Time to move on from racial identity
It is tough explaining what it means to be Singaporean. We are not really Chinese, Malay or Indian; most of us left the “motherland” a long time ago. So what does that make us?
The earliest classification of race began in the 17th century, used to categorise people of distinct language and national affiliations. That made sense when migration was new.
But the world has changed a lot since. In 2010, over 214 million people were living outside their country of origin. That’s 3 per cent of the world.
Singapore is essentially a country of first- and second-generation immigrants, and we are now trying establish the identity of a country that is only 48 years old.
Perhaps, we can learn something from the Mauritians. I have met many of them, who are distinctly Indian and Chinese by features and skin colour. But if you asked if they were Chinese or Indian, they would vehemently exclaim with pride that they are Mauritian. Race was trivial. Commonality in language (native Creole and English in their case) and way of life made all the difference.
In Singapore, we are made to speak two languages — one that embraces our nationality, and the other that attaches us to our pre-migrant “racial identity” of the past.
But it gets complicated when one “race” outnumbers the rest. The Chinese are the current racial majority, making their mother tongue the dominant second language. Being a Singaporean in the racial minority, I know first-hand that not knowing Mandarin puts you at a disadvantage. This has resulted in many Malay and Indian Singaporeans of my generation sending their children for Chinese-language classes in school.
The word “Indian” on my Singaporean identity card defines nothing. Racially speaking, I left India three generations ago. This umbilical cord of mother tongue was permanently cut when my parents, both second-generation Singaporeans who learnt Malay as a second language in the ’60s, decided to enrol me in Malay-language class in Primary 1.
But I am still part Indian. I have taken part in religious rites like Thaipusam, one of the few things I have done as a Hindu. I learnt a lot of it through my grandmother, whom I speak to every day.
I am also a little bit Chinese, thanks to food. My grandmother can converse in Hokkien and Cantonese, and makes good fried rice with lap cheong (sausage) which I loved eating as a child. I watch more subtitled Korean and Channel 8 Chinese dramas than most of my Chinese friends. I am also quite “pan tang” (superstitious) — I bought a luo han to pass my driving test.