In light of the fetid episode in which Chinese Singaporean parents insisted that a tuition centre not let their child have an Indian tutor – after the child took out some body spray and sprayed it all over the classroom, complaining as he did that it was smelly because of said Indian teacher – I spoke to a couple of friends about their experiences with racism in what is seen as a racially harmonious society.
You may know my friend Umaglia Kancanangai Shyam Dhuleep. Better known as UK Shyam, he holds the national record of 10.37 secs for the men’s 100 metres sprint, which he set at the World University Games in Beijing in 2001. He equalled that record when he won the SEA Games silver medal in Kuala Lumpur the same year.
Yet the fastest man to be born and bred in this nation cannot run away from racism.
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“Many years ago, I was in a bookshop and browsing through a book when this Chinese guy bumped into me,” says Shyam, 41. “I looked at him, but he did not apologise.”
So Shyam shook his head and stuck his nose back in the book, but the man wouldn’t let it go.
“He asked me if I wasn’t happy, so I told him he was really rude – bumping into me and not apologising.”
The man’s response was astounding.
“He said to me, ‘You Indians have the audacity to talk so big when you live in our country.’
“He said I should be grateful. I was stunned,” says Shyam, who was about to complete his national service at that time.
“He then said he wanted to teach me a lesson, and went on to berate me, saying that Indians know only how to talk, but can’t study. I told him I was from Raffles Junior College and that I was about to go to the National University of Singapore once I was done with national service,” says Shyam, who holds a double degree in Philosophy and Political Science.
“He went on to say that I pray to Shiva – I’m Catholic, but what he said was irrelevant anyway,” adds Shyam. “And he was well-spoken – an educated guy.”
Not so, perhaps, the parents of children living in the block of HDB flats where he grew up.
“The small kids in the block would call me apoo neh neh (a derogatory term used to describe Indians), but they probably learned that from their uneducated parents. As a youngster, I laughed it off,” says Shyam, who is a teacher at a junior college.
While Shyam feels that Singaporeans are generally not outspoken and keep their racist attitudes to themselves, he gets a lot of it while shopping.
“If you go to a fancy shop, the staff will size you up and would either be rude or ignore you,” says Shyam. “Whereas if an ang moh stepped in, they’d be very nice. They look at me and probably think, thambi (little brother), probably can’t afford to buy anything, so bo chap (Hokkien for ignore), lah!” he says, laughing.
It used to frustrate and annoy him. But he has become used to it and has since learned it is better to laugh it off than try to reason with racists or even call them out for racism.
“I sometimes think it is a lost cause – to try and change people’s racist attitudes. Unless they can empathise or have experienced racism themselves, it’s difficult to rationalise with them because it is so deep rooted,” he says. “It is by no means easy to re-examine our biases and assumptions about race – it is tedious and requires self-reflection, and for those who make up the majority race with their privileges, they feel no compelling need to do that, which is why I’m skeptical that anything can really be done.
“Besides, when someone from the minority speaks against racism, it will be viewed as whining and won’t be taken seriously anyway.”
However, getting to know a person of a minority race could help one get over one’s own racist attitude, suggests Shyam.
“When I was younger, I had a Chinese girlfriend whose father gave her a very hard time for dating me. He said I’ll force her to eat curry and that if we had children, they would come out grey. He also said I would beat her up,” says Shyam.
“But once he met me, he became very nice to me,” he adds. “I think he behaved that way earlier because he hadn’t met me and didn’t know me yet. Sometimes, it is just about getting to know people and understanding that they’re actually not very different from you.”
Sivadorai Sellakannu is the other dark-skinned person I speak to. You may know him as the darker half of Jack and Rai, the talented acoustic guitar-playing duo who are arguably the most famous English-singing musicians in Singapore.
“Other than banter, which is usually in jest, I haven’t experienced very much in the way of racism. Well, as a kid, I did get people calling me apoo neh neh,” says Rai, laughing as he does so. “But they’re kids and they don’t know better,” adds the 39-year-old.
He says that racism, to him, would be the lack of models who are Indians. “There is a lack of acceptance of the minority race in that way. You don’t see Indian guys or Indian girls who are models in Singapore. Even if there are, they would be fair-skinned ones.”
But he has also come across people of the majority race calling him and others like him “smelly”.
“These are usually in an Indian setting, but what they are smelling are really the spices,” explains Rai. Indeed, these are simply scents that they are unfamiliar with, not filth or body odour, as calling someone “smelly” might suggest.
“So if they said that, it would have been done out of ignorance rather than antagonism,” says Rai.
Speaking of ignorance, this writer, who boasts a legion of Indian friends, had no idea UK Shyam wasn’t Indian.
“I’m Sinhalese,” he tells me when I ask him if he’s Indian. “It’s rather different, the language and the culture,” he explains. But he gets it that people think he’s Indian, and would probably laugh it off if someone called him ah poo neh neh today.
But it would probably break his heart to know that I could have been one of the kids who called him that, had we grown up at the same time and at the same place among the same neighbourhood urchins. And I did think Indians were smelly.
Yes, I was young and stupid once. But I grew up. And along the way, though, I got a chance to mix with many people of minority races. I’m grateful to my parents for letting me hang out with them. They did not teach me to accept my Indian friends. Instead, they taught me to appreciate how beautifully different our Indian friends were.
“No, Muthu is not smelly – he just smells different because of the oils he uses and I’m sure you smell funny to him, too.
“You must brush your teeth so they’re as white as Selva’s. I’m sure he brushes them every morning and night.
“We’re visiting Uncle Bala today. You can play with his children, they’re about your age.”
Yes, there weren’t any lengthy sociopolitical lectures; just a gentle nudge in the right direction. I grew up looking at them not as strange coloured people who smelled funny but human beings like me.
So if you’re a Chinese parent who would go to a tuition centre asking for a change of tutor because your child thinks his Indian tutor is smelly, you’re very sadly denying your child a valuable lesson in human relations.
And you really should grow up. For it’s high time we all, as a race, did.