By Kai Teo
First of all, Buddha Mag would like to offer our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Sakthivel Kumaravelu, the man who was killed in the traffic accident that reportedly was the catalyst to the riot last Sunday night (The Straits Times).
We would also like to express our thanks, and praise, to the brave paramedics and officers who tended to the injured and helped to prevent others from getting hurt.
Different sources on the Internet have reported that the riot, the first in more than 40 years, was incited by the bus accident that resulted in the death of Mr Kumaravelu. The violence escalated quickly and eventually led to more than 30 injured and 27 arrested.
But let’s take a step back and look beyond the traffic accident, and look beyond the basic facts, the numbers. Let’s hold our horses, and not put our blame on any nationality, the government, or even alcohol.
And let us first ask why.
Why was there so much rage? Why was there so much pent-up frustration?
I was born and bred in Singapore, in a rather conservative 4th or 5th generation Chinese family, like many in the country. I’ve always felt privileged and grateful of the high standard of living, and how safe the streets are.
But as a kid, most of my friends hung out with friends from their own ethnicities and different groups seldom mixed.
When we had a Malay friend, we would always call him or her “The Malay Boy/Girl”. Or when kids misbehaved, parents would threaten them with stuff like “If you’re naughty, the Bengali would kidnap you.”
Today, most of my Chinese friends are married to other Chinese, and my Malay friends, to their Malay partners. Look up the friend list on your Facebook page, you’ll probably see that it’s quite true.
It seems that despite decades of living in close proximity to everyone from just about everywhere, our mindsets have never really been able to be truly "colour blind".
Perhaps it’s the idea that different ethnic groups have different cultures, family values and beliefs, and when it comes to getting a life partner, it might be easier to find someone who is already deeply rooted in your own culture. Or maybe it’s the thought that if Chinese New Year and Hari Raya fall on the same dates, there’ll be too little time to visit too many families. And no, that one interracial couple that you know is not quite enough to deny this observation.
And instead of referring to our construction workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as just “construction workers”, they’re usually all called “Banglas”.
Over the years, we’ve all seen how racist we can be towards these hardworking members of our workforce, who have left their families back home to seek a better life for them, and to build homes and roads for us. Instagram pictures titled “China worker digs nose on MRT” or “Bangla dances Bollywood on bus”, Facebook posts attributing an individual’s bad behaviour to his or her ethnic background, and loads of other xenophobic shit.
I’ve moved from Singapore to Sweden in 2012, and it’s fucking obvious that I’m not of Caucasian descent, and Chinese. Yes, I do stick out in the predominantly blond, super white skinned crowd.
And if I’d been subjected to the same kind of prejudices and racism as the migrant blue-collared workers in Singapore, I would probably have killed myself. Fortunately, in the rather hipster and hippie community that I’m most exposed to, overt racism is very much frowned upon, and rarely happens here, at least towards Asians.
Imagine having to live in a shabbily constructed bunk with 20 other men, working 12 hours a day in the sweltering heat, under a boss that pays you peanuts and scolds you for everything that you do. Your family is waiting for you to come home one day to provide them with a better livelihood. You miss out on a few crucial years of your beloved kid’s childhood. And you don’t even fucking get laid.
Every Sunday is your only off day, where you get to knock down a few beers with your buddies and talk about your big plans in life. You know, like, relax a little.
But the locals always give you dirty looks, you never really dare talk to them, they shun you and talk shit about you to their kids, and post shit about you on Facebook, openly. Sometimes, the elderly even go as far as to spit at you and curse at you under their breaths as you walk past.
How’s that for a lifestyle change?
I don’t condone violence. And I’m sad that the riot resulted in human injuries. But what really makes me weep and hang my head in shame, is the number of insensitive, racist, anti-immigrant comments that have been circulating in the online community.
It is wrong to injure another fellow human being, when it’s committed with intent other than self-defence, or the defence of another person’s life. It is also wrong to abuse someone emotionally or spread hate through the Internet, even if it’s just within your own circle.
But what really caused it? Did we really think that it’s part of the Indian culture to fucking flip cars and set them on fire whenever an accident occurs? Did we really want to dismiss it as a random act of drunken rage? Or more ridiculously, did some of us mistakenly call it an act of terrorism?
Are we going to punish, or deport those individuals involved, and then just forget all about it and move on with our lives, with an increased disdain for foreign workers?
Rather, let’s examine ourselves as human beings.
Have we, as Singaporeans, always treated them differently? Have we always looked upon them like outsiders who are here to fill the occupations that no Singaporean wants to have? Have we perceived them as less educated, hence less civilised, people? Have we ever said those words “Singapore for Singaporeans” and complained that it’s all these immigrants that are causing the overcrowding in the country?
Well, then maybe it’s a good time to reflect on our own behaviour.
For too long, we’ve been assholes to our foreign workers. I’ve seen many people who’ve had something to say about every ethnic group. We’ve given everyone shit, from PRC students to Ang Moh expats. We’ve never really looked past the colour. We’ve never really thought past the borders.
In this day and age, we’re slowly starting to see that we are indeed a global community. Many of us wish that we could live anywhere in the world without any barriers or restrictions.
Are we going back against this equality-for-all, no-border principle and building invisible walls to prevent others from seeking a better life in our land?
The earth doesn’t belong to human beings, the land shouldn’t belong to any government. Instead, we all belong to this blue and green globe we call Mother Earth. We’re not automatically entitled to anything, and our country’s resources don’t belong to us. So why are we being selfish?
Why are we making the distinction between Singaporeans or Indians or Malaysians or Europeans (sorry I just lumped all of you together, it’s not my intention, but it kinda helps get the point across)?
Yes, cultures should be preserved and respected, and no, having someone from another ethnic group as your neighbour, or your spouse, would not make you ‘lose’ your culture if you had actually given a shit of preserving it the first place.
I’m proud of the rich Chinese culture and all the good values of filial piety, respect and loyalty I was taught as a kid. But it doesn’t make me hate another culture that doesn’t believe in the same stuff as I do. In fact, I’ve never been so emotionally attached to the daily habit of eating rice until I moved to Sweden. But that doesn’t make me hate people who really don’t like rice.
Our forefathers migrated to Singapore and settled here. And because of that ethnic diversity, we get to sing Thai pop songs in a Chinese KTV pub while enjoying a Mee Rebus ordered from a nearby Indian stall.
We Singaporeans need to stop seeing ourselves as the more ‘civilised’ cousins of the rest of South Asia. Just because our country boasts of a world-leading education system doesn’t mean we’re more educated in the basic lessons of “How not to be an asshole and be a good human being.”
Today, as we grief for Mr Kumaravelu, let us also grief for the great human values of equality, respect and love that we’ve forgotten.
Since we’ve always talked about Singapore standing together as one, let us truly walk the talk, and stand as one strong race – the human race.