“Fill the glass half full, then top it up to the rim with ice.” My supervisor explained to me on my first day. It was the first of a seemingly endless list of mundane but strictly-to-be-adhered-to instructions to follow in the preparation of food and beverages for customers in a café that I was working at. It was just the simple preparation of a glass of iced tea. Who knew that it would lead me to questioning everything I knew about racial stereotypes and my personal ideologies?
Let me put it out there that I would like to think of myself being branded as ‘not-a-racist’. Of Peranakan descent, my Straits-born Chinese ancestors intermarried into Javanese-Dutch and Malay families. Both my mixed heritage and living in multi-racial Singapore have trained me to be culturally tolerant. Last December, in the tedious college application process, when universities questioned me on what I could contribute to their campus, my response usually elaborated on how Singapore’s socio-cultural diversity has been paramount in training my openness towards different lifestyles and opinions. Even though I hail from a majority race (Chinese, 77%), I have lived and worked alongside my fellow Indian (7.0%) and Malay (14.8%) countrymen. Apart from rituals and customs, I have never seen myself as superior or inferior to anyone who has a different skin colour. Why then, when it came to a Malay customer on that rather slow-going Wednesday morning, did I fill the glass three-quarters full, instead of just half?
Context matters, and this case is definitely no different. The café I work in is one of those ‘new-age’, ‘hipster’ hotspots springing up all around my sunny Singaporean island. Located along a very trendy shopping lane populated by expensive one-of-a-kind stores and frequented by tourists, rent is high and items on the menu are pricey. While I personally feel that paying $7.50 for a glass of iced tea falls a little short of a daylight robbery, some may argue that one is also paying for the café’s locality and ambiance. However, when it came to serving this particular customer, I couldn’t help but notice that he was not like the others. Amongst the sea of wealthy East Asian tourists and shoppers with branded bags, he stuck out like a sore thumb. Perhaps it was his ragged sandals or the fact that when he opened his tattered wallet to pay the bill it seemed to consist mainly of two-dollar bills. Perhaps it was how he ordered one of the cheapest things on the menu or how he only asked for one drink though he had two younger children seated at the table. Perhaps it was his shifty eyes that failed to meet mine. I could list all of these reasons and describe in detail what I saw, but the obvious fact still remains, the first thing I noticed about him was that he was Malay. I would be lying if I said I didn’t know why I gave him a more substantial glass of the drink, or why five minutes later I decided to pass his toddler a cookie on a plate saying it was ‘on the house’.
I do not treat customers of color differently from the rest. I do not dish out drinks free of charge just because a woman is wearing a hijab. I do not look down nor judge people in my café just because they are of a different race. Yet what I had just done was pieced together fragments of evidence from the situation, observed his race and then substantiated my ‘affirmative action’ with idea that because he might not have been as privileged as the other typical customer, he deserved to get more of what he was paying for. According to article 152 of the constitution, it is the responsibility of the government to ‘constantly care for the interests of the racial minorities in Singapore’. Malays are considered a minority, more so than the Indians, because Singaporean society looks beyond numerical quantification to consider socio-economic performance. It is true that absolute poverty affects the Malay community more than other races. Teen pregnancy, drug abuse and school dropout rates are higher statistically for Malays. In 2007, during his National Day Rally, the Prime Minister cast a spotlight on the prevailing issue of social immobility affecting the Malay population. What worries me from this experience was how I had drawn upon stereotypes and labeled this customer as the ‘less fortunate Malay’. I had put myself in a loftier position of sympathy, or worse, pity. I had done all of this without ill intention, but that doesn’t count as a redeeming factor when his race warranted a completely natural response for me to treat him differently.
Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. Racial harmony is an integral aspect of the education system, the Ethnic Integration Policy maintains quotas of residents from different races living in public housing flats, Singapore’s first and last racially associated case of civil unrest was in 1950, long before her independence. The problem with growing up in an extremely sterile environment is thinking that having all these measures in place is enough for me to wash my hands off issues of race and discrimination. I have lived in a society where I am part of the ethnic majority. Yet I had looked at all these issues, at the debate on affirmative action, at the Trayvon Martin case, at Arizona’s racial profiling immigration policies, at the discussion of what ‘white privilege’ really is, as an outsider. I had considered all of these affairs as someone who would never be affected.
I now know that this is far from true. As an individual moving across the Asian continent and then the Atlantic to a new country for the next four years, I may very well find myself part of the minority. Telling myself that I live in a racially harmonious utopia because I can recite ‘regardless of racial, language of religion’ during the Singaporean national pledge is not enough. It is true that some racial subgroups are more socially disadvantaged and endangered than others. Statistics do not lie but I am done lying to myself that race does not matter to me. During my college years, I sincerely hope to grapple these racial issues and question not only my conscience but also my actions. Food iced tea for thought.
Song, Dan. PM’s Rally Speech and Endangered Malay Families: A National, Not Communal, Issue, Singapore Angle. Web. August 21 2007.
World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Minority Rights Group International, Singapore, Malays. Web. http://www.minorityrights.org/5224/singapore/malays.html
66% of Malays experienced racial discrimination when applying for jobs: IPS Survey (The Real Singapore). Web. September 18 2013. http://therealsingapore.com/content/66-malays-experienced-racial-discrimination-when-applying-jobs-ips-survey