I visited a friend for Hari Raya today, and had a wonderful time. Her family was warm and welcoming, and I was not given a chance to feel like an outsider. I even reneged on my diet for one day because her mother was so sincere in her wish that I try the food she had made.
The visit set me to thinking. Why? Because this was the first time in my 39 years in Singapore that anyone had invited me to their house on Hari Raya. In fact, even if I look at my Chinese New Year invites over the last 39 years, I can count them on the fingers of my hands. This makes me sound like a loser, doesn’t it? What’s wrong with me?
But I have slowly come to the realisation that it ISN’T me. After all, I invite plenty of people over on Deepavali, and they do come. And I am always happy when they do. What worries me is that our society is not a racially harmonious one in the way that it should be. Ethnicity draws deep lines in the sand that we have made permanent through repeated retracing. We tolerate each other, which is why we don’t have the outbursts of violence that plague some other countries. But we don’t engage with each other very much. I have a Chinese neighbour who opens her door a crack to slip in and out, so that I can’t look into her house. I am very tempted to go up to her and tell her outright that I have no interest in her sad little house whatsoever. I have a Malay neighbour who talks to me in the corridor, but whose house I have only stepped into once- to congratulate her when her granddaughter was born. She has stepped into mine once- when I invited her over for Deepavali.
Some of you may be thinking- “but this doesn’t apply to me. I have plenty of friends of other races whose houses I frequent and who frequent mine”. But I need to tell you- you are in a minority. By and large, we still tend to stick to our own little socially sanctioned enclaves. I find this annoying, and a little frustrating. Despite huge efforts to be friendly and to reach out, I find that people are so comfortably entrenched in their birds-of-a-feather mentality that little has changed since I went to primary school and was stumped at my classmates’ ignorance when they said I was ‘black’ (how did they ever manage to follow colouring book instructions when they couldn’t tell colours apart?) or my teacher’s stupidity when she announced to the class that ‘Indians tend to have more lice in their hair’.
When I see young people who can rise above ethnic differences I rejoice, because it signals a better future for our country. But when I see those who stagnate in their ethnic puddles, I fear that we will always be not one Singapore, but many Singapores, with walls and fences that are all the more powerful for being intangible. How can you break down something that exists only in people’s minds? The pretend-harmony that we practice is more intractable than the Berlin wall.