Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good News Malay!

I had a glance at the headlines on the Sunday Times today.

Well, it is not at the sensational headline of the murder of Singaporean-born porn star Felicia Tang, who has perhaps been erroneously tagged as a porn star, even though she has done a few topless shoots. But for Singaporeans, we go the easy route and conflate nudity into pornography. Hey, if you're George Lim Heng Chye, littering will probably be similar to the leprosy of desire that is masturbation and unethical medical practices. So let us just call it porn.

I had a glance at the headlines.

I saw the "good news" reporting of the Muslim community. Conflation. Conflation. Immediately, I thought about the Malay Muslim community in Singapore. Very natural. And I thought to myself, "OMG, yet another good news reporting for the appeasement of our ethnic minority friends."

As my brain processed the image of me palm-smacking my forehead. I realised, amidst the Hougang Taoist smoke lingering in the air, that it was Hari Raya Puasa!

Nevertheless, looking at the headline, I remember a conversation I had with a Malay bunkmate during my reservist training (I'm still in the middle of reservist training by the way).

I told him my impression of Malay politics in Singapore, or rather the PAP government's policy and attitude towards Singaporean Malays. Deep down inside, I had wanted to see to what extent is my view on Singaporean Malays blinkered and shallow (hey, at least I want to know more, right?).

I told him how I, as a non-Malay, rather than a Singaporean Chinese (I seldom think of myself as Chinese until I am reminded of my skin colour or when people speak to me in Mandarin or conjure up the Level 3 Sino Dragon Crusher on my skull), genuinely felt that, in point form:

1) Our government has a "don't piss off the Malays" policy/approach.
2) And as a result of that policy/approach, we get stuff (releases, policies, reports) where Singaporean Malays appear to come first.
3) And that is why I get the impression that the government, for the sake of wanting to stay in power, appears to treat Singaporean Malays better.
4) On a sidenote, I also mentioned that Singaporean Malays are the swing voters. And the PAP is smart enough to secure their vote.

My mate, a diploma holder, now pursuing a part-time degree while working for a regional business, agreed with my observation, but disagreed with my analysis. On the outside, we both saw the same thing. But he told me, "Your perspective is your perspective. You need to see it from our perspective."

And he gave me a lesson on subjectivity!

But first, I'd like to point out that I find it a little more difficult to address me and my "fellow Singaporean ethnic Chinese folks" as a collective, "our". I feel the Chinese community, or rather a collection of yellow-skinned folk, are too fragmented, along the faultlines of language and class.

Any how, he told me he feels that while he believes that there is a "don't piss off the Malays" approach to appeasement adopted by the government, the circumstance is somewhat different from my analysis.

He said that he feels that the government gives too much attention to the Chinese, and it has allowed systems in place that benefit the Chinese more, at the expense of Malays.

Therefore, in his opinion, he believes that the "don't piss off the Malays" approach to appeasement is to make the Malays less sad or angry.

I guess we will never know, unless we knew what is the percentage of Malay vote for the PAP every election. Of course, only the government knows. When they say "your vote is secret", it means that it is only secret to you, but that perhaps does not mean it is secret to others (in positions of power).

To sum up that point, my bunkmate and I agree with the statement that the PAP government has a "don't piss off the Malays" approach to appeasement". I'm repeating this so as to make the point clear any way.

But we are different in our analysis of the circumstance, based on our different positions:
Sam: The government gives special attention to the Malays.
Bunkmate: The government does not give enough attention to the Malays.

He told me more about job applications and stated how it really sucked that the bilingual requirement is a mere euphemism for English and Mandarin language proficiency. Of course, being a racial majority, it is too easy for my Chinese privilege to blind me to these things.

Any way, appeasement does not necessarily mean a minority group will be able to be "part of the team" or "play catch up with the majority". I was thinking, after what my bunkmate said, that there will always be culture-influenced infrastructure and institutions that will impede the integration of ethnic minorities.

When we speak of a multiculturalism and a pluralism, we might get different interpretations, impressions and reactions toward it, depending on our status as a majority or a minority. And when we look at it from a position we live in, or are comfortable with, we take certain things for granted.

For instance, my introspection and degree of reflexivity is somewhat limited, to the point I am (only) able to imagine how a Chinese elite politics of pluralism is merely a means to Chinese elite economic prosperity and continued political stranglehold.

The biggest irony in this Malay-Chinese exchange we had in the bunk was that we totally invisibilise the ethnic Indians! It's quite funny, to put it in a cynical way. When we debate Malay politics/policy in Singapore, we usually engage the Chinese (elite) and of course the Malay folks. We seldom if never invite ethnic Indian Singaporean discourse on Malay policy. Heck, for most Singaporean Chinese, Indian is Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Sikh, all Indian. Very sad. But then again, knowing all these has little influence on how we achieve Chinese elite economic prosperity and continued political stranglehold in Singapore, right?

I told my bunkmate that I, as a sandwich class (slightly below middle-class) ethnic Chinese Singaporean, feel left out by the government.

My bunkmate told me, that he as a Malay, and probably in the same income range as my household I believe, feels left out by the government.

Win already, right?

If both of us, as Chinese and Malay respectively, feel left out by the government, what on earth is happening?

It is very important to note that we do not at all represent our respective ethnic communities, as again they are different class and (to some extent) cultural divides within these communities.

I related to him about the time when I spoke to a Malay graduate colleague, who felt that the government should stop giving special attention to the Malays. That colleague provided the analogy "if you give $5 to a beggar, you make him a beggar", somewhere along the lines.

Then my bunkmate said, "Educated Malay, right?" We both laughed, probably aware of the stereotype-fed oxymoron he just spewed out.

He proceeded to explain that not all Malays are the same. And that some Malays really need help, like the poorer ones.

I challenged that point, saying "A poor Chinese is the same as a poor Malay, no?"

He disagreed, and explained something I can't recall. But I realise that a poor Malay and a poor Chinese may live in the same place, but the circumstances they face is different. They may share the lack of literacy in English, for instance, and thus speak their own language. But they live in an economic space dominated by Chinese culture and politics.

Even I, with my education and all, require some reminding of this cultural reality. The reason why I am sometimes unable to immediate think of this is because of the very fact that I live in my Chinese privilege, whether or not I consciously see myself as Chinese. It is a privilege I enjoy, unknowingly or not, for the colour of my skin, access to ethnic Chinese-releated cultural capital and resources and so on, resultant attitudes around me arising from these circumstances, that give me such perspectives, bundled with blinkers blocking out the possibilities for any critical amount of introspection.

I mean, it is like using two mirrors to see what is at the back of your head. We do not do it all the time. At the most, we are able to use one mirror and reflect on the things we see. But we forget about the things we do not see without two mirrors (triple negative, sial!)

I think my fascination with ethnic minority politics (or minority politics and representation in general) stems from several realities I experience as a majority in many aspects. I may qualify as a numerical majority in many instances, but I feel like a minority most of the time. At the same time, knowing more about the realities that minorities face will help me understand my position as a "majority" and the things I take for granted.

Knowing about the things you take for granted is not an end on its own, or for you to feel grateful, so that you can continue voting for the PAP (right?). But at least, when you are in the position to make decisions, influence another person or just develop relationships of any kind with others, you can create stronger bonds and minimise suffering for everyone on the whole.

Any how, I feel there is generally nothing taboo about race or religion so long as we want to find out more. Of course, having extra institutional affiliations, stemming from the institutionalisation (or tribification) of race and religion, gives people an extra reason to be offended. I mean, it's like having a flag, and an extra reason to die for (sorry, I just hate conscription and reservist, especially one that doesn't tolerate conscientious objection).

My bunkmate told me that he feels quite cynical about all these "good news" being featured about the Malay (and Muslim) community. He explained that there are so many Malays in trouble and in need, and they have to feature only the nice, good and happy stories.

Our conversation drifted to the representation of Malaysian politics (simply because my mind keeps drifting). I was telling him how I feel about the representation of Malaysian politics, saying that I observe in the past few years, the Straits Times have been presenting Malaysian politics as something that is vibrant and "very happening", in a very negative sense. I gave him my analysis, that I believe that the local press presents a shitty image of our neighbours just to make us Singaporeans feel lucky we have our PAP government and our PAP government-led stability.

I asked him how is it like in the local Malay papers. His impression is that the Malays papers do not portray Malaysian politics as too "vibrant", because a decent proportion of Singaporean Malays have relatives all across Malaysia, and it is a potentially sensitive thing.

It is really interesting. I am no expert at all in these affairs but I really enjoyed my conversation with my bunkmate. While his and my perspectives are only two of numerous positions on Singapore and Malay politics, I am probably reminded of the certain things I have taken for granted, more so than him.

Both of us were equally surprised at each other, when each of us claimed that we feel forgotten and that it was the ethnic other who got better attention from the government. Of course, to be more specific, while I agree that Chinese folks in general get more attention from the government (simply because they are a numerical majority), 1) there are certain segments of Chinese folks who get proportionately more attention than others, and 2) I still have the impression that Singaporean Malays get proportionately more attention than other ethnic communities.

Our exchange was never an angry one, nor did we feel angry at our positions. It was, for me, more like a "what to do?" position, a bordering-on-sad kind of a feeling, coupled with healthy doses of disempowering helplessness. You know, the kind of disempowering helplessness when you are part of SAF, doing your reservist, cannot get your deferment even though you are on a full-time graduate studies course and when you write to feedback to Teo Chee Hean, the perm sec thinks you still want to defer even though you just want to feedback, indicating that the government only reads what they want to see and not what you actually want to say, so fuck off.

Our exchange offered a sharing of perspectives, and although problems were identified, we didn't and couldn't think of the solutions. Nevertheless, I feel that we should have more of such conversations, at different levels, so that we can make better informed decisions to ensure that "no Singaporean is left behind" is not merely a Chinese elite rhetoric, as are the notions of multiculturalism, pluralism, prosperity, progress, racial harmony, etc. (like how "Asian values", "mainstream values" rhetoric should neither be spearheaded nor monopolised by the Christian right).

And of course, let us involve the ethnic Indian Singaporeans next time okay!

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