We turned to look at the Caucasian gentleman. He was possibly in his 60s, dressed as you would expect any executive uncle back in Singapore on his weekend off.
“Where are you from?” he snapped, a scowl on his face.
“Erm, Singapore. We are on trai…” the pre-trip brief started to kick in.
“Sing-wha… Well, go home!” he reiterated.
The irony, of course, was that much as we want to do as he says, we can’t. We were on National Service training at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland, Australia, so going home means going AWOL.
That was the first of my two brushes with racism in Australia.
The second happened a few years later in Western Australia. Racism was supposedly rife when I was an undergraduate, thanks to Pauline Hanson. A Caucasian lady camped outside Fremantle Market stuck a piece of paper under my nose.
“Would you like to sign this?” she chirped.
“What is it for?”
“It is a petition against Pauline Hanson. We think she’s a racist, her policies are stupid, and we don’t want her to come to WA.”
Both incidents made me feel like a minority in ways that I’ve never felt before. But while one made be feel I don’t belong, the other made me feel this was the home that I didn’t know existed.
Australia has changed a lot since that many years ago, and not always for the better. Yet in its people and in government policy, there has always been an instinct among the most sensible of its majority to protect those who are the most vulnerable to discrimination. Yes, Hanson is still around; and yes, the marriage law postal vote brought out the worst in many. It is not the perfect haven for multi-anything, but I dare say the approach has been right.
In supposedly multi-everything Singapore, I’m beginning to feel less certain. I belong to the majority race, and yet strangely a minority whenever I feel the compulsion to stand up for the rights of those who do not belong to the same majority by virtue of their race, religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs, or any other ‘other’ you can think of.
There is an active compunction by the majority to push you to agree with what ‘most people think is right’, ignoring the realities faced by those who are marginalised, “unintentionally” or otherwise.
But the real scary bit: I do not really know why they feel marginalised.
Every time a controversy arises that points to a social divide, some dutiful citizen, sworn to protect multi-everything Singapore, gets triggered enough to ‘poh mata’. The dispute is instantly silenced, and we discuss no further for fear of social reprisal or just in case ‘mata liak’. We are left none the wiser about why our brethren feel angry, hurt or betrayed. Is it state policy or the behaviour of their countrymen that they are unhappy about, or both?
Even more alarming, we have shockingly senseless comments like, “casual racism has been around forever and that is ok, so Netflix and chill.”
Let me state unequivocally that discrimination – casual or full blown, unintentional or deliberate, made in jest or spewed in spite – is not ok.
Discrimination in any form makes us feel that we do not belong, that we are not wanted, that we are worse than someone because of what we look like, what we feel, or what we believe in.
If you are foreigner faced with such discrimination, your first instinct would be to, quite literally, go home. But what if you are facing the same in your own country?
This is what makes regular stand-offs, such as the one between NETS and Preetipls, so important for our social fabric. It challenges us to think deeply about our own biases, how our actions can affect those around us who are different, when we make countrymen feel like foreigners, and how we can do better, offer a contrite apology, and never go back again.
And here is where the state needs to step in. Or as the case may be, step out.
The government is not doing us a service by declaring one set of actions wrong. It further entrenches the majority-minority mindset, in spite of all the grand platitudes thrown out about multi-everything Singapore. It gets worse when the state declares one set of actions illegal – in law-abiding Singapore, that instantly sets off moral policemen, who eagerly drive deeper wedges into the divide.
It would be more constructive for the government to let the people settle their social disputes, but open a policy ear towards those who voiced the most angst – almost always the minority. What can it do to make Singapore a more level playing field; to give equal preference to all in employment, social benefits, progress opportunities, even public office; to incorporate diversity of views and beliefs in its policies?
To be clear, state policies can never completely mend the divide in Singapore society, a divide that is clearly getting worse, in spite of the delusions of one particular office holder who claimed that we have “gotten this far in race relations”. Our standing as a multi-anything society is a benchmark that is set by social interaction, not a PR statement.
But state policies can certainly set the direction for where Singapore needs to head, so that any Singaporean can feel a right to be here, no matter how difficult it is.
It then rests on us as a society to turn this right into a welcome.
The fact that incidents of discrimination will happen from time to time is a given, but how we push the boundaries, recover from it and move forward, not backward, as a society will tell us if we are a multi-everything success, or a bigoted failure of a nation, cloistered in our own delusion that everything is hunky dory, except for those who can’t take a joke.
Singaporeans need to prove to themselves and each other that we are bigger than our personal interests and beliefs. Shutting each other off is proof of how small we are. We can never hope to progress, socially or economically, if we do not embrace what is within our shores, not to mention what is beyond.