Singaporeans have been brought up on the CMIO model – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others.

I’ve always thought it weird, and somewhat disrespectful, to use the term “Others”. Never knew there was a nationality/race/community called Others. “Hi, my name is xxx, and I’m an Others.”

Even the terms Chinese – Indian – Malay are problematic. For reasons of expediency, it’s understandable. But when such terms have been normalised as “standard”, it becomes a matter of concern.

Chinese – are we referring to a nationality – citizens of China – or an ethnic group (of Han heritage), or, perhaps in the case of Singapore/Malaya – non-Malays? Even within the “Chinese” community, more often than not, members identify themselves according to dialect groups or the regions they come from. In more recent years, many young Singaporean Chinese identify with their country of birth and even religion, which is not necessarily the Chinese folk religion.

Malay – The contemporary reference to our Malay friends is always tagged with Muslim – Malay/Muslim. It never was quite the case when I was growing up, 30-40 years ago. Delve into the history and sociology books, and you’ll find that the Malays have not always been Muslim. Many of the indigenous people were animists, they had local customs and beliefs. But over centuries, they’ve become synonymous with being Muslim. Worse, many of my non-Malay friends who are Muslims (for example, Arabs) are also considered as Malays by the less enlightened, which always irk them to them core. Furthermore, even Islam has different branches, and it’s not always about the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. There’s smaller movements such as the Ahmadis and the Muhamadiyah.

Indian – Indians are not just North and South Indian – which by the way is an arbitrary notion. Indian regional identity is very strong. In the past couple of years, while working on projects, I’ve come in contact with Indians who are neither Tamils nor Punjabis. When we chat about identity, they always identify themselves by region – being from Madhya-Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, or from the Sindh province (now part of Pakistan). I’ve had Bengali friends who educated me on the history of Bengal (East/West, India/Pakistan). This is certainly far more interesting than the “Indians” we learn in school.

Others – This gets to me. Who gets tagged as others? Eurasians? Jews? Peranakans? Some of my bibik and baba friends get really annoyed at being subsumed under “Chinese”.

Identities are part and parcel of history, and history definitely shapes identity. It’ll be a shame if, for expediency or simplicity, such nuances are erased. All that’s left is a mis-understanding. I love it when my students go “Oh, so that’s what it means!”. Yes, it’s hard work to learn and explain the details. But once the context is set, everything is just so much easier to understand, and you’ll find history so much more riveting.

~ Jaime

In the Workroom: Big picture or small details?
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