Race & Representation in Singapore: A Reading List

In recent years, an increasingly bright spotlight has been focused on the experiences of minorities in Singapore. These include groups like non-Chinese races, women, migrant and domestic workers and those bearing the brunt of economic inequality. As a society, we are becoming more aware of the holes in meritocracy and racial harmony. More positively, people are also willing to have conversations about these issues. Nevertheless, a bleak trend still persists: daily, people in our community fall between the cracks, be it because of their skin colour, lack of financial and job security or misrepresentation. 

While many of the conversations on minority experiences over the past few years have been largely held in small and dispersed groups, they point to an increasing awareness about the inequality minorities experience in our society. Coupled with the recent accusations levelled against Raeesah Khan’s comments on racial inequality, proper minority representation and constructive discussions are now more important than ever. 

To add to the conversation, this article will review literary texts from three different minority groups in Singapore: Indians, Malays and migrant workers. 

Literature is central to both representation and education, the springboards for positive change. This fact has been made clear time and again through the correlation between society’s relationships with literature and corresponding events. The surge in Black literature sales and the Black Lives Matter Movement is one of many examples which attest to that. 

The texts covered below include fictional and non-fictional accounts shared by members of three different minority groups. They reveal their experiences as members of a minority race together with possible solutions, humour and compassion. 

1. Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday, Jennani Durai

Jennani Durai’s Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Singaporean Indians and mainland Indian citizens experiences across different walks of life. The short story collection features a motley crew of odd characters. These include, among others: a teenage Indian girl in Kuala Lumpur trying her best to get her writing published, an Indian Singaporean living in a college dorm in America, the grandson of a famous local gangster and a religious young girl and immigrant experiencing the dawn of the Japanese occupation in Singapore. These characters all have idiosyncrasies, endearing them to the reader and making them approachable. The casting is then strategic—through them, Durai makes otherwise difficult issues lighthearted and palatable.

This collection of fictional short stories offers a refreshing, authentic voice to the Singapore literary scene. While the stories center around each main character’s unique experiences, they also offer a glimpse into the realities of being an Indian in Singapore and in the world. 

In “Funeral Gifts”, a young man and his family discover that their grandfather (Thaathaa) was a renowned Indian gangster—after his death. While they deal with the shock of the discovery, they continue to navigate his funeral proceedings and their grief. Writing this story from the perspective of the man’s youthful grandson lends a lightness to an otherwise heavy narrative about family and betrayal. 

The narrator’s grandmother shares, “he would come up with many reasons to explain his lateness, and I would pretend to believe them, but I could always sense a woman’s scent on him”, to which the narrator reflects: “either my grandfather has been the best of liars, inventing one lie to cover another, or that my grandmother had built up an impressive layer of self-delusion”. Beyond the humor in how each of the family’s members react to discovering that the family’s unassuming patriarch was “the biggest Indian gangster of them all”, the gender roles in the family are also clearly shown: men were given more unquestioning freedom while women were expected to accept the way things were and invent corresponding coping mechanisms. 

Similarly, while “Revelation to Amala Rose” is a short and funny depiction of a young girl misunderstanding the arrival of the Japanese in Colonial Singapore, it offers a glimpse into the Indian Singapore diaspora experience. While presented through the eyes of a child, readers sense the weight her parents carry as displaced immigrants and the hope they have about moving to Singapore for a better life.

In “The Employye’s Guide to Transporting Customers to Mexico”, Durai presents the problematic and amusing encounter a mixed-race Indian girl has in a society obsessed with both racial categorisation and financial profit. The story follows Ria, a Indian and mixed race person landing a job working at Guacamolay!, a Mexican restaurant in Holland Village, because of her Mexican-like features.  She soon realises that all her colleagues have been similarly hired for their looks, never mind their actual variety of ethnicities. “The Employye’s Guide to Transporting Customers to Mexico” questions the ethics of commodifying a race and of silencing the unique experiences of the individual in the process.

2. Growing Up Perempuan, various contributors

“Many things are said about us Malay-Muslims —that our young women are sluts who get pregnant early, that our community is made up of uptight conservatives, that we’re capable of dangerous terrorism, that we’re lazy and unambitious”. —”Trial and Error”, Laurel. 

Growing up Perempuan (Perempuan meaning “girl” in Malay) is a collection of essays and short stories shared by women from the Muslim society in Singapore. While most of the book’s contributors are Malays, they also include Arab and Indian Muslims. In the book, women share about the ways being a Muslim and from a minority race have affected their experiences in Singapore—in their schools, families, workplaces and communities. The stories span an incredible and varied range in an ambitious attempt to encapsulate the entire scope of what being a Muslim/Malay in Singapore means. 

Raudah Abdul Rashid’s “A Muslim Woman’s Guide to the Workplace Part 2” honestly details the multiple encounters she’s had with subtle and blatant discrimination in her Chinese dominated workplace and the resilience she’s had to develop in response. These encounters include her colleagues’ insistence on speaking Chinese during meetings despite knowing she cannot understand them and others asking her why she’s so smart although she is Malay. Many other women in the collection voice out similar race and religion-based discrimination they face—while some use education in an attempt to subvert such prejudices, others turn to dissociating themselves from the Malay Muslim culture in order to unshackle themselves from the stereotypes Singapore associates with that demographic. 

Beyond the discrimination they encounter, many of the writers reveal the conflicts and problematics within the Malay/Muslim community—superstitions and expectations for instance. Also found within the book’s pages are the nuanced struggles arising from intersectionality of the Muslim religion with other definitions of identity—sexuality, fertility, career and race. In some of the stories, we glimpse the horrors of domestic abuse and fracture and the struggles these women face in their attempt to survive the unforgiving and harsh economic and social landscape that is Singapore. 

Growing up Perempuan is a raw and unfiltered look into what it means to be from both a minority race and a sorely misunderstood religion.

3. Stranger to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore, MD Shariff Uddin

Stranger to Myself is a collection of MD Shariff’s diary entries spanning the years 2008 to 2016. It maps out the rollercoaster of his experience as one of the thousands of underpaid and overworked migrant foreign construction workers in Singapore. 

This book serves as a hard-hitting relook at the “stereotypical” migrant workers in Singapore, both as individuals and as a group. The recount-style diary entries paint a portrait of MD Shariff’s life back home in Bangladesh—his childhood memories playing with friends and buying ice-cream, his mother tenderly attending to him when he was sick, the young son he works hard to buy gifts for. These entries are interspersed with highly personal poetry—melodic and poignant snippets of raw emotion: grief, hope, anger. 

Stranger to Myself gives readers a look at the sheer and undeniable humanness of the migrant worker— the invisible force behind Singapore’s beautiful infrastructure and landscape. The book forces Singaporeans to acknowledge the issues perpetuating the dehumanising and almost slave-like conditions Singapore continues to subject these migrants to. 

This nuanced and highly intimate autobiography and diary is an uncomfortable and necessary read for anyone who wants to understand the people on whose backs our nation is built. Reading Stranger to Myself is a starting point from which Singaporeans can begin to understand the need for change and fair human rights for migrant workers. 

It is encouraging to see Singaporeans beginning to acknowledge the inequality and racism minority groups sometimes face. However, beyond just talking about it, we also need to commit to educating ourselves and to listening to minority voices—in their literature and otherwise. While these groups are indeed the minority, they are and will always be an incredibly important part of Singapore’s society. As such, we have to continually work to abolish xenophobia, marginalisation and racism if we want to pave the way to a more equal and truly harmonious Singapore. 

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