A tale of two cities where there should be one

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When people from different walks of life interact, there'll be tensions. This Kent Ridge Common article highlights the divide between Singaporeans and foreigners before concluding with a call for respect from and for both parties.

In many ways, it is easy to pass judgement. Easy to form opinions without much thought or care or deliberation. It will do us all good to moderate certain prejudices that we may have.

An excerpt from the article:

"In social circles, calling people Cheena has become an acceptable fad. Making fun of cultural roots and accents has become an easy way to elicit laughter. It's the cheapest, most thoughtless way of being cool.

Once, I unwisely pointed out to one friend on how his slurs actually restricted his horizons. "If you judge people so quickly, how can you ever hope to learn from them? All these comments aren't becoming at all."

Doing so, I came to realise, was social suicide. I would be attacked badly or heckled incessantly. "Why don't you have dinner with your Chinese friends instead?" Otherwise, an unnatural silence would cast a pall over the gathering. Therefore, most ashamedly, I've learnt to listen selectively. I'd only speak up if the critics were particularly vicious; otherwise, I would feign ignorance.

This article is an attempt to make peace with myself, to atone for those moments of silence when I heard comments which were uncalled for. [...]"

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Stand Strong Against Xenophobia in NUS - Of Sun Xu and the Foreign-Local Divide

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This article was originally posted anonymously on The Kent Ridge Common.

Source credit: Edvantage
A Tale of Two Cities where there should be One

Often, I find myself in the unenviable position of defending Chinese students. Typical comments I hear from Singaporean peers are listed as follows:

"I really don't understand why there're so many Chinese students competing with us. The bell-curve is making it impossible for any Singaporeans to score As."

"Look at the Chinese. How dare he just walk into our lab, smile and walk out again? Completely no social grace. And a silly smile. What a stupid thing. Why are they on scholarships?"

"And we got one guy. He's completely rude. I don't know why he was so pissed off when the captain subbed him out. Everyone should have a chance to play."

The above comments are the less inflaming ones that I can recall, with expletives edited out. Certainly, there're more vitriolic ones. People are so prone to judgement, so ready to put others down that I'm frightened. Toxic words flow so freely that I wonder where is its source. In some cases, I try to defend Chinese students, to give the circumstances a positive - if not, at least neutral - spin.

"Actually, I've a number of friends who are from China and they're really decent people. Recently, there're Chinese students who set up - "

"What about the tainted milk scandal? Have you forgotten about it? The suppression of Tibet? And the child who was ran over and left to bleed while passer-bys feigned ignorance? And the student who said that there're more dogs in Singapore than people?"

I write today, as a Singaporean Chinese. I write not to criticise, but to point out a pressing situation, one that deserves thoughtful discussion. I write because I fear what xenophobia may cause and because I'm tired of tolerating prejudices.

Xenophobia in Daily Life

In social circles, calling people "cheena" has become an acceptable fad. Making fun of cultural roots and accents has become an easy way to elicit laughter. It's the cheapest, most thoughtless way of being cool.

Once, I unwisely pointed out to one friend on how his slurs actually restricted his horizons. "If you judge people so quickly, how can you ever hope to learn from them? All these comments aren't becoming at all."

Doing so, I came to realise, was social suicide. I would be attacked badly or heckled incessantly. "Why don't you have dinner with your Chinese friends instead?" Otherwise, an unnatural silence would cast a pall over the gathering. Therefore, most ashamedly, I've learnt to listen selectively. I'd only speak up if the critics were particularly vicious; otherwise, I would feign ignorance.

This article is an attempt to make peace with myself, to atone for those moments of silence when I heard comments which were uncalled for.

On Different Groups of Chinese Students

On a recent study trip to Cambodia, I had the rare opportunity to sit beside Chinese students.
It really gave a face to the stories I heard. One friend - let's just refer to him as HX - told me about his family, childhood and pet dog. Initially, the conversation was somewhat lighthearted; as we exhausted these topics, we turned to the Singaporean Chinese - Chinese Chinese divide.

"A few weeks ago, along the stuffy corridors of Science, I overheard two Chinese students, discussing about how they shouldn't be spending the best part of their lives in NUS. They ought to go back to China, their homeland, where exciting opportunities abound. Seriously, I was offended. Did all Chinese think this way?"

On a separate occasion, I posed the same question to ZZ. She paused before sharing some insights. "You must understand that the Chinese students aren't all cut from the same cloth. There're basically three types of students. The first type: those who came here after 高考 (High School exams). They came here with the expectations that they'd receive degrees and work for Singapore-linked companies upon graduation. They didn't really spend their formative years over here and don't have many Singaporean friends. It is understandable that these students want to return to China."

"And some, they're like me. They came here after graduating from high school but before they took their 高考 (High School exams). In a way, we're in a limbo. We don't really feel that close to China, neither do we feel strongly for Singapore."

"The last group of students, they came here when they were young - to study in secondary schools or junior colleges. These students - and I'm sure you know some of them - feel a sense of belonging to Singapore. They'll want to remain, to work and live here."

As a recent furor over foreign talents unfolds, I'm surprised by how many Singaporeans lump Chinese students into one indistinct group. At times, we are guilty of making sweeping assumptions, ones that don't do justice to the people involved.

On Sun Xu

"Have you heard of the guy, Sun Xu?"

"Yes. I think -"

"Actually, I feel quite sorry for him."

"Huh, why?"

''Did you know that he posted his comment on Weibo (China's equivalent of Facebook)? I wonder how Singaporeans got wind of this. Perhaps, it's a malicious act..."

"Actually, I don't really care who exposed him. I think he should be expelled from NUS. He is in Singapore, on a scholarship. Whether he posted that on Weibo wasn't important. Whoever exposed him isn't important. We can leave all the discussion on patriotism to countries out; this isn't a Singapore-China issue. It's an issue on morals. When we make mistakes, we should bear the consequences. He should have known better. This comment simply doesn't reflect well on his character."

But, as I spend more time thinking on this issue, I realise that I don't care about what words Sun Xu uttered.

I want him to be punished because I value the respect that Singaporeans generally have for each other. I treasure the harmony that we have, especially since I have had the privilege of visiting other places where blatant prejudices tear apart the social fabric.

Sun Xu deserves to be punished, yes. But he doesn't deserve the caustic insults poured all over him.
The poisonous words against him in online forums (herehere and here) are staggering. Some Singaporeans behaved with such heated anger that their words reflect badly on them, the way Sun Xu's words have. I've came across Facebook updates that were so malicious that they rank right down there with what Sun Xu said. Worse, people are actually agreeing with such inflaming comments.

Seriously, if people ever call me a dog, I'll just ask them to fuck off before ignoring them. I know that I'm not a dog; whatever they say doesn't hurt me. And so, I see these vigorous reactions against Sun Xu as our society's collective anxiety. If we aren't dogs, then why would we be bothered by that insult?

The Divide That Shouldn't Be

In many ways, I'm glad that I'm not a Chinese Chinese, but a Singaporean Chinese. I don't have to face the prejudices piling upon them. As YW shared, "it is really discomforting being from China. We can't really criticise the Chinese people or the Sun Xu incident. Otherwise, we'll be lambasted by the Chinese community as traitors. And we can't point out stuff that can be done better in Singapore, purely because our suggestions will be dismissed as outsiders' perspectives."

After many conversations with Chinese friends, I acquire a respect for their tenacity and perspicacity. They are generally decent people (although they did tell me that some Chinese people can be really unscrupulous). They defy the toxic stereotypes that some Singaporeans may have of them.

The problems that we now face are real. It is true that Singaporeans have to face tough competition on many fronts - be it for housing, jobs or university places. There are questions that need to be addressed; how to balance economic needs with demographic demands and natural constraints; how to erase the divisive tensions between locals and foreigners. These are complex issues that we need to tackle together.
As we work through these challenges, it is vital to keep in mind that people - no matter where they are from - are people. They are not faceless entities that one can criticise safely, anonymously and poisonously; any vitriolic words reflect badly on the person who uttered them. Discourse, when we have them, should be civil. Day-to-day interactions should be respectful.

In Singapore, we've precious harmony. Let's strive to keep it this way.

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Along the walkway

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Someone - a male, Indian-looking foreigner - approached me to ask for directions. He wanted to buy a SIM card.

After 5 minutes of mildly exasperated explanation, I decided to walk him to Cheers. On the way, I tried to be friendly:

"Oh, where are you from?"

"Saudi Arabia."

"Wow, that's cool. What are you here for?" 

"Oh, I'm here for academic purposes."

"Great, are you studying for your undergraduate or Masters?"

"Erm, actually, I've a Doctorate. I'm here on a research fellowship."

An awkward silence...

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The Physical Impossibility of Living in Something Dead

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The Golden Scarab
What is photography?

To capture the present? To entrap it for posterity, for the 'yet-to-be's? Are we so caught up with the idea of living for the future that we forget about the current, the present?

Where does this leave us all?

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Photography: a bugbear

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Photography, in the hands of experts, becomes a beautiful experience.

It shares; it conveys stories; it is visionary. It captures fleeting moments, embalming time into glittering amber pieces that can be appreciated at leisure.

An artful photo is akin to - for the lack of a better phrase - visual arts. Astonishing. Mind-blowing. Wondrous.

However, in most cases, I can't agree with what photography has become.

People wield heavy DSLRs to pose for cutesy shots with their friends. The weighty camera give a ballooning sense of self-worth to people who take the ugliest shots. Worse, at a higher resolution.

In the past, not too long ago, most shots were well-composed. A roll of film could only take a limited number of pictures, perhaps a maximum of 36 photos. Photographers must choose films according to location; taking photos on a beach would require a roll of film different from that needed to take photos in a forest. Care must be exercised since photography was a laborious activity which condoned no mistakes.

Nowadays, some people simply point and shoot. Taking photos has become so cheap that, as a corollary, it has become thoughtless as well.

Most importantly, we forget to treasure the present. In the most beautiful places - lakes with glistening waters, pinnacles where clouds drift by, forests of vivid ocher and emerald hues - we take shots compulsively.

We are concerned with trapping memories for the future. For the 'will-be's, 'maybe's and 'perhaps'. We want images that will remind us - and tell others - of the rich joys we have sampled.

When we look at these photos, we then dream up experiences and memories. The future, it seems, has a higher priority than the present.


 The alien eyes of cameras

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The ephemerality of life

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"The essence of life is change, a panoply of growth and decay. Elect life and growth, and you elect change and the prospect of death. The woman probably experienced death so painful that she was determined not to feel it again, even at the expense of living.

She elected a life of sameness free from the new, the unexpected, a living death, without risk or challenge.

If we can live with the knowledge that death is our constant companion, travelling on our 'left shoulder', then death can become, in the words of Don Juan, our 'ally'. With death's counsel, the constant awareness of the limit of our time to live and love, we can always be guided to make the best use of our time and live life to the fullest. But if we are unwilling to fully face the fearsome presence of death on our left shoulder, we deprive ourselves of its counsel and cannot possibly live or love with clarity.

When we shy away from death, the ever-changing nature of things, we inevitably shy away from life."

- Adapted from The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck

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Bits of kindness

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In a way, we all look for epiphanies. A parting of the seas, a bolt from the heavens. Showers of gifts and love. We expect wondrous events, sudden and incredible. Grace, we believe, must come on a biblical magnitude.

But, sometimes, these acts of grace come by in the most innocuous manners, the subtle drifting scent of jasmine.We may have missed them, simply because we are so caught up with what we expect.

It is those little acts of generosity by strangers that I can't seem to forget.

The scent may have moved on. It may be overpowered by pungent odours. But the memories, they remain.

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