“You, very good girl. Not crying. Good customer.” The slight curl of the syllables, the rolled ‘r’s of a different tongue, was followed by a vigorous plucking pulled between twisted thread that left a stinging throb beneath my skin. I was seated in one of the many beauty parlors dotting the Tanjong Pagar Plaza, watching through blurry eyes the hustle and bustle of the weekend as patrons slipped in for a quick pruning for the week ahead. My mother was a regular there (thank our heritage of hair sprouting genes for that) but it was my first time, chided into taking a trim because apparently any facial hair was unsightly at 17.
But of course I’m not here to talk about my daily struggles of appearing presentable here.
This has more to do with what my appearance has meant for me. This is about how the genes dictating my appearance have inevitably left me with a never-ending array of other silent problems I’ve been told to simply live with. And this is about shedding some light on what the often shunned term Chinese privilege looks like from the other side.
At first glance, the idea of Chinese privilege seems absurd. Singapore is built on passionate idealism. Equity rings through our anthem and pledge. Meritocracy echoes through our constitution and public policy.
And I completely agree.
But what’s on paper doesn’t always tally with reality. On the ground the sound is hollow, morphing into the dull thud of a needs-blind, race-blind ethic that is pervasive throughout Singaporean society. The notion that race or the skin color factor might affect your life’s trajectory is blasphemy; an affront to the founding fathers whose unifying work is to be honest, still in the making. On the ground my appearance undeniably still sets me back, from job prospects to tinder dates. Assimilation is a necessary evil, the only way to gain trust and a willingness to listen because beneath the banana peel, I’ll still be different. One of the most obvious examples of this is in language. Language builds familiarity. It’s a measure of closeness in a relationship and it defines clarity of expression. It might be that our lingua franca is a common one yet the conversations that matter most have a tendency to slip into more familiar tongue. To illustrate this, try to remember the number of times you might have found yourself speaking in Chinese to a group of friends and 10 minutes into the conversation, abashedly apologizing to the one non-Chinese friend who most likely would shrug off the apology with a smile. You probably won’t remember that ten seconds later the conversation would have inevitably slipped back into Chinese.
This ignorance and forgetfulness isn’t completely your fault either. We’ve been raised to believe that the institutions and policies put in place by our forebears sufficiently protect us from racial prejudices. This removes the necessity for reflection on the possibility that we might inherently be biased in our everyday actions. While this ethic to remove mentions of racial inequality from most contexts was raised with good intents (as are a majority of problematic social policies), it has also led to intentional obliviousness. We claim to be color blind in our actions but we conveniently forget that we will never appreciate nor see color if we remain color blind.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear comments passed in good humor between friends that they were amazed that I’d achieved this much despite being the minority. While this is testament to the fact that it’s not impossible to succeed under the rules of the game set in society today while being a minority and female to boot, it also proves that we are aware of these everyday biases.
We just refuse to act on them.
With the rise of social justice warriors like Prettipls, these issues of Chinese privilege in a Chinese majority community are gaining more of the spotlight and thoughtful discourse required. Though I’m not particularly fond of crude satire, it shows that as a society we’re willing to open up and speak of these issues without the fear being called snowflakes or self-absorbed. What’s troubling however is how national bodies are generally mum about these issues. Take for example the recent tussle between Mr Masagos Zulkifli and Mr Faisal Manap over the right for Muslim home team servicewomen to wear the hijab. Regardless of what the conclusion of the contention was, it was worrisome that the line of argument taken up was that such discussions serve to sow discord in society and are thus unsuitable to be brought up to Parliament. Unsurprisingly, this left me wondering where else besides Parliament public opinion on such matters should be brought up. If we are to progress in our inclusiveness, it necessitates public discourse on the very differences being contested. The decision to dismiss the issue as illegitimate is evidence of the fallacious assumption that the best way to tackle differences is to ignore their existence.
Choosing to turn a blind eye by blatantly avoiding discourse is hardly the responsible way forward but it is equally understandable why such aversion exists. Public discourse on Chinese privilege brings to light that, despite all our better efforts, social biases can’t be avoided. Meritocracy and regulation weren’t sufficient to cover up the very human differences that exist between us. It requires to a certain degree, a backtracking on meritocracy and its infallibility to which we have an ardent reverence for. The government toed this fine line by introducing changes to the system of Presidential Elections, triggering waves by requiring candidates from each race to be elected at least once every five years. Yet they dithered in outright stating why such a policy was necessary, alluding to how we need to ensure all our races are represented in our leadership but never fully clarifying or endorsing the factors that make it unlikely for certain groups to gain this leadership through their own efforts.
I’ve come to laugh off the backhanded compliments about how I’m “pretty, for an Indian.” I head down regularly for the painful process of waxing lest I be teased for being ‘manlier’ than some of my male counterparts. Such things are facts of life, necessary to fit into the system that has allowed me to become who I am despite who I was born as.
That doesn’t however, make the pill any less bitter to ingest knowing that we are still blissfully ignorant towards birth lottery and the harsh realization that the dream of egalitarianism is still just that: a dream.
-A/N Special thanks to the sole editor of this piece.