Friday, 9 October 2009

Singapore: Time to Remove Race Tinted Glasses

Singapore's nation building process is less than 50 years old. As nations go, Singapore has come a long way since obtaining its independence in 1965.
The physical progress is visible to everyone. Roads, buildings and subways are part of the scenery.
Singapore has done well on the human front too. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranked Singapore at 23 out of 182 nations. Yet, some of the legacies of the 'Old Singapore' have not yet been exorcized.
Singapore is an avowedly meritocratic society. It is also a society extremely conscious of race.
The national identification card (NRIC) explicitly mentions race, right above date of birth. People think explicitly and subconsciously in terms of race. People are not merely Singaporeans but are instead Chinese, Malay, or Tamil Singaporeans.
Race is a complicated idea. While it normally refers only to physical aspects of individuals it is often associated with cultural characteristics as well.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines race as "a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock and [2] a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics."

The practice of Islam is generally diffused with cultural practices which predate the advent of the religion - clearly reflected in the architecture of mosques (Picture of Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta, Pakistan)

My NRIC states my race is Pakistani.
Pakistan is a nation but the people certainly don't belong to the same stock. Standing at the entry point to India from China and the West, every invader since Alexander the Great has been adding to Pakistan's gene pool for centuries.
Yes, Pakistanis can be said to be loosely unified by some shared traits, including religion, language and dress. Even there, the differences are often stark.
Consider how the role of women differs across the country's geography. In Punjab it is commonplace for women to till the fields alongside men whereas in the Northwest Frontier province rural women lead a Taliban like veiled existence.
As for language, it is estimated that only 4% of Pakistan's population spoke Urdu as their mother tongue at independence in 1947. Today, functional Urdu is spoken by almost all Pakistanis but few speak the formal, classical version of the language.
Be that as it may, my 'Pakistani' heritage is quite meaningless in Singapore. My concern is distinct from my own race.
It pertains to the 'Malay-Muslim' question.

Singapore's Sultan Masjid located on Muscat Street

That is, the popular perception that all Singaporean Muslims are Malays and the two identities are inextricably linked. An imperfect premise which consolidates non-Malay Muslims, often with distinct religious and cultural practices, into a parallel Shariah legal system created and designed essentially for Malays.
It is true that Malays form approximately 13% of Singapore's population and comprise the largest single unitary block of Singaporean Muslims. The Malays are also guardians of a rich cultural tradition - a history of which they are rightly proud.
But what of the other Muslims who are not Malays? Those who have different perceptions of what it means to be a Muslim. Singaporean Muslims whose personal vision of Islam does not include burying placentas or the practice of female circumcision.
The Islamic world is by no means homogenous.
Between the black and white, the finer shades of grey are easily discernible. An examination of Islam in environments as disparate as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey reveals some of the internal differences and contradictions.
In essence, the 'New Singapore' warrants a review of conventional thinking about Muslims in Singapore. The approach towards the Muslim community must be distinct from the approach to the Malay community, recognizing that the Malay community is a subset of a larger Muslim community (and not vice versa).
Like most aspects of Singapore, race relations have considerably evolved during the last four decades. An emerging national consciousness has reduced the need for race based politics. Additionally, the lines within and between the various segments of society are blurred by the changing demographics of the city-state.

Although a controversial subject, Singlish (or Singaporean English) is a uniting factor among Singaporeans of all races

Surely, there must be others who believe a new race has emerged in the last forty years - the Singaporean race? A tribe best characterized best by its language.
Academics refer to the unique tongue as 'Singlish.'

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