Tuesday, December 23, 2008

PSLE results: One of the few times we can talk about race in Singapore

Every time the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) results are out, there is the customary celebration of ethnic achievements.

The top ethnic Chinese (according to your identity card, birth certificate and the prescribed ‘race’ of your father) pupil will generally be “the top student”. Of course, the overly racially-sensitive and sensitised establishment will also want to feature the “top Malay/Indian/Other students” too.

I might be wrong, but last year’s top student is ethnic Malay. Interestingly, I have seen and heard little mention about “the top Chinese student”.

Have we become slaves of our national history and politics?

The education system, as in most countries, is a creation of the culturally and politically dominant ‘race’, a promotion and glorification of (in this case) English-speaking ethnic Chinese middle-class values. This is further entrenched by the fact that ethnic Chinese form the numerical majority in Singapore. So it should be no surprise that a Chinese student (who more importantly identifies with the values of the system) excels in such a system.

A side point, I think we are not “ethnic” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others, but “categorical” Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others.

The stellar performance of a categorical Chinese student in a Singaporean school would win her (mainly female any way) the accolade (and media tribute) of “best/top student”.

The excellent results of categorical Malay or Indian or Eurasian students would win them not only “best/top [insert categorical race] student” but the typical otherising that most minorities receive.

We have “top student”, “top Malay student”, “top Indian student” and “top Eurasian student” in every year when we have a categorical Chinese as a top PSLE performer. The insertion of racial adjectives is an example of who the minority status of the student is played up; how the student is made an “other” because of how his/her “race” is being prescribed to him/her.

It is definitely well-meaning, given our historical condition. But if we were to make such segregations and distinctions along the lines of categorical race, why not class or religion (or if you’re cynical enough, sexual identity, but religion for a 12 year old would be a stretch)?

Can we not have a top student from a combined household income of more than $10,000? Why not have a chart of PSLE distinctions and socio-economic status?

I think that the categorical Chinese Singaporeans idea of Chinese-ness or Chinese Singaporean-ness is growingly diluted and dispersed. So where is the value or what is the point in talking about Chinese achievements when we all have different ideas of what constitute Chinese-ness?

The notion of race precedes that of nationhood and nationalist identity. Here we are today waving our racial/ethnic banners at one another. Of course, we are not waving them ourselves, but we have the culturally-sensitive press to do it for us.

A racial riot will always follow the aggressive playing-up of racial differences. Here, in the Straits Times for example, we also see the same kinds of distinctions being made, albeit more subtle and politically correct. The newspaper is not to blame as it is still answerable to the establishment, the very same authority that gave us our categorical identities.

The well-intended mentions of minority achievements still condemn minorities to a status of an “other”. We talk about having a Singapore that is together and integrated, but here we are, unknowingly or not, sowing the seeds of polarisation and fragmentation along the lines of institutionalised difference-ing.

That’s right, there are some kinds of differences that are recognised by the institutions/establishment, while others are ignored. Our differences are calibrated by those who seek to gain the most from this categorising. If the process of categorising was made by the people themselves, we will have a different style of governance and perhaps a different government (not many Singaporeans can imagine that, myself included).

Race, or categorical race, will always be an issue because the people that matter, the people who can influence policy, still consider it to be what it is. From young, we are fed the “essence” of our categorical race, so that upon institutionalisation, we continue this cycle of cultural hegemony.

I have one burning question, where do we go from here? So what if all of us knew about this “problem”? Will it serve us better to have a non-racialised Singapore? After all, we welcome foreigners/‘farangs’ (and gladly defend them using our local boys). Also, the category of CMIO and in this case, academic achievements along the lines of categorical race, will appear to be less relevant in years to come, given we are becoming more culturally diverse (or mixed/diluted/withered).


Agagooga said...

We can always talk about Race in Singapore - as long as it's along Sanctiond lines.

I am inclined to view the racial categorisation of PSLE results more charitably: categories for other races are created to make them feel better, since it is the exception rather than the rule for a non-Chinese to be the top student (purely on statistical grounds that would be the tendency since we outnumber other races 3:1).

If there weren't such categories, people would complain too. Truly, damned if you and damned if you don't.

The claim that those who identify with the system do the best might sound plausible - until you remember that in places like the US, it is Asians who top the system. Do they identify with the creation of the culturally and politically dominant race even more than the whites themselves? Surely not.

I do agree that we need to look at performance in more than racial terms, but the MIW are more afraid of class politics (given our Latin American levels of inequality) than racial politics.

As a side point, you might as well say we are not "religiously" Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu but categorically so. I realise that a lot of the arguments about how race supposedly does not exist can be applied to religion (in some ways even more so).

Sam Ho said...

well, for racial identification, it's pretty early (given there generally are physical traits that are associated with categorical race).

as for religious identification/affiliation, it comes later, and is independent of your physical trait, unless your cultural background is intertwined with religion.

i think you can't control or outlaw anything you can't categorise.