Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pride & Prejudice

The following are my views on an article by Pranay Gupte entitled “Letter from Singapore" (http://www.pranaygupte.com/articles.php). I thought it was important to comment on it because it touches on issues like prejudice and speaking up which I hold dear.

I really enjoyed the article by Pranay because I thought he wrote with great magnanimity and objectivity even after what he had to go through (whether perceived or real). I also thought it was a well balanced article.

It is good that he detailed his experiences. On the one hand, I think it was unfortunate that he had to experience such attitudes in this nice country. But on the other hand, we will all agree that we will meet with these kinds of attitudes everywhere. As such, I am “grateful” that it has happened to someone like Pranay who is able to speak and inform others about it. I also happen to believe that he has done so in a very even-handed way. By raising awareness that such attitudes exist and perhaps, prevail in our society, we can hopefully begin to realise how we are behaving towards others and hopefully begin to change the way in which we relate with others.

I agree that "racist" is word that should never be employed lightly. But to me, it is just semantics and how you define the label. Many, if not all of us work with stereotypes and generalisations. It makes life easier and more convenient. It does however have the unfortunate effect of alienating and even offending others if we are not careful with the degree with which we use it.

I think that in Singapore, in addition to the normal generalisations, there is the “Zimbardo” effect at play amongst the citizenry. (This refers to the Psychologist P. Zimbardo, who showed in a classic study in 1971 how power, established by authority, negatively influences otherwise saner minds.) As the vast majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, they have a major say in the running of the country. Unfortunately, this position of authority (and power) may tend to give some people the attitude that other races are lesser mortals. In addition, the pre-eminence of Singapore’s position on the world stage is also a source of pride as to what the “Chinese” are capable of. Nevertheless, the days of Singapore being a British colony are not so far behind it such that the “whites” are still looked up to in our behaviour and attitudes, grudgingly or not. This general attitude then extends across borders and illustrates itself with the examples Pranay has given.

I have seen exactly the same thing across the border in Malaysia except that it is the Malay race that is in a position of authority and the “other races” who are lesser mortals. The slight difference there is that for the Malays, religion plays a larger part in their lives. As such, they tie their ancestry with their religion and are therefore more proud of their religion and heritage and are not so easily influenced by issues of pragmatism and economics. I believe this is why they are stronger in their “resistance” to “white” influence. The Singapore Chinese are more secular and pragmatic (yes, it is my turn to generalise!) and economic issues then take precedence.

Although many of us see this happening, we give the upper hand to the status quo by remaining silent. The few that are left who disagree with the attitude also remain silent feeling (I think rightfully) that they are in the minority. This is why I think it is good that Pranay has highlighted his experiences. If only more would follow his example, I believe it could well lead to the necessary changes in attitudes in our lifetime.

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