinks, niggers, slit-eyes, slant-eyes, yellow – you get the drift.

  5. 10 George 1 January 2012 at 13:39


    I hope this is not too off-topic:

    You have merely written like so many others had on this issue from the viewpoint of a member of the majority about the perceived treatment received/meted out to those in the minority in its midst.

    I have watched a couple of installments of the TV series ‘Tribal Wives’ which is about some ‘white’ women voluntarily going to some remote Asian and African villages to live with an ‘adopted’ family for a month. As to be expected, the story revolves around the women’s experiences and responses to what the saw, felt, sensed and in a limited way participated, during that time far removed from the milieu of her own usual surroundings. To come to the point – it came across to me that when the role is reversed, the white, or for that matter any majority’s, sense of superiority simply vanished when nested in a world of strangers and strange surrounding. That is, when one enters into any ‘space’ whether it be geographical, racial, intellectual, institutional, psychological, ritualist, vocational, or even merely recreational, etc as a ‘minority’, there is bound to be a fair amount of needling – good humoured ‘bullying/teasing or otherwise – and ostracizing, from the resident denizens for any sorts of reasons.

    IMO, the ‘white’ or ‘Caucasoid’ sub-race of the Human Race, particularly those from the region generally referred to as Western Europe has been historically shown/demonstrated to be more culturally-biased and more intolerant towards ‘outsiders’- in all sense of the words, esp. when in a position to dominate. Whether it is innate, cultural (ethical, moral) or religion, is a very complex issue for another day’s discussion. But, it seems a natural enough common tendency/phenomenon dwelling in all living things. Down at bottom, its biological origin is that of a coping mechanism which alternates in opposite ways – when one is in the majority and when one is in the minority.

    Back to our Indian or Malay or Eurasian friends. How they must feel about it when treated or confronted in a given situation goes right down to individual upbringing, character – strength/weakness and adaptability i.e. the degree of accommodation you are capable of, your coping. That would finally determine the outcomes/manifestations. There may or may not be an immediate and outward reaction, definitely some mental exercise, non-verbal response, and a promise to oneself of retaliation/ how to cope differently in the future when an opportunity presents itself, etc.

  6. 11 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 15:39

    “IMO, the ‘white’ or ‘Caucasoid’ sub-race of the Human Race, particularly those from the region generally referred to as Western Europe has been historically shown/demonstrated to be more culturally-biased and more intolerant towards ‘outsiders’- in all sense of the words, esp. when in a position to dominate.”

    How do you “show/demonstrate” this?

    The most you can say is that their earlier mastery of modern industry and weaponry makes their bias much more devastating than those of other cultures

  7. 12 Munshi 1 January 2012 at 17:01

    Most middle-eastern restaurants here, if they are owned or managed by muslims would serve food that is halal. But they also serve alcoholic beverages to their customers who are non-muslims, or even to muslims who do consume alcohol. But by doing so they are not eligible to apply for a halal certificate from MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura) the halal certificate issueing authority in Singapore. You should have pointed this out to the Malay-Malaysian friend of your American friend 🙂

  8. 14 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 17:56

    A guy bonks another guy and asks “Did you notice that the restaurant was not halal?”

    I am reminded of a Mad Magazine caption many years ago. A man prepares himself to be executed by firing squad. His executioner offers him a last smoke. He responds “No thanks, did you know smoking is bad for you?”.

    • 15 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 18:29

      Also reminds me of an entry in an old copy of “Cultural Icons”.

      Another man of fine distinctions – Klaus Fuchs. He was convicted of passing UK nuclear secrets to the Soviets. When interrogated by a British policeman, he refused to answer certain questions because the officer in question did not have the appropriate security clearance for the information.

    • 16 Passerby 2 January 2012 at 13:03

      Did you mean to say that gays can’t be faithful Christians/Muslims? By violating what conservatives consider a religious injunction, gays have no need to fulfill any of the other religious obligations? Or are you saying that by breaking the faith’s commands against certain sexual practices, gays are more liable to pick and choose what rules to follow on a whim?

      Following your logic, Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, should be free to cherry-pick whatever religious rules he wants to follow, because, hey, he’s already broken one, what’s the big deal with breaking another rule, or two, or ten? And leads his congregation in this manner too?

      • 17 yuen 2 January 2012 at 23:04

        I have occasionally noticed a sense of entitlement, “to be different”, among some gays, but assume there is a silent majority that simply want to be left alone

      • 18 Poker Player 3 January 2012 at 10:42

        “I have occasionally noticed a sense of entitlement, “to be different”, among some gays, but assume there is a silent majority that simply want to be left alone”

        Which group does this observation not apply to? A group with some having a sense of entitlement, the rest wanting to be left alone. Duh!

      • 19 yuen 3 January 2012 at 13:20

        so you agree with me this time? an excellent way to start the new year

      • 20 Poker Player 3 January 2012 at 22:18

        You still don’t get it. You basically said nothing.

  9. 21 Dan koh 1 January 2012 at 18:21

    Just a trivial thing to point out:
    Teh O= Tea w/o milk
    Kopi O = Coffee w/o milk

  10. 23 Elijah Lau 1 January 2012 at 23:03

    On the second woman in the Red Cross story, in my experience, I concur that it is a minority but it’s also a significant minority.

  11. 24 Jason 2 January 2012 at 02:22

    Hmmm. I’ve faced this situation before, except in my case, there was a vegan amongst us. So not only did we change restaurants, we changed the vicinity even to suit her dietary needs, with her apologising terribly.

    While I did feel slightly irritated, I would rather not indulge in those feelings because a part of me felt sorry for her.

    To be fair to your friends’ boyfriend, he did not raise his concerns to his entire group.

    • 25 Ian 3 January 2012 at 00:08

      As a vegetarian, i would rather NOT join others when eating out because i know i have limited choices and its not nice to make others eat under the same circumstances(unless its a hawker centre/ foodcourts).

      If they insist, i would feel bad for having them change their plans… in the end i would just tell them i’m not hungry/order something remotely vegetarian.

      You are not the only one feeling irritated, i think your vegan friend would be too, of having to make a group of people eat veggies for her on a whim.

      I believe, that the muslim boyfriend had also mistaken the middle eastern restaurant to be halal as people with strict diet rules often checks out a place beforehand to make sure there is food that lies within the rules(i do that). With him not checking would mean one of two things; that he does not mind not eating at a non-halal eatery or he thinks(or knows) that the place serves halal food. I’m pretty sure its the latter.

      • 26 Jason 4 January 2012 at 20:10

        Yes, actually it’s in my opinion that we should accept people and their different dietary requirements. Be they Jews, Muslims or strict vegetarians, if we feel irritated or guilty at all to welcome them in our social plans then perhaps we need to work on our diversity ethos.

        I know it sounds rich coming from me since I felt irritated at the encounter I demonstrated above, but as always, it’s a work in progress. My partner is Muslim though he does not mind eating at halal or non-halal establishments (he just avoids pork on his plate if he can) but thank you for your reply. Like I said, I sympathised with her as she was trying her best not to inconvenience people. From now on if I have vegetarian friends or those of different dietary requirements, I should be mindful to accept them. I think a little bit of consideration goes a long way.

  12. 27 ricardo 2 January 2012 at 17:52

    I’m saddened by this thread.

    I quoted William Blake’s “Divine Image” cos he used “heathen, Turk or Jew”; (with even more racist connotations in his day than ours) to make a heartfelt plea for religious & racial tolerance.

    Even in our august company, we have clear examples of “corrupt human nature, not merely the intolerance of society and the jealousy of men, but the inauthentic hypocritical nature of human communication” that he so abhorred.

    Are things getting better? I hope so … but slower than I thought. Does an atheist like Mr. Au find it easier to accept this slow progress?

    BTW, “Gwai Loh” is Cantonese. Is there a more ‘correct’ Cantonese term for European / Caucasian? I suspect Ang Moh Kwee is contracted to Ang Moh, not cos greater sensibilities of Hokkiens but cos 2 syllables easier than 3.

    • 28 yuen 4 January 2012 at 09:44

      the neutral cantonese term for a westerner is sai-yan, western person, the equivalent to mandarin’s yang-ren, overseas person (I dont know hokkien but assume it has an equivalent too); the derogative mandarin term, equivalent to kwai-lo/ang-moh-kwee, is yang-gui-zi

  13. 29 jem 2 January 2012 at 22:19

    “Welcome to another example of Singapore’s sterling service standards — make fun of our clients.”

    To be fair, this is not something that is unique to Singapore. Have experienced it in other countries too.

  14. 30 Rajiv Chaudhry 7 January 2012 at 16:35

    As a confirmed Dawkinsian, I would question why you had mixed feelings in the first place? Why is it that we feel guilty when we perceive (rightly or wrongly) that we have violated someone else’s belief system? We do not subscribe to that belief system, did not ask for or expect that system to impinge upon that particular social occasion and yet, the net effect was that you felt guilty and violated at the end of the evening. Would it not have been much simpler to say to oneself “this is not a problem of my making” and switch off? A bit insensitive, perhaps (and I know this will attract howls of protest) but food for thought, nevertheless?

  15. 31 22 January 2012 at 15:16

    When it comes to being exclusivist, you must give the award to the Muslims. The Banquet group do not allow non-halal food to be sold in their food courts. In Geylang Serai market, the Muslims want only halal food to be sold there though the Govt wants to leave it to market forces. In Kampong Glam, they are running a campaign to ban alcohol from the area claiming that it will damage its heritage. Obviously this is only a pretext.

  16. 32 G3 24 January 2012 at 22:37

    I wonder if treating the foreign workers as being invisible might be almost better than treating them like animals. I was at Coastes Sentosa with my family and friends for brunch today and the service staff blew a whistle at any foreign workers(Indians and Chinese) and literally ‘shooed’ them out of the premises. I witnessed this about 15 times over the 4 hours. You would think that most of them thought that the area was part of the public beach and it was appalling to hear the shrieking sharp sound of the whistle and the staff aggressively walking towards the lone guy or group and pointing to the exit and gesturing to them to leave. I cringed at the thought of how they must feel at being treated in that manner. I asked one of the service staff if it was management policy to blow the whistle at foreign workers and treat them in such a degrading manner and he sheepishly answered that the whiste was a better alternative to yelling at them to leave. Whatever happened to explaining to them that it was a restaurant and that they had to order a meal at the table. In true Singaporean practice, he said he would pass on my feedback to the management. I left very disgusted, telling myself that I shall not ever visit this place again and also wrote in a complaint about this strange and demeaning practice of using whistles to shoo out foreign workers who had ‘strayed in’ accidentally. I think a random animal would have been treated more respectfully.

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