“For most of my life in Singapore, I had not thought of myself as a Chinese. I was simply a Singaporean.”
It must be nice not having your nationality doubted. Many minorities here are questioned (and always have been) when they say they are Singaporean. I was born here, as were my parents, yet I am constantly asked where I’m from, and asked for my FIN card rather than my I/C. I’d like to be considered “simply a Singaporean” as well, but I have to explain myself all the time. Sometimes I have to convince people that I belong here, and that’s pretty frustrating because I never had to do that in Australia and America, two countries where it seemed more likely that my identity would be questioned.
“My “Chinese-ness” was never an issue until I went to work in Europe, where I was often accosted by strange men making unsavoury propositions.”
I’m truly sorry that you were treated differently in Europe, and that you had to confront your “Chinese-ness” in such a hostile context. It sounds like this was your first experience of being a minority. See, in Singapore my “Indian-ness” has always been an issue! A taxi driver told me that I was lucky he picked me up because usually most drivers don’t like having Indian passengers. The bus uncle used a derogatory term for Indians on me every single day of primary school. A student that I taught in an elite Singapore institution commented that it’s a “known fact” that Indians are thieves. I’ve been restricted from applying for jobs writing for English publications that are bafflingly “Mandarin-speaking only” and I’ve seen apartment rental ads that exclude Indians. You got to return to Singapore where your “Chinese-ness” didn’t make you stand out because you’re part of the majority. It must be so comforting to be accepted without question in your home country.
“However, it is in Singapore that I find sales associates ignoring me or following me with glum faces, and then rushing to greet my English husband effusively when he entered the store.”
That really sucks. I hate it when sales associates ignore me in favor of people they prefer to serve. An Indian family friend who happens to understand Mandarin was in a make-up store recently when she overheard the salesgirls commenting that there was no point in serving her because Indians can’t afford high quality products. Again, this sounds like a relatively new experience for you since marrying an Englishman, but I can spend the whole day recounting such examples from my own experience – over three decades’ worth! Not to say that two wrongs make a right, but I do hope that you understand that this disturbing trend of racism is not new in Singapore just because you happened to be on the receiving end recently.
“Singaporeans of my generation embraced the vision of our founding fathers: a united people regardless of race, language or religion. When did this ideal change? How did we let it happen?”
Oh, Dr. Lee. I have no idea which generation you’re from but I can tell you that in my and my parents’ lifetimes, “regardless of race, language or religion” were words recited daily in a national pledge for 10 seconds during each morning school assembly and then conveniently ignored for the remainder of the day. You sound shocked and dismayed that race has become an issue in Singapore without realizing that it has always been an issue for minorities. If you’ve noticed more conversations about race lately, it’s because we have more platforms to talk about it now – social media has been very beneficial for the previously voiceless (You do know there are other outlets besides the Forum section? I remember when state-run media was the only space to air grievances in Singapore. Strangely, they never published any of my or my friends’ letters about issues like racial discrimination in the workplace or those TV screens on the public buses that only played Mandarin shows during peak hour). Unfortunately, it means that you and others who were accustomed to never having to think about race, have a lot of catching up to do.