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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shimun Lai - What's her crime?

What did Shimun Lai say that has gotten so many people riled up? Indians upset over her remark; non-Indian netizens upset over it in a show of solidarity; other netizens upset that people are upset with Shimun....

Something is not right with this picture. Let's just face it. Racial stereotyping is a common feature in every society. In just about every country I've been to, racial comments, racial jokes, insensitive racial stereotyping is part of the ordinary social landscape. Singapore is no different.

From the time that I was in Primary school, I can remember comments and jokes about my dark skin. Sometimes kids would shun me because the darkness of the skin equates with being dirty and I used to get those comments thrown straight at my face. I have heard people characterise Indians as slimy, fork-tongued, liars. Even as a practising lawyer, I used to get back-handed compliments about why so many Indians make good lawyers (because we are good at twisting things around).

There are racial stereotypes about Malays. There are those that relate to Chinese. Let's be honest. Even those of us that try to live life with a sense of universal brotherhood, have the weakness of resorting to the base instinct of classifying certain mannerisms and behaviour as being peculiar or predominant in a particular race, nationality or culture. The difference is often about whether we are prepared to allow our entire thought pattern to be dominated by these classifications or we are willing to rise above these base instincts.

It comes as no surprise to me that Shimun felt that Indians are smelly. All throughout the time that I was growing and a long period throughout my 20s, I have experienced situations where some aunty in a bus or train would cover her nose or move to another seat if an Indian sits next to her. It is a perception that does exist. Some netizens in Shimun's defence have said that she was referring to Indians from India. There are others that have enjoined the debate by saying that many foreigners (especially PRC and Indians from India) are noisy and smelly. Somehow, foreigner bashing is seen as being not racist and therefore pardonable in comparison with bashing a Singapore Indian.

I think we are all getting quite mixed up about this whole episode.

Firstly, as an Indian let me just say that my instinctive reaction when I read about Shimun was to chuckle. Was she racist? Well there is some element of that in all of us. It is just a question as to where we target that emotion. For some it is merely in the thoughts racing through their minds. For others, it exhibits itself in the words that they casually use. Yet others, hurl it out as insults. These people are harmless when we compare them with those that would deny a person his socio-economic opportunities in life. Some people refuse to employ a person or to promote a person on account of his race. That is more vile, insidious and worthy of condemnation than some young girl that went crazy with her words.

When I was much younger, I used to get all worked up by racial remarks. But, over the years I have learned to ignore nasty comments. The human animal is rather strange. The very person that is capable of making racially insensitive comments is often capable of forming friendships with persons from such other races. It is not the remarks that make a person racist. It is the actions of that person that make him racist.

Take a deep breath. Give each other some space. There are more pressing concerns than the hasty comments of a 19-year old.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

If someone call you a fxxkng dog, you chuckle??

Are you human???

Dzul said...

Not human. Just wiser.

Anonymous said...

Great article Subra! Thanks for sharing your wise words.

To anon 6:55, not everybody gets riled up at the slightest thoughtless remarks, especially those made by impertinent youth. We have all been young once and made some mistakes. With that, more tolerance and graciousness towards others. We can all learn from each other with new sets of understanding. As society matures, the citizens need to calibrate and negotiate their common spaces now and again. Just because it's been banned and silence by law in the past, doesn't mean it didn't exist. They were just swept under the carpets. Now people have to learn to define what is acceptable and what's not. Don't need all these stompers and lync mobs going around banishing innocent people forever. If you have issue with the immigrations, talk to your govt/MP about it! Stop barking the wrong tree.

Anonymous said...

Agree. Much as I think it's high time these youth learn how to speak and behave, I've gotten really sick of this childish idea that we must get all upset and punish those who make silly insults, or we can't protect our dignity/pride. I'm not as fragile as all that.
Thank you for sharing your views. I especially like the part on base instincts. I've been wondering if I really weren't racist (or sexist) lately, because I have "generalizing/classification" thoughts all the time anyway; but if that makes me one, then who isn't? I think you put them into words nicely.

Anonymous said...

"It is not the remarks that make a person racist. It is the actions of that person that make him racist."
When you utter/or type out the words - THAT is the action. How much more "action" is required to make the beliefs/thoughts of the writer clearer?

Anonymous said...

So what you are trying to say is, if someone hurls racist remarks, we simply just ignore it and walk away?
Then why do we even have a law in Singapore which prevents such things from happening? You may feel that its just a small thing, but do look into the bigger picture. Racial riots can easily make a comeback. If Shimun Lai just said that Indians are smelly, then so be it. But saying that they are not humans, that is totally overboard.

KAM said...

If you smell something nasty, what should you say?
Nothing?
or say "Smelly"?

some people just do not realise that they stink. it is not just indians. malays, chinese, french, europeans, americans, germans....you name it, there is a smelly one.

So what if we call some indians smelly? racist? grow up and use some deodorant.

Nisha Sivaji said...

Hi Subra,

Perhaps, you feel that there was no need to get riled up over a comment. The fact you are amused does not sadden me. It does not make me question your humanity or your Indian identity. You are entitled to your opinion.

You are, also, right. Racial stereotyping takes place everywhere. I've seen my share of it, having lived in Australia for almost 5 years now. The thing is, everyone has the right to reply, to address such issues/comments. It's completely natural. That is what has been happening in this case. Of course, not everyone has managed to voice their opposition appropriately but that does not mean ignoring it will help either.

As an Indian (my nationality notwithstanding), I take complete offense at what she said. It was not even the fact that she found it acceptable to stereotype an entire race based on her ASSUMPTIONS. It was that she thought it acceptable to liken me and my Indian brethren to dogs. I have nothing against my 4 legged friends but it would be absolutely naive to think that she meant nothing malicious by that comment.

You may think that her comments were harmless and that getting discriminated against in the workplace or while looking for jobs is much worse. I ask you then. Where do you think this discrimination stems from? It starts out with comments like hers and the stupid stereotypes such as calling us Apu neneh and telling us we are dirty because we are brown. Her comments may have been hasty but I have always believed that what a person says on the spur of the moment is the most honest.

The saddest part about this whole controversy is that it has shown just how racist Singaporeans can be. You don't just get people trying to sweep her comments under the carpet. You see a good deal of reverse racism here. Upset Indians are debating the virtues of the Chinese community's sense hygiene among other things instead of addressing her comments rationally.

You may see the humor in this. However, not everyone can see it the way you do. Believe it or not, there are people who do not appreciate being likened to animals for obvious reasons. I know I don't. I do not see the need to stoop to her level and employ one of the countless Chinese stereotypes I've heard over the years but I do not think ignoring the problem will make it better. It certainly will make it go away either.

Nisha Sivaji said...

KAM,

It isn't as simple as you make it out to be. You are right when you say that you get smelly buggers from all groups.

You have the missed the main point, however. If the person smelled, then say that the person smelled. Why bring the race into it? She should have said that the person was smelly. When you use an identifying marker such as race to prove your point and when you liken the entire race to animals, that is racist.

Anonymous said...

Sad to see a comment in Singapore which is one of the best place to live in a harmonised way . I guess even the local people were once migrants from mainland , malaysia and india . So i dont see a need for this comment .

Also the people referred here who has body odour are hard working labours working round the clock to build singapore to compete in the compettive buisness world , for us to live in a better place called HOME and to keep singapore clean . And hence I truely beleive they deserve some respect . It is them who clean your HDB, clean the litter you drop , clean the drinage pipes , help you all when you are struck in the dark tunnel during transport breakdown etc and the list is endless .

Hope the upcoming generation understand this .

Anonymous said...

Sad to see a comment in Singapore which is one of the best place to live in a harmonised way . I guess even the local people were once migrants from mainland , malaysia and india . So i dont see a need for this comment .

Also the people referred here who has body odour are hard working labours working round the clock to build singapore to compete in the compettive buisness world , for us to live in a better place called HOME and to keep singapore clean . And hence I truely beleive they deserve some respect . It is them who clean your HDB, clean the litter you drop , clean the drinage pipes , help you all when you are struck in the dark tunnel during transport breakdown etc and the list is endless .

Hope the upcoming generation understand this .

Anonymous said...

Even our MP is a racist when he associated Nigerians as scamming people.

Subra said...

I think I should make my position clear. Maybe, 5 to 10 years ago I would have still felt angry about the comment.

From a purely objective standpoint, in assessing the comment, I should say that it was uncalled for. If she found a specific person smelly, she should have addressed that comment as a reference to that specific person. Example: Man in the train stinks! or.. Indian man in the train stinks!. Where she stepped out of line was to draw from the stench a racial identification.

I do acknowledge that the instinctive and impulsive linkage between stench and race must have been a result of existing anecdotal evidence supplying to that individual a subconscious narrative of that particular race being smelly.

I have seen many persons that have expressed such views having no problem in respecting me as an individual. Whilst they might have prejudices, many have not let those prejudices get in the way of making decisions that impact me directly. Race has coloured the perception of many but many amongst those with coloured perceptions have not discriminated against me.

I think that what is most worthy of condemnation is discrimination. Discriminating against a race in providing a place in a school or university. Discriminating against a race in providing employment (e.g. advertisements specifying race/language as a criteria - one of the worst forms of this was in an advert by a law firm that I knew was looking for a litigation lawyer. They indicated Mandarin as a pre-requisite. Of course, the convenient excuse was based on clientelle.) Discriminating against a race in the provision of services. Discriminating against a race in the armed forces.

There is much to condemn. There is much that is not being vocally pointed out. Sometimes it is easy to lynch a 19 year old instead of challenging the powers that be to provide for anti-discriminatory laws and afford realistic protection against racial, religious and gender discrimination (amongst others).

The approach of the law here has been to sweep discrimination under the carpet. I am more concerned about that.

As for that 19 year old girl, I think that it is possible for her to receive counselling. There is no need to let the law come tumbling down on her. The worst case scenario is to use a sedition charge against her. That is what our government has done in the past. Silence those that make racial remarks but let substantive racism prevail. This has allowed many silent racists to walk in our midst. These are malicious individuals that discriminate against minority races and still smilingly speak as if race is not an issue.

Above all, as I have hit middle age, my perspective on things has changed considerably. In one sense I am thankful that I do not react the way that I would have when I was younger. Happiness is that little space that you create for yourself in your mind. I have chosen not to be riled up.

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of the posts above, those men are made of steel true bravehearts who work more for less pay to make sure we don't touch a single spade or shovel...and they come from a pretty struggling background with a family back in their hometown..these deserve respect... Apart from that we all must try to work into this society, its our responsibility with in a mutliracial country...

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of the posts above, those men are made of steel true bravehearts who work more for less pay to make sure we don't touch a single spade or shovel...and they come from a pretty struggling background with a family back in their hometown..these deserve respect... Apart from that we all must try to work into this society, its our responsibility with in a mutliracial country...

Anonymous said...

hmmm...

Singaporeans racist...

How many foreigners themselves who resides in singapore are also RACIST...

To the writer who is so worked up over the insult to his indian identity...

Please wake up your idea...

All of us are human beings...when we bleed...we bleed red...

With self deluded idiots like this...no wonder mankind will be made extinct by a hostile universe...without even raisng a iota of effort...

Intelligence without wisdom and ethics is not intelligence but something much worst.

Good day all.

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