The Art Of Racism (In Singapore)

The art of racism in Singapore isn’t in its blatant words of open criticism or hate crimes; no, because that’s too easy to police. Instead, the art of it is in its subtlety, the way it can be easily swept under the big rug they call ‘jokes’, how each sentence begins with ‘no offence’ when they shouldn’t be the ones deciding what offends and what doesn’t.

The art of racism in Singapore is in the way the once admired and treasured Racial Harmony Day tradition of wearing each culture’s ethnic costumes is tainted by the need for today’s youth to entertain their friends and themselves. Instead of respect for the culture and its garments, these clothes are worn for the sake of social media, and some even go so far as to wear them as a costume, believing it as a free pass to re-enact stereotypes and mock its traditions. On paper, this sounds serious and exaggerated, but when teenagers don the sarong and mimic the actions of smoking on camera, when boys claim they want to wear the turban so that they may “look like terrorists”, it’s far from funny. Because then, these jokes are on the internet, in the eyes of everyone in the school to take offence.

The art of racism in Singapore isn’t in its intolerance of other cultures but in its desire to treat all the same, instead of celebrating the nuances. It’s in the way the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, a bazaar, traditionally held to celebrate the month of Ramadaan, invites more than half its stalls to sell food that isn’t halal. Sure, it’s important to include everyone in its celebrations, but when a bazaar is called a Ramadaan bazaar but its food restricts the Muslims from enjoying it, well then it’s just a regular bazaar cruelly exploiting the business that this religious month brings.

The art of racism in Singapore is also in the way foreigners, particularly Bangladeshis and Phillipinos are treated with an attitude so carefully crafted, that it can’t be labelled hostile, but neither is it friendly. It’s in the way “bangla” is used as an insult and each time a foreign construction worker is on a bus talking loudly on the phone, an expression of condescension and scorn can be seen on our faces. It’s almost as though we’ve forgotten that we were all too, once immigrants and that we still continue to struggle to adapt to a different cultural environment when we travel overseas. We’ve ignored the fact that these foreigners have entered a country so vastly different to theirs’ that instead of helping them adapt, we drive them away from jobs that we ourselves refuse to take.

The art of racism in Singapore is in the way we boast of a multi-racial community that lives harmoniously. It is in the way every day, students nation-wide chant with their fists across their chest “regardless of race, language or religion” when in fact what they believe is regardless of race, as long as it’s the majority’s. Because how else can you explain how bosses, in some workplaces, insist on speaking Mandarin to a multi-racial workforce, how “speaking Mandarin” is a hard requirement for many jobs, how Chinese subtitles litter the bottom of the screen of many of our local English-speaking channels. How else would you explain compulsory Chinese new year celebrations in schools but somehow the memo is lost when it comes to all other celebrations? How else do you explain only one Halal stall in a canteen of 6 to 7 food stalls?

At the end of the day, racism in Singapore has become an art form because we have so cleverly rehearsed our craft, that in plain sight, it no longer fits the description of racism. So if you ask me, should we stop the Racial Harmony Day celebrations and do away with the annual Ramadan bazaar? Of course not, just because a few bad apples are present doesn’t mean we throw the whole fruit basket in the trash. It just brings to light the fact that we have so much left to work on if we want to remain as a country free from racial tensions. It means that tolerance, indifference, acknowledgement and celebrations are on a spectrum. It also means that if your jokes are pointed out by someone as offensive, apologise instead of justify because as the majority, defining how the minorities react is a dangerous step towards oppression.



The Value Of Happiness

This essay was written for a certain application with the prompt “Write about a conventional wisdom that you have come to doubt.”

Since the beginning of mankind’s pursuit of knowledge, it has been proven time and again that the information that we may deem as factual is vulnerable to inaccuracies. From the initial hypothesis of the earth being flat to Pluto no longer being considered as a planet in our solar system, we must not be naive to think that all conventional wisdom is set in stone. In fact, even some cliches we grow up so familiar with are sometimes proven wrong, such as the age-old advice, “Money does not buy happiness”. While the life lesson behind it is admirable; to look beyond superficial qualities, it cannot be denied that “money makes the world go round”.

Even though a world of superficiality may never lead you to true happiness, in such a capitalistic world we live in, money sure can fulfil your basic needs. While money may not buy you complete happiness, neither does poverty. In order to lead a comfortable life, many will argue that education is the key to opening doors and opportunities. However, it must be acknowledged that education does not come free, whether it is in the form of the large tuition fees at the end of every college semester, or the expensive extracurricular classes, from after-school tuition to piano lessons in order for the child to get a firm upper hand from her peers. In fact, the basic necessities for survival, such as water, food, or even a roof over our heads require money, even if it is from a charitable organisation or from the government’s annual budget plan.

Yet, there is some truth to this age-old phrase. After fulfilling your needs of survival, there is only so much money can bring to your life. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs highlights our intrinsic desires for self-care and shared love and no amount of money can simply serve that to you on a silver platter. Therefore, upon stumbling on a Time article, I highly agree with  Dan Gilbert, Harvard University psychology professor when he explains how money may provide you with joy, but only if you spend it right. According to him, in order to secure happiness with money, you need to “buy moments, not stuff”. Research concurs, by stating that 57% of respondents of a study experienced greater happiness when spending on experiential purchases instead of material possessions. This comes as no surprise to me. Take a look at the term “bucket list”. It is reserved for goals and experiential aspirations for those coming face to face with their mortality. Here, we see how living life to the fullest to many refers to doing things not having things. That is why it is way more common to see “travel the world” instead of “buy new shoes” on anyone’s bucket list.

Hence, although the sentiment behind the conventional wisdom “money can’t buy you happiness” highlights the importance of prioritising your values over material possessions, one cannot deny that in order to lead a life without fretting over the bills and next month’s rent, money plays a key role. When used wisely, money can lead to happiness, but only if you keep your sights on what is most important;  health, relationships, growth, contribution and community. It is important, however, to know that money is the currency that provides you with certain needs, so that we may acknowledge that there are many others who do not have the privilege and therefore would find a certain happiness when having enough to spend.

Our Underrated Treasure Cove

This essay was written for a certain application with the prompt “How will your research interest (literature and linguistics) contribute to Singapore’s development?”

Arguably underrated in what many would call a utilitarian Singapore, the study and research of literature may ironically be just what Singapore needs to take a step forward. Although there has been a slight shift in attitudes towards the arts and humanities with the setting up of SOTA and liberal arts college YaleNus, I believe that further research into literature and linguistics will open doors to more development.

The study of literature is the study of humanity, as it not only documents but also mirrors society and its mannerisms. It teaches soft skills such as argumentation and reasoning and most importantly for a country that boasts social cohesion and racial harmony, empathy. Research into various fields and genres of literature promotes a wide range of perspectives demanded to be understood. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is rich with the often misunderstood culture and struggles of Muslim Iraqis during the Taliban regime, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes echoes the then recent tragic events of The Columbine Shooting while Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close fills it’ pages with the effects that 9/11 had on it’s victims’ families.

Literary works from all over the world encapsulate its representative culture and school of thought. As such, because literature stands the test of time as well, it often complements History by portraying societal attitudes in response to certain historic events. For example, the works of Charles Dickens brings to light the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while The Chrysalids warns the dangers of nuclear war. At the same time, research into our own local literary scene can not only revive our roots and anchor our sense of identity, it can also promote the development of Singapore as an Arts Hub by encouraging local artists. As the literary and arts industry expands, so does Singapore’s development as a financial hub.

Literature and Linguistics also supplement Psychology. Works such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Room presents a different perspective carefully cultivated to portray a message for its audience about mental illness. Whether it demands sympathy or acknowledges the despair that one may face, empathy is once again garnered, hence increasing awareness while chipping away at the stigma. Research into linguistics also provides a better understanding in the way we use language in different mediums for different purposes. Since language is something that everyone experiences, it is crucial to understand it’s power to aid better communication among groups of people. Not only will study in linguistics be beneficial to the researchers themselves, when put to use, the knowledge garnered may bridge the gap between different cultures and age groups, and foster a stronger sense of identity.

As a first world country, Singaporeans deserve to be able to freely express their creative sides. With further research into literature and linguistics, we will be able to have a firm grasp on our roots and identity while being able to project ourselves for further development through understanding social dynamics, principles and challenges to the norm.

Farahna Alam