I live in Edinburgh, in Scotland and the closest we ever got to a foreigner (a person with darker skin) was in magazines or at the cinema – a novelty to all. When I was six, sort of early 1970’s, I had never seen a Pakistan, Indian, African or Asian person close up and lived happily with the knowledge that the world was “white” along every latitude and up every longitude.
On this fine day when my mum told me to open the door for the coal man I did not expect to see the blackened, large and looming face that greeted me on the other side. Screaming in terror I slammed the door in his face and turned into the trouser legs of my mother, who had come to see what the fuss was all about!
The confused coal-man, starting to perspire under the weight of the sack, managed to take out his handkerchief and wipe some of the black soot from his craggy features – thus cleaning his face and proving to the world that he was after-all “white” underneath and not so strange at all.
This Island State of 4.4 million souls and more is a multicultural and harmonic showcase of different races, cultures and societies living together under one umbrella. The mere idea of anyone being shocked at seeing skin of a different colour is laughable, and has been since Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819. From the founding of Singapore and until today skins of all colours have intermingled to produce a society that is jealously viewed by many other nations.
Antagonism and hatred, ill-feeling and jealousy are rife in any society, and Singapore does not escape its fare share. The trouble caused by racism, class distinction or between religious opposites is though on a small scale and small enough as to be non-existent. Indian taxi-drivers complain about the Chinese ones, a Peking duck stall fights for space between an Ikan Biris with Otis stand and a Roti Prata seller. A Malay apartment owner may see red about the curry smells and the number of Indians living next door and the Chinese may be the source of complaints for all due to the noise they make all day and very day.
These are just complaints of life and are no different than are found in any other city of the world where one neighbour hates the next. This is life and is not part of any problem that Singapore may have.
Singapore has built itself on multi-racial tolerance and promotes itself on this level. Various areas do seem to be groupings of one culture: least of all those with names like Little India or China Town, but this only adds to the appeal of the place and it is normal to see Indians in Chinatown or the Chinese in little India. Other areas of cultural separation are the Golden Mile (a Thai haven with many Chinese Grocery Shops and Indian eateries) or Holland Village which has become an upper class retreat for Expatriate workers – with a Housing Development Board (HDB) estate just around the corner.
Crimes of passion between similar races and cultures score far higher on national crime lists than do racial, class or religious hatred. Lovers attacking girlfriends, jealous wives attacking the affairs of wayward husbands and madman attacking families seem to make for endless reading in the newspapers. Other crimes of note that seem to be oft and ever present are the usual thefts and invasions of property, the forgery and copyright violations and the drink driving and larceny cases.
News items that have headlines of racial discrimination are far and few between. It is very hard if not impossible to see news about a group of Chinese throwing stones at some poor Indian shopkeepers premises. It is difficult to imagine any “white” schoolchild bullying a Malay peer simply because of the colour difference and it’s equally as hard to picture a gang of Thai workers marching down the street to battle an equally aggressive gang of Indonesian builders with knives and homemade clubs.
Many people have commented on the fact that this harmony may not be a result of acceptance and tolerance of those different, but from the rules and dictatorship style of governance that controls all of Singapore and those within its borders. In other words, if racial hatred overflows into a violent act then the punishment delivered is harsh and merciless – enough to prevent these occurrences happening in the first place. The harsh justice system may indeed be enough to prevent such occurrences arising: but the question must then be asked “why does it not have any effect on other crimes that occur?” The penalties for any crime are high yet drugs are smuggled in, robberies and attacks happen amongst those of similar race and one Chinese business man will swindle another, regardless of the penalties imposed if caught. So the idea of the justice system being a damper on any showings of racial hatred or discrimination can be swept under the carpet.
In essence, Singapore today is a wealthy country, one that has been through a recession and now looks to a rosy and glowing future. The health care system is one of the best in the world, the public transport system is cheap and extensive and the prospects for each individual are broadening daily. Entertainments and arts, sports and facilities are many: wages and jobs are growing daily and travel and is becoming a pastime for most. In simple terms the average Singaporean has a good life in a clean and safe society.
Singapore advertises itself on its multiculturalism. Hawker centres are not visited because of the variety of Chinese food available. They are visited and become popular because of the broad variety of foods available from India, Thailand and Malaysia to Vietnam, Europe and Indonesia. Shopping malls selling tourist items win out with a variety of products from all corners of the globe and this is what tourists want – the variety, the choice and ability to wander around the world without stepping foot outside.
The average Singaporean knows this. Knows that Singapore relies on its multiculturalism as the main attraction and thus they accept harmony without question. To have racial hatred or violence would upset the very moral fabric that Sir Raffles built Singapore on and would demolish its status and thus the livelihoods of every Singaporean on the Island.
Tolerance has been the taught method for decades and it is with this in mind that Singapore has become the first-world and ultra-rich nation that it is. When one Hindu temple can lie peacefully next door to a Chinese one and opposite a Catholic Church then all must be well in life and the issue of “difference” must not be an issue.
I was walking through Bugis Junction the other day, sort of lost in thought on what item to buy next, when I heard this loud crashing and banging around me. The mall is sort of made up of a hotel, a department store, a cinema and a mall, and all surround this tiny little courtyard that boasts a couple of coffee shops, a fountain and a ray of sunlight that manages to get through for about fifty minutes of every day. I was just entering this courtyard when the banging and wailing started up and turned to see this Chinese band performing on the stage. From Mainland China they were displaying some local instruments that they used, but unfortunately the sound system installed seemed to be trying to compete with the gentler sounds of their reed instruments – the result did not sound good.
The fountain has always been an attraction for most. It sort of shoots water out from six or eight different places and in different rhythms. Kids love to jump around and get totally wet and adults like to surreptitiously play with the jets whilst trying not to be seen doing so. On this fine day a group of six Indian children from about two to twelve years old were in the thick of it: not just as a passing play item but as a fully-fledged sports activity that they had come prepared for. I watched them play for a while and then watched them finish the game and return to papa and mama who brought out the towels and change of clothes for them to fit into.
So there I was with this large and noisy band on the stage and this Indian family in the fountain and I had spent the whole time watching the fountain. I looked around and saw that all of the other passersby and shoppers had been doing the same as I: the travelling musicians had received scant attention and the happy family had been the sole attraction. Chinese shoppers, Indian school girls, Malay cinema-goers and English coffee drinkers had all been happily rivetted to the antics in the fountain and it was at this point that I could honestly say that the idea of calling anybody in Singapore anything other than Singaporean was derogatory. There are no Chinese in Singapore. There are no Malays or Indonesians, Brits or Americans. No Indians or Thais or Filippinos. They are all Singaporeans: each one with their individual culture, mannerisms, religion and thoughts! All are Singaporean and proud to be so!
About The Author: Author and Webmaster of Seamania. As a Chief Engineer in the Merchant Navy Ieuan Dolby has sailed the world for fifteen years. Now living in Taiwan he writes about cultures across the globe and life as he sees it.
Photo: J Kirkebo