The Imaginary West (i.e. Cultural Appropriation Is Not Just a White People Sin)

I just saw a post on Facebook about a little white girl in a kimono who faced heavy criticism for hosting a Japanese-themed tea party. I don’t know for sure if it’s a global trend because I don’t have clairvoyant vision of every monitor on earth, but Buzzfeed’s #woke posts and Xiaxue’s recent tirade against “libtards” seem to be indications that the topic of cultural appropriation is picking up speed among the internet savvy.

This post is going to be about said cultural appropriation. I know, the horse has already been beaten to death, but today I’m going to bring another horse out of the stable to beat. No one else knew there was another horse in there (and incidentally, no one could have expected such a long-winded and poorly constructed analogy right at the beginning of a blog post either.)

Okay enough with the beatings and the misplaced equestrian references. Here is my point.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a sin exclusive to the hegemonic West because other cultural spheres have appropriated and misrepresented Western imagery in their own capacities, contributing to the growing cloud of an imaginary West. I’m not familiar with the political or social landscape of South America or Africa and so I have to, regrettably, leave them out of the equation for now. But I am very familiar with Asia, being an Asian myself, and I know this hypothesis isn’t entirely bonkers.

Let me break it down for you:

Cultural appropriation tends to happen when a powerful cultural entity dwarves a less powerful entity. What is power? Power can be drawn from various extensions of influence. For example, an entity is more powerful if its language is more pervasive, its philosophies are believed by the majority, it has greater stores of financial and natural resources, etc. As of right now, academia and journalism are still pre-occupied with investigating and revealing the ramifications of Western colonialism (rightfully so, because these things do need to be discussed if we want to move on from such horrors in a civil manner). But this also means that nobody is freed up to write about cultural appropriation from a different point on the globe. Ironically, the conceptualisation of Western cultural appropriation took place on the sacred grounds of Western academic writing. It was almost as if individual white people (shout out to Linda Nochlin) were atoning for years of European pillaging and plundering. Sociological terms were developed and set against the West, and so it continued.

largerJean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake-charmer, (1870). Cropped image of it appeared as the cover for the Edward Said’s seminal piece on Orientalism. Now the incriminating poster for Western pillaging in the Near East.

This drew our attention away from the fact that Asia is amassing power in the present. To begin with, thanks to India and China, there are more Asians on earth than any other race. According to this infographic, the Chinese family of languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) is more widely spoken than any other language. Seven out of ten of the top spots on the Pisa education ranking went to Asian states (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and three Chinese states). China and Japan clinch the second and third spot on the global GDP ranking. Somehow, against the backdrop of WWII and recent political strife, Asia is prospering. There exists a world that’s entirely written in Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc., and in that world, the soil is fertile for cultural appropriation of the West.

I’m not suggesting that things in the East neatly mirror the happenings in the West. This is not an essay about equivalence, nor is it a manifesto to instigate the Asian takeover of the world. Memories of a colonial past/Western superiority still exist in the psyche of Asia. The cultural appropriation of Western imagery in Asia doesn’t ignore or counter those memories. Instead, it processes and transforms conceptions of Western superiority to suit the needs/benefit of Asia, and this process could be damaging to the West.

How does it suit the needs of Asia?

Cultural appropriation goes hand in hand with consumerism, because perceptions of certain cultures spread primarily through consumer products. Consumer products are available even to the lowest common denominators in society. You don’t need an education or a noble upbringing to have access to advertisements and plain ol’ everyday objects. Everyone is a viewer because images are everywhere thanks to consumerism. Asian companies benefit when their branding espouses Western ideals and transforms them to appeal to consumers. This influences Asian perceptions of the West. From here on I’m going to use the specific example of the image of Marie Antoinette and its re-imagination in Japan’s romanticised/glamourised France.

swjKpEFan wallpaper of the 1972–1973 The Rose of Versailles manga series

The Rose of Versailles (or Berusaiyu no Bara) was a popular manga series that started its run in 1972. To the best of my knowledge, the series’ narrative didn’t really rose tint Antoinette’s fate. She ended up guillotined all the same, no head and all. The aesthetic legacy that this manga left behind, however, is arguably more influential towards contemporary perceptions of France.

To the uninitiated, Marie Antoinette was an icon of French excess in the years leading up to the French Revolution. She married into the French monarchy when she was 15, was portrayed in elaborate Rococo paintings in flowing satin and lace, and is most remembered for telling commoners to “eat cake” when the economy was crashing and the commoners were starving. For the record, I don’t think she actually said the cake line, but it is a useful distillation of what she represented to the French public. Wealth, a detachment from the common folk, ignorance, idleness. It’s an ugly facet of French history, and a story that inspires present-day French nationalism.

Today, her portraits are historical documentations of the monarchy’s lavish spending. Rococo paintings are seen as kitschy ghosts of the pre-Revolution past and seem only to be celebrated in cutesy “French-themed” cafes.

vlbmarose3Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, (1783). She won’t be smiling like this any longer. A bit hard to smile without a head.

In The Rose of Versailles, Antoinette’s bouffant hair and equally bouffant bows were resurrected to convey glamour. The new manga Antoinette is adorable, pretty, unabashedly elaborate, romantic and pink. She now sports curly blonde hair instead of the historically accurate powdered white wig. This image of a romantic and rose-scented France pervades East Asian advertising, especially for products marketed toward women.

The manga image of Antoinette lives on in the branding of Isehan’s Heroine Make line of cosmetics. Antoinette’s historical significance is left completely out the picture and she appears as a dismembered aesthetic, a figure that only serves superficial decorative purpose. She has the same 1700s court attire on, but decked out in pink, and it looks like she has gotten a white kitty cat with luscious eyelashes. Note that there is no mention of where this image came from. If we take The Rose of Versailles‘ portrayal to be an intermediary, then the Heroine Make advertisement is the finished product.

10294968_510138862465204_2952821205769443809_oAn advertisement for an Isehan Heroine Make gift set of eye makeup. I don’t know what year this is from but I bought mascara from this brand a few days ago and the packaging looks pretty similar.
laduree-makeup-lm-harajuku-store-blushA delectable assortment of makeup products from Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Took this pic from Universal Doll.

Such a transmutation of pre-Revolution French imagery isn’t isolated to manga and Heroine Make cosmetics. It persists insidiously in other companies as well. It’s a pretty widespread phenomenon all over East and Southeast Asia. The above image shows a collection of cosmetics from the brand Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Ladurée is itself a macaron brand that originates in France, but these Merveilleuses are a sister brand that only markets itself in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It profits from the appeal of the fictional romantic France.

The Antoinette Café in Singapore adopts the same imagery for its branding. According to its website:

Antoinette invites you to share our joie de vivre in our beautiful surroundings reminiscent of an elegant boudoir with an excess of meticulously crafted cakes, pastries and fine food as the Queen descends on Singapore’s shores. Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France who was so often revered for her extravagance and fine taste opens her humble abode and presents a tantalizing treat for the senses both savoury and sweet.

This quintessential Parisian pâtisserie and salon de thé will set the benchmark for the pastry and dessert scene not only in Singapore, but also in the region with her takes on time-honoured French classic desserts. While our restaurant promises a savoury celebration of Chef Pang’s culinary prowess with an excellent selection of classical regional French fare.

Incontestably, L’élégance â la Française at it’s best!

Doesn’t this sound like cultural appropriation to you? It sells the Antoinette lifestyle to an Asian audience. Pink, powdered, perfect.

How on earth could this be detrimental to the West? Doesn’t this reinforce Wester superiority?

Well, a fantasy is a fantasy. It does encourage tourism from East and Southeast Asia. I don’t think Paris would be as popular a tourist destination if we didn’t believe in its supposed inherent romance (their public transport is really shitty and there’s dog poo everywhere). But at the same time, it erases actual struggles in France from the East and Southeast Asian consciousness. When we think France is beautiful and scattered with rose petals, we don’t hear about the centuries old racism against Romani people, we don’t hear that France also has a large black and Arab population, we don’t hear that the current unemployment rate rests at 9.5%, and we don’t care about the Syrian refugee crisis hitting Europe. An airbrushed, culturally appropriative image of Antoinette might indirectly benefit the upper echelons of French society (especially if they are young blonde women with a penchant for pink bows), but it directs our attention away from the real problems. What happens when an excitable Chinese tourist goes to Paris and sees a homeless family? Are they stains on her perfect holiday? France is a complex country. A homeless beggar in Paris is as French as the quaint little cafe next door.

So? Now what?

I’m not proposing that we persecute everyone equally and that we impose some sort of tariff on cultural exchange. It’s inevitable that ideas mix and meld together to produce a new melange of values. That’s how cultures evolve in the first place, and that’s how populations communicate across borders.

What I do propose, however, is that we read a little more, ask a few more questions, and try our best to glean a more accurate picture of any culture we are considering. Humanity is complex and nothing is as simple as an image.

Why Terrorists Can Only Be Muslim

isis

The shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse occurred on June 2, and between that time and now, a series of terror attacks have erupted across Central Asia—there was a suicide bombing in Medina near the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, three other bombings in Qatif and Jeddah, yet another suicide bombing on June 28 at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, a bombing with a skyrocketing death toll in Baghdad on July 3, and finally, there was a siege on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka last Friday. These nightmares have now been placidly reduced to “events”, and we’ve come to a point where they read more like the droning of the world’s engine—brown people just bomb things, that’s just how the world works. News of bombings trickle into our Facebook feeds and Twitter streams, we go through the internet’s profile picture phase of mourning, and then we move on with our lives.

It’s no coincidence that these attacks struck right when families were preparing for Eid al-Fitr (the day which marks the end of Ramadan fasting, and for my Chinese friends yes, it’s the same as Aidilfitri). One source (which escapes my mind right now, fill me in if you know) wrote that the day before the attack in Baghdad was “full of life” but that now the “smell of death” rips through the air. Terrorists, so aptly named, know exactly when to strike to hurt the Muslim community where it hurts the most. They are also experts at creating rifts in cosmopolitan societies with middle-eastern diasporas, and sending ripples of those threats worldwide.

Terrorism is, intrinsically, a Muslim problem. Only Muslims can be terrorists, much in the same way that only women can be sluts, only non-whites can be immigrants, and only black people can be thugs. Before you chug a beer and applaud me for shedding my “political correctness” and crossing over to the Conservative side, understand that I am not talking about how some people are genetically predisposed to being evil. Not at all, because that’s a load of Mein Kampf horse baloney. I am talking about how we invent words to simplify complex problems and play into the hands of tyrants who want to disenfranchise entire groups of people.

I got this idea from my art history over-education—Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). Nochlin says that we don’t call women Great Artists because women are entering a system that’s already rigged against them. We don’t use the term “great artist” to impartially refer to great art-makers. The term has a certain look and feel to it. A “great artist” is necessarily someone who is a brooding white man and is simultaneously haunted by his own aesthetic genius and the ghosts of his past. A woman will never be a “great artist”.

Similarly, the term “terrorist” has a particular look and feel to it. The term was only popularised in 2001 when the then U.S. president George Bush declared the War on Terror. We don’t rationalise a term as sensational as “terrorist”; we have impressions of the term. When we think terrorists we think bombs, planes, white people dying, brown people wearing cloths on their heads, Arabic, Allah, and American Sniper. A trigger-happy white person can waltz into an elementary school with a semiautomatic rifle and execute children, but he’s never a terrorist, just a lone wolf. When we combine a term as vivid and divisive as “terrorist” with the rise of the internet, we get mass hysteria and a whole lot of islamophobia.

Okay so we get it, there’s irrational racism and xenophobia behind all this, as always. But why is terrorism a Muslim problem then?

It is a Muslim problem not because it’s a problem they caused, but because it’s a problem they suffer the most from. The whole situation is deliberately set up against Muslim and Middle-Eastern civilians. Muslims are the primary victims of terrorism. For the rest of this blog post I will refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as The Delusional, 1) because that’s what they are and 2) because to acknowledge them as representatives of Islam is to support their cause.

The Delusional are banking in on existing xenophobia in cosmopolitan cities in North America and Europe to turn everyone else against Muslim civilians, so that they are unprotected and unwelcome even in their own homes. When there’s enough islamophobia going around, there are two possibilities: 1) Muslim civilians become distraught and defenceless in a country that wants them to leave and thus become easier to oppress, 2) violent Muslim individuals feel compelled to act against that hatred and are ironically drawn to the very terrorist organisations which have caused the problem in the first place. As for the terror attacks in Muslim countries, non-Muslim countries are unwilling to get their hands tied up in the violence, because as of right now, the Middle-East looks like an Acme minefield and nobody wants to meddle with a Muslim problem. Brown countries just bomb each other all the time, that’s what they do. Meanwhile, The Delusional are getting Twitter mentions and Facebook posts which bolster their claim to the Islamic iron throne. We legitimise their Delusional organisation when we say they represent the fundamentals of Islam, and every time we do, they’re closer to becoming the Caliphate they set out to be. They hate the “West”, yes, but their main goal is to gain control over all Muslim people. The mechanism of the term “terrorist” works so flawlessly from so many directions, and in the most macabre way, this is a good example of what an effective brand name can do for a terrible cause. 

So yes, in this sickening roundabout way only Muslims can be terrorists and terrorists can only be Muslim, but it’s about time we break away from our islamophobia and stop making it so goddamn easy for The Delusional to become the face of Islam.

The Invisible People of Singapore: Racism Yet Again

It’s been quite a while since my last post on racism got passed around on Facebook. I wish I could say that my post made a huge difference in the world and we can all lock elbows and sing the kumbaya around the Merlion but who would have guessed, my one ramble didn’t dissolve structural racism. Who knew.

This week a Nancy Goh-esque figure tattled to the Straits Times in response to the new Indonesian policy on domestic workers. (Another Straits Times piece summarising the policy changes can be found here.) The changes are part of Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s effort to regulate and “professionalise” informal employment.


(This is Nancy Goh btw.)

Here are some of the changes:

  • Domestic workers should live separately from their employers in dormitories, and not in the employers’ homes.
  • They should work regular hours and be compensated for overtime work.
  • They should get rest days and public holidays off.

At this point you must be wondering

Hey I thought this was going to be about racism! Why suddenly talk about maid

Well, my friend, maids also happen to be humans, and they make up a significant proportion of the people currently living in Singapore, along with the men who literally lay the bricks for the foundation of our country. They don’t show up on surveys because we apparently don’t care enough to ask their opinion on anything. We impersonate them in comedy skits but we never hear their actual voices. Maids spend a large portion of their lives here, they raise your children, they cook the meals you come home to, they know the Singaporean neighbourhoods, they have favourite shirts and colours, they crack jokes and have hobbies and interests and friends and dreams and a personality. They’re people, and that should be reason enough for anybody to care. What I am incensed about, is that this statement will genuinely come as a surprise to many Singaporean employers.

Here is the Nancy Goh (real name Francis Cheng but I’m going to call this person Nancy Goh nonetheless) response:

“The Ministry of Manpower must consider the implications on employers of foreign domestic workers if Indonesia’s plan to introduce live-out maids becomes law (“Indonesia plans to stop sending new live-in maids abroad“; Wednesday, and “Live-out maids ‘will lead to more costs, issues’“; yesterday).

If maids live separately from their employers and work regular hours, with rest on public holidays and days off, and also get overtime entitlement, they should be covered under the Employment Act.

Employers should not be obliged to pay a security bond or sign a safety agreement because they won’t know and cannot control what the maids do when they leave the house after working hours.

The same argument holds for the purchase of medical and personal accident insurance, and the sending of maids for regular medical checks.

Would the monthly levy still apply and would employers have to bear the cost of sending the maid home?

If maids live elsewhere, the link between employers and maids is broken, without obligation.

If the maid works part time illegally elsewhere or compromises her safety and health after working hours, employers should not be penalised.

We must remember that live-in maids are required to not just take care of various household chores but also take care of children and the old and ailing. They are needed in case of emergencies.

A live-out maid will not serve the same purpose and may become a burden to employers with her other activities.

I have highlighted the parts I have a problem with. The letter started out by voicing reasonable concerns because it seems as if Nancy Goh wants to iron out some kinks in the local employment policies, such that they line up with Indonesia’s prerogative to regulate domestic work. But somewhere in the middle I got really uncomfortable and the ending sentence confirms my suspicions that this Nancy Goh person is whiny and just can’t stand a life without a servant at his/her beck and call. This doesn’t sound like a “since Indonesia is doing this let’s follow through to streamline our employment act” letter but more like a “boohoo where is my kitchen slave waahhh”.

 

In the first place, the usual working conditions are already unjust and maids are treated like they are subhuman.

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say a Singaporean Chinese girl called Hui Min is taking a gap year before she goes to uni. She wants to be a domestic worker for a year to earn money for her university fees. How would you treat this girl? Would you be angry if she went out on the weekends? What if she had access to her own passport and private smartphone? What if you saw her dating someone on her time off? Would you get all riled up and demand you get your money’s worth? NO RIGHT?

Because what she does in her personal life is her own daiji. If she gets pregnant and quits her job then it sucks for you because you expected her to work a full year, but even then you wouldn’t take it upon yourself to police what she does in her free time with her own body. It’s just not your place as an employer. It’s common sense, it’s keeping out of someone’s private business. It’s one of those things where it sucks to be you, the employer, but very clearly you still shouldn’t do anything preposterous or feel entitled to control your employee. Imagine if your own boss got angry at you for having a significant other. “Dammit, you have a fiancé?! Now how are you going to do your excel sheets! I’m paying you good money for this! I will send you back to Serangoon!”

Working conditions were bad to begin with, and Indonesia is now rectifying the problem. It’s not like they had decent arrangements and now Joko Widodo wants to provide every maid with a lounge chair and a servant to fan them with peacock feathers. It’s that they were treated like cattle, and now they will be treated like regular workers.

 

We don’t care about domestic workers or Bangladeshi construction workers because they’re not “Singaporean”.

They’re not only seen as outsiders, but they’re always seen as lowly maids and “bangalahs” and nothing else. In our minds they don’t exist outside of mopping floors and carrying planks. They could be laying in the grass enjoying an al fresco meal but we’ll see them as unruly sexual predators who are a danger to every (Singaporean, mostly Chinese) woman in the vicinity. They could be having a day out with their friends at the mall but we see a stretch of cheap maids and loose women outside Lucky Plaza. It’s the “bangalahs” doing their “bangalah” things and the maids doing their maid things. Everything they do is somehow lower, somehow a bigger disruption in our sterile streets. They do literal back-breaking work and this is the thanks they get? They get shooed out of stores and glared at in public, that is, if they’re lucky enough for their employers to let them have weekends off. (Apparently some poetic geniuses interpret the Sunday rest day rule as letting their maid stay at home without doing strenuous chores.)

No, I don’t think they are any more unruly than we are, and I don’t think our xenophobia is justified. Our country seems to have the propensity of creating parang-wielding ah bengs, and there’s probably one terrorizing your neighbourhood basketball court right now. Also, just recently some crazy Japanese dude slapped three police officers, but we don’t think of Japanese people as hooligans. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant citizens or whatever, only that now it seems like migrant workers are guilty until proven innocent. We already think lowly of them, even if they’re just sitting in the grass.

 

You can’t treat other people like shit even if you are disadvantaged.

Even if you get the short end of a stick in a deal and your expectations can no longer be met, you cannot compromise on treating someone decently. If I pay a handphone shop ah beng to change my handphone screen protector and he does a shoddy job, I can complain to my friends, and never return to the shop ever again. What I cannot do is hit him on the head until he replaces it again. Ok that’s a bad analogy.

Ok how about if someone is a private tutor, and in a world tailored for you and your son, you would like the tutor to be at your house 24/7 to answer questions. It’s inconvenient for you to not have access to his services around the clock, because your son does homework throughout the day and he might have a lot of questions. But so? If the service is unavailable, it’s unavailable. Don’t exploit people just because it will disadvantage you otherwise. It’ll be good if doctors could stay in your house to care for the elderly in your home, but if you can’t afford this service, and you can’t provide the doctor with comfortable living conditions, then you are not entitled to this treatment. The doctor has his own family or personal interests, he would like time away from work. It’s the same with other people, like domestic workers.

 

“The rich can exploit the poor, because beggars can’t be choosers.”

You might not think yourself particularly wealthy. But if you’re middle-income in Singapore, you’re pretty much a rich ass in most parts of the world. You own a computer, you’re educated, you sleep on a bed at night and you have clean running water. The way society runs in Singapore, is that we get to keep our lifestyles going because we have poorer people from other countries to do the dirty work. The reason why there’s probably no real life Hui Min to do domestic work, is because no Singaporean in their right mind would go into this knowing the conditions. It’s just not worth the money. But for some people, they really need the cash, and we milk as much out of them as possible by seeing how low they can go, and how far they can bend over. If you think you can make people do whatever you want just because you have the money they desperately need, then you’re a bully.

Wake up, and stop treating your maids like they’re your property.

 

 

About Being Racist and Being Human

There has been a lot of dialogue recently about the many shades of racism in Singapore. I’d like to think that Munah and Hirzi started the ball rolling because it makes for an almost romantic story arc – comedic duo launches an incendiary music video parody and trail blazes a discussion on race, but unfortunately the rational part of me (which is like probably 2% of me) says that the voices have always been around. They just haven’t been given due attention, and maybe the public majority only entertains uncomfortable issues on race when the issues are, well, entertaining.

We don’t like to talk about race because it’s immediately personal and accusatory. We all have a race, and by extension we all are implicated in the downward-spiraling privilege bingo game. There’s Chinese privilege and white privilege and able-bodied privilege and male privilege and cis-gendered privilege and straight privilege and privilege privilege, and before you know it, you’ve won some lousy travel Scrabble set you never asked for. This is a shit game nobody wants to play. That’s the thing:

Nobody thinks of themselves as racist. Nobody thinks they are an asshole.

How could I possibly be racist? How could I be privileged? My life has been so difficult.

Well, as always, the truth resists simplicity. Racism is more than a few off-colour remarks between two individuals, it’s not just hatred between people who happen to be of a different race. It’s most certainly not something inherent in the word “black”. It’s also not a card a minority can play when they get in trouble, neither is it a fun online debate that one engages in on the weekends. It’s an entrenched social problem, built on thousands of years of conflict, and for many people, it’s their lives.

 

Racism is systemic.

Let’s look at an example that’s close to home (Singapore). If you’re a Chinese person and someone from a minority race says you’re being racist, it would be tempting to conclude that all is fair in love, war and in racism, because everyone has equal footing to be nasty about skin colour. It’s an inconvenience and sometimes a necessary evil in a dog-eat-dog world. If someone points out that they’ve been mislabeled and degraded as a  dark-skinned Ah Neh their whole lives, you could point out that sometimes Indian people would say things about Chinese people being money-obsessed con men. Aiyah, life is like that one. Live with it lor. What to do. 

But we’re not just isolated individuals making mean comments from time to time – we all belong in a society and we are wired into the corresponding set of sociopolitical circumstances. Take for example the job market in Singapore. It is often a requirement for job-seekers to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese to apply for positions, and these range from menial positions to high-skilled professions. On the lower end, with an influx of Chinese nationals doing the lower-paying jobs that Singaporean Chinese people don’t want to do, it would be more productive for everyone in the team to speak Mandarin. It’s difficult for people to pick up functional English in a work environment, and it’s socially disorienting for the Chinese nationals to be placed in a foreign place and made to speak another language. On the higher end, the powers that be have prophesied that China would be an economic powerhouse, and businesses are scrambling to get a foot through the China door. We need Chinese speakers, grunts the middle-aged Senior whatever Director. He furrows his brows. All this isn’t too much of a deal to Singaporean Chinese people because we all pass the Mandarin-speaking requirements (or so we think, but that’s another issue for another day). But what happens to the people who don’t speak Mandarin?

I don’t know about you, but it’s incredibly difficult, and almost impossible to pick up a language if you don’t grow up around people who speak it, i.e. your family isn’t Chinese. And also, suspiciously and conveniently so, the burgeoning Indian economy doesn’t seem to have the same effect on Singaporean businesses. India follows closely behind China in terms of population size, and sometimes overtakes China as the fastest growing economy. Where is the mad scramble to learn Hindi and Tamil and other Indian languages? What about the neighbouring Malaysian and Indonesian markets? Wouldn’t Malay speakers be a huge untapped resource?

Perhaps (and by perhaps I mean I’m pretty damn sure), Singaporean Chinese people get to be comfortable in Singapore, and we’re not required to go out of our way to learn new languages, because we’re the majority. Simply put, a Malay person could hold a grudge against a Chinese person, but a Malay person’s grudge can only go so far. They will still have to bow their heads to the rules Chinese people set up in this country if they want to get by, but a Chinese person will never have to do that. There are so many doors open for us to leave if we feel racially alienated. If you’re a Chinese person reading this, when was the last time you had to learn Malay or Tamil to fit in?  

Maybe a minority gang of kids made fun of you in school, but chances are that the teacher was Chinese, most of your classmates are Chinese, the Discipline Master would be Chinese, the principal would be Chinese. You have people who will identify with you and support you everywhere you go. Here’s a personal story: A really quiet Indian girl joined my secondary school’s drama club and I couldn’t pronounce her name, and I gave her a nickname that she did not have a hand in choosing, and everyone just went with it because almost everyone else was Chinese too. There was nothing she could do or say about it, because in this racist society, the convenience of the majority outweighs the personhood of the minority. We were bratty Chinese children who got away with it because she couldn’t fight back. If she reported this, it would have been met with the usual “Aiyah life is like that what.”

We all have the capacity to be mean, but we’re not the same size. A minority person’s snarky comment can hurt a Chinese person’s feelings, but a Chinese person’s comment can effortlessly cost someone their job. Which brings me to the next point.

 

Cumulative Disadvantage

It seems trivial to be arguing about things like pronouncing someone’s name correctly or not having a wide enough range of BB creams for your skin tone. It’s something that a person should be able to stomach, right? Individually yes, but these things are not random mishaps. These things are events in a long chain of disturbances based on race, and compounded, these disturbances can have an adverse effect on someone’s life.

Let’s say a Malay kid starts out in life. The Malay kid goes through school hearing how she’s not supposed to be very smart, and that her people are lazy and unreasonable. The teacher doesn’t give her as much attention. She’s disheartened and she can’t concentrate very well, she slips a bit in her PSLE and ends up in a lower-ranking school. She’s interested in writing but there aren’t as many programmes for writing in Malay, so she doesn’t get very far with it. There’s only three other Malay kids in her class and those people become her friends because she doesn’t feel right with the Chinese people. They keep cracking jokes in Mandarin and she can’t understand them. She graduates from secondary school and goes to the prom but she feels out of place because everyone dresses differently, and she overhears someone making a comment about her headdress. Meanwhile her mum tries to find a job but the bakery won’t hire a Malay person. She needs a recommendation letter, but her teacher seems to like her Chinese classmates better – he laughs at their Mandarin jokes. She gets financial aid for her tertiary education but her classmates make comments about how it must be because her parents are lazy and have too many children. She goes online to shop for work clothes but the models are all Chinese girls and she doesn’t know if the clothes would look nice on a darker-skinned person. She has a crush on someone but he laughs, he won’t date a non-Chinese. She goes downstairs to order food but the lady at the counter insists on taking the order in Mandarin. She goes to work and her colleagues go for lunch and don’t invite her because they don’t want to go to a Halal place. Her boss doesn’t consider her for a promotion because she doesn’t seem to have a good rapport with the rest of the team, and besides, don’t Malays settle easily in lower-paying jobs? On and on.

It’s tiring, it’s everywhere. Everything is slower, everything is harder. A Chinese and Malay/Indian person could start out on the same foot but end up in very different places because Chinese people don’t have to jump through hoops to get by.

 

Visibility is power.

You might think that we’re not stupid enough to confuse reality with the images we see in advertising and on TV, but you’d be wrong. Humans are precisely that stupid. We started dreaming in colour only after colour was introduced to television in the 60s – it didn’t matter what our lives actually looked like, the TV scape took over to form what we thought of the world. What we see on billboards and posters are representations of ideals which are influenced by consumer decisions. It’s a cycle where the market responds to what people are buying and people respond by absorbing the images of perfection. Condominium ads, magazine covers, blogshop models etc constitute this phenomenon. When we see something, we want to buy it, and when we buy it, we support it. And what do we see?

(Apologies for the pixelated pictures, I didn’t care enough to find high-res shots.) These are the past covers for Her World in the last year or so. Bonus points for you folks if you google the covers for Female magazine. Her World Singapore only circulates in Singapore by the way, it’s not “international” or whatever.

Is it proportionate to the demographic spread in Singapore? Hardly. If it were there would be at least one Malay or Indian person. And I know for a fact that the fashion industry is very explicit about excluding certain races from modelling jobs. The casting calls state plainly and matter-of-factly that they only want Eurasian or Chinese models. Their prerogative is to craft a lifestyle for people to covet, and the Eurasian Chinese look is part of that lifestyle. We think lighter-skinned people are prettier, and the magazines put them on covers, and we think that we must be right because the magazine placement confirms it. It’s all arbitrary, but it has such debilitating effects on the real life individuals in our society.

I don’t think there’s a real objective standard to measuring beauty, especially on the grounds of race. If you want to go all Darwinian on me, people with darker skin and eyes (greater amounts of melanin) would do better in the sun. Logically, they should be viewed as healthier ergo more beautiful when we’re right smack on the equator. (So sorry boys, the survival-of-fittest theory doesn’t apply here, you’re going to have to admit that you just don’t like girls with darker skin, and you’ve been influenced by the media and the people around you to think that way.)

 

Empathy (and the Lack Thereof)

The title for this post is precocious, but I really think the issue needs to be somewhat addressed. It’s what makes the topic of racism so tricky, because it grips at problems like what it means to be human and to see humanness in another person.

Ok, so I’ve explained just a little about what racism is, and the question that remains is,

So?

Maybe any given set of people would abuse their power and exploit their position if they’re in the majority seat. This could happen with any combination of population numbers or historical incidents. We will never know because it’s something we can never test. And what’s the point of ruling a nation unless you can extract benefits from it for people like you right?

When a minority has something to say about racism, it’s hard to listen because we aren’t used to caring about something that doesn’t benefit us. There’s almost nothing in it for Chinese people to do something about the racism in Singapore, and maybe general society would be better off and general society includes Chinese people, but that’s just a maybe, and besides, I don’t think that should be our incentive. It’s selfish. We only want to intervene when we get something too. But that’s the thing isn’t it, the world is so huge. There are 7 billion people on this earth, and there are so many stories and lives that don’t involve you at all. You have to get used to the idea that not everything is about yourself or your experiences, and start genuinely caring about other people, because we’re all human. We all have childhoods and aspirations and memories. And we are all just trying to live. I don’t know, I just think it’s basic human decency to help someone out when they’re not doing so well.

So if you’re Singaporean Chinese, do us a favour and try to act against racism k? Maybe you can start by spelling your colleague’s name correctly, and it wouldn’t kill you to hire an Indian Gongcha cashier.