Singapore, you’re breaking my heart.

I have been away from home for a while now but this week, home feels a little further away.

For those who have managed to miss it or who aren’t from Singapore, here’s the gist of it. Local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post how he was asked to exaggerate an Indian accent when auditioning for a role in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 4, which is a local film about army life for male Singaporeans. He was offended, but he did it, and felt disgusted after.

Side note: I’ve been asked to ‘perform’ a Singlish accent among foreign friends before. I did it once, everyone laughed in delight, and I felt that same disgust immediately after. My ethnicity, my nationality, the way I speak in the company of friends and family, is not a party trick. An exaggeration of your identity is not for anyone else’s amusement. Even among foreign friends I sometimes spontaneously break out the Singlish but here’s the difference: doing it because you want to and doing it on request are worlds apart.

Shrey subsequently wrote this post. Many fellow minorities have come out to share similar experiences. Many Chinese Singaporeans have expressed regret, shame, anger. But so many people. SO many people. Have now come out of the woodwork waving a “LOL guess what everyone I’m kinda racist” flag, previously hidden under their beds, previously only taken out in the company of like-minded friends.

I write this as a minority. I write this as someone who has only ever known what it is to be a minority. I have written about racism in Singapore before, and like any minority, I have a lifetime of experiences and examples I could share.

But this week, my heart hangs heavier than it ever has before. For the first time, people I’ve known for years have come out to rant about the validity of Shrey’s experience. “It’s just comedy,” they say.

And you know what? It’s fine if you, as someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being the majority, don’t know what it’s like, or if you can’t imagine why it hurts. But no one who has decided to join the angry mob dedicated to the very public lowering of our flag has stopped to first ask – “Is that how it feels? I had no idea.” And I really wish they had asked; I still hope some will.

You don’t get to decide that just because you don’t know how it feels, the rejection, shame, fear and occasional self-loathing that often comes with being a minority is invalid or should be invisible. Make an effort to understand instead of denying the deep-rooted racism our allegedly racially harmonious country has.

Today, I am especially grateful for my Chinese friends who have stood up tall against other members of the majority race who demean and invalidate the experiences they will never have the misfortune of knowing. In the same way I believe men are a key part of feminism and equality, the ethnic majority has a voice they can use for good. Not like xiaxue. Please don’t be like xiaxue.

But we need to look at the fact that it took one Facebook post to tear a nation in two. It took one man saying, “This is what happened. This is how I feel and it sucks,” before thousands jumped on his words to loudly invalidate them. I get it. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discomfort of others. But if for the sake of our continued comfort we disallow room for honesty, for discussion, for understanding, then our racial harmony is a sham, and a shallow one too.

It feels like this week we, as a country, have failed to live by what we recite in our pledge, what we claim to celebrate as a multi-ethnic nation.

Think of it this way: If it’s uncomfortable for someone in the majority to acknowledge that our country is racist AF has a long way to go, imagine how it feels for the those who have lived it their whole lives. It isn’t just national pride or illusions of harmony at stake. It’s the dull thud that comes with realisation that in your home country, your identity has been deemed worth less than the entertainment of others, that your real experiences have been voted unfavourable, unworthy of further discussion and understanding. We’ll be ok just don’t talk about it shhhhhh.

I don’t write this in anger, or in hatred. I write this as a member of the minority whose heart hurts this week because the spotlight has at last been shone on the deep-rooted racism many of us tried to pretend wasn’t there, and now there’ s no denying it.

The part that hurts the most is this: Even after all this time and all my own experiences, part of me still desperately wanted to believe in Singapore’s racial harmony, too.

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7 comments

  1. Brian Vittachi

    Racism is alive and well in Singapore. Ask yourself why a non-Chinese person still cannot become the Prime Minister. Ask yourself why we need to “reserve” a place for a non-Chinese to become President.

  2. Aaron Gideon

    I am an Indian too and I don’t really find this that disturbing. Yes the extent to which it proceeded was bad but he is an actor and he is expected to follow up to the role that the director wishes him to fill up to. I don’t think that we have some crazy racism issue here and I think it is blown way out of proportion. The Chinese are the majority and that is how it has been in Singapore’s history. Sure, stereotypes will exist and there will also be a few people that might take it too far. However, I still believe that this is not some widespread problem as we haven’t reached a really widespread point of racist behaviour. Everyone holds stereotypes against a person of the other race. It is common. Let’s not blow this out of proportion.

    • eaststar

      This is not about Shrey. Or any actor. This is about the movie, the writers, and the audience that will laugh at the Indians and think it’s ok. When I lived in the US, there were so many instances of Asians being portrayed as Ching Chong bespectacled bucktoothed fools for comedic effect and white people told us it was just for laughs, lighten up. They didn’t see how damaging such media images are, how it affects the way people think of Asians, how it made Asian kids feel bad about themselves, how it led to white kids bullying Asians in schools because of these “harmless” jokes. That’s why this issue resonated with me, because I’ve been on the receiving end. And you only have to look at some of these horrifyingly hateful comments that have been posted calling Indians vile names and to “go back to India if you don’t like it here” to realise that under the veneer of racial harmony, there’s a seething underbelly of real repugnant racism and racial animus in Singapore.

      • femmefauxpas

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. It’s funny you mention that, I went for a trip to the US in poly and one of my Chinese classmates had a ‘ching chong’ racist experience – her first racist experience, ever. Myself and the other minorities were sympathetic but perplexed that someone could at this age (19) experience for the first time what we had known our whole lives in far greater volume, and often a lot more hurt. It’s awful in any case, but it hurts bad when it’s home.

    • femmefauxpas

      Everyone has stereotypes, sure. But in the case of minorities, those stereotypes can affect opportunities, employment and daily life far more than it would a person of a majority race. It’s disheartening to hear your “Chinese are a majority so that’s just how it is” take on this, but I get that it’s not an easy issue to address. Still, not saying anything is one thing, discrediting the issues of others is another.

  3. socsdd

    I grew up with racism and thought with better education, things will improve. Unfortunately, privilege took over and things are the same. No even worse. Coz. They have education now and yet are not educated. God bless this country.

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