Monday, February 15, 2010

Looking foward to the day this becomes non-news in Singapore.

Channel News Asia reported on an event where a woman in Singapore invited her PR Indian friends over to the reunion dinner: "PR from India celebrates Lunar New Year" (Patwant Singh, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 15 February 2010 2305 hr).

It is a good sign. However, it troubles me deeply how it was reported in the news (hell, that it was even reported in the first place). Here is the line that bugs me, please correct me if you think I am putting things out of context or that I am being unfair:
The host even catered to Madam Mehrotra and her mother-in-law's vegetarian dietary needs.
 Excuse me? "even"? I mean ... what is the point of inviting someone over to dinner if you are not going to make sure they have something to eat? Why would the reporter be so impressed that he wants to even make this point, much less use words that give it significance?

Here is some context from my personal experiences here in the US. I live in a campus town of a University with significant international presence. It is the norm, rather than the exception, to invite friends over for a bit of cultural exchange (usually involving food, from which the exchange then flow through questions, pertinent or otherwise). Invitations are often not confined to cultural events, though the latter adds flavor to the interaction. Potlucks are often the richest form of cultural exchange. The hosts of these events are sometimes not ethnically tied to the cultural event they are hosting. Traditions are almost always cast aside to accommodate the cultural restrictions of your guests. Guests often cast away their cultural restrictions to make things easier on the host, unless it is of deep significance to them. Cultures are as varied as it gets and the diversity is staggering. Forget about the CMIO typecast in Singapore.

Well, I am looking forward to the day these things become non-newsworthy-events in everyday Singapore life.

Frankly, as long as something like the Sedition Act remains, it becomes very hard to have a congenial and casual conversation about other cultures and religions. I have learned a lot about the richness of other cultures (including the many different Chinese cultures) through such conversation here in the US.

On the other hand, I have always found the same to be awkward, at best, while in Singapore. To be fair, I have found that people tend to get upset over the slightest thing in Singapore. I remember an episode in my teenage years when I was sucked into listening to a tense all-night argument between two of my friends just because I happened to mention the word "evolution" in our conversation. Here, even when having conversations about religion and culture in the presence of Indian and Pakistani nationals (I know I know, it's a stereotype), I have yet to offend anyone (though I may have generated some awkward moments). In Singapore, I wonder what happened to the commonsense understanding that when you are among friends, your friends do not mean to offend even if their questions may sound offensive to you? I wonder why the Singapore government believes that Singaporeans are unable/unwilling to say "Hmm, what you said is rather awkward and can be interpreted as offensive. Please, let us talk about something else.". It sure is commonsense here in my community in the US.

8 comments:

Kaffein said...

All these years while growing up in Singapore, I actually believed Singapore is THE ONLY country/city (whatever) that has integrated multi-racial and multi-culture successfully within a place.

Until I stepped out into the world and realised it's just PAP over-selling themselves and over-hyping the racial mix. I'd think there are more successful cities than Singapore.

Ahh... the great lengths to 'brainwash' us. The funny thing is people still believe it.

Kaffein

Chee Wai Lee said...

I know, I bought into it myself as a teenager living in Singapore. I'd have felt indignant in the past were anyone to suggest that our CMIO model was not "multi-racial". Now I know it is only a facade. I lived for 25+ years in Singapore and never had the opportunity nor the inclination to gain any deep understanding of Indian nor Malay culture, much less the "others". It was only here in the US that I learned so much about so many different cultures. The forum article on the "Speak Tamil Campaign" a long time ago really captured the frog-in-the-well experience I had. I wonder how many other Singaporeans did not realize that the Tamil population, while significant, is by no means the majority in India (actually, not even Hindi speakers are the majority in India, which was the final surprise).

Mayos Noun said...

This is very interesting. I am yet to see the 'integration' touted by media here.

Of course, I am not a local but having lived in this city for 3+ years I hope I can learn about it.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Mayos - thanks for your comment. I will try to find a set of resources to help you get a better understanding of racial relations in Singapore and the more recent urge to "integrate" non-Singaporeans into our communities.

To perhaps get some understanding of the historical rationale for the Singapore government's mindset on race relations, try googling for "Maria Hertog Riot Singapore".

Twentyfour_sucks said...

"...Well, I am looking forward to the day these things become non-newsworthy-events in everyday Singapore life..."
Don't hold your breath for that. That article was obviously politically motivated to brainwash the masses that the government is making progress in integrating foreigners and citizens. As long as ST is controlled, you'll keep reading such articles.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Here's an article on The Online Citizen by a Singaporean who used to live in Australia:

http://theonlinecitizen.com/2010/02/it-is-involvement-that-creates-identity/

It gives some additional perspective in a slightly different context from my own.

Unfortunately, it will probably not help deepen Mayos' understanding of the Singapore context of race-relations. Once I find more time, I will attempt to do that.

Kevin Jang said...

I do think that somehow societies like Canada and the USA integrate immigrants better than Singapore for the most part. During the times when I was back, I noticed the large number of mainland Chinese and also India immigrants who came either on work visas or were part of the 'foreign talent' the government invited over here on the S-passes. It is markedly more pronounced than before the 2006 elections, and a byproduct of these en masse immigrations (alongside some Singaporeans leaving as well for work overseas or to migrate elsewhere) that these 'others' technically do not integrate at all for a large part, since they still stick around in their national groups. I am not sure what the integration that the media is talking about leads to, since I have not witnessed it firsthand. That does not mean that Singaporeans are necessarily xenophobic, but that said, I think there is also the element where these residents from elsewhere choose not to integrate too.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Kevin - I think it is a complicated issue. Xenophobia exists everywhere.

I think I've identified one of the reasons why places like Canada and the US handles it better is the tendency of their citizens and their administrative units to treat all people as individuals.

I'm expected to find my own place to stay. I'm expected to make my own decisions for travel. Labor laws apply to me as it does everyone else.

Contrast this with how Singapore as a system treats maids and construction workers.

Yes, there's discrimination in the US for low-wage workers, but these are generally not endorsed by government agencies. There is no legal requirement for passports to be impounded, no legal structure controlling the specific value of your salary depending on your nationality.

Of course, Singapore and Singaporeans do not seek to integrate people from this "class", but I'd argue that this highlights the culture of discrimination at all levels of society in Singapore. Why would anyone "integrate" under such conditions?