Go with a smile!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Much ado about Curry

I think that this incident defied common sense. A lot of people from the government are actually going to stand up for the principles behind the mediation. They'll tell you the philosophy behind the mediation and all that. But the outcome will lack common sense. So let me state the reasons why.

1. Everybody cooks curry in Singapore. Newcomers just have to adjust. Curry is not a special local food, it is also the national dish in India and Great Britain. Even Japanese people, not known for their love of spices in cooking, love curry. So curry is not only found everywhere in Singapore, but many places outside of Singapore. It is one hell of a thing to impose a temporary ban on it.

2. The howls of indignation are not racist. At least, it is not anymore racist than the original terms of mediation.

3. In the "Good Old days", we suspect, the government would have told everybody, in the name of racial harmony and tolerance, to put up with the smell of curry. The narrative of building a nation in Singapore goes something like this: the Chinese settle in the Southern Seas. They meet strange new people from other lands. Maybe they don't like the smell of curry. Now, we have Hainanese curry rice, curry is a staple in Peranakan cooking, and we have curry yong tao foo.

Curry is lodged in our subconscious, maybe not as a national symbol, but at least a powerful symbol that there is a modus vivendi between the 3 main races. If there is a symbol for Racial Harmony Day, it ought to be a pot of curry. These days, if you want to piss off Singaporeans of all races, just take away their curry.

If you want to take it a little further, it is also a symbol that Singapore has, with no small difficulty, considering that we are a small nation, forged a separate identity for itself. Chinese migrants originally thought they were going back to China. But their descendents made a home here, and attempted to forge a community anew, something slightly different from what their parents envisioned. This something new is the nation of Singapore.

4. There is something wrong with the current mode of mediation. Where we don't attempt to articulate the values of the community to newcomers, where we don't attempt to "preserve our way of life" (SAF's words, not mine) by at least being a little more forceful about putting across the point that something valuable is in danger of being sacrificed. This is not "being neutral". This is "letting things slide". Mediators do not take a point of view.

I think in this case, they may have misread that the interests of the community are not served. One of the mediators admitted that she didn't realise that this curry story was going to blow up. Myself, I didn't know that it was going to blow up either, but I knew that people would get upset. If the mediators didn't see this coming, that if and when this story got publicised, does that mean that they're a little tone deaf and are effectively walking through a minefield blindfolded?

Why didn't they look out for the interests of the community? Why didn't they advice and warn the mainlander newcomer about the kind of flak that they were going to receive when they stop people from cooking curry? How did they not see that this would be interpreted as a cowboy newcomer muscling his way through the rights of a minority? Is the mediation narrowly defined as a mediation between 2 parties, or is there a 3rd party, the community / nation, whose input is being conveniently ignored?

The mediator said that nobody could say that the Indian family didn't willingly accept the terms of the negotiation. So ostensibly it's not fair to say that the Indian family was forced into it, and also not fair to say that the Indian family was not forced into it. But when the Indian family said, "we'll just hope that they give curry a try", now that's a hint.

Now let's look at a few specious arguments that some detractors of the cook curry movement have put up.

1. This cook curry movement is xenophobic and anti PRC

As said above, curry is a powerful symbol that assimilation between the 3 races is working. This symbol of assimilation is in contrast to another process of assimilation which is still in process, but whose success is yet to be guaranteed: the assimilation between the new arrivals and Singaporeans.

My reply is that an invitation to cook curry is just that. It could even be a belated attempt to reach out to mainlanders, even though it's an attempt that is done on our terms and not theirs. It is not a sit-in, a protest, a hate mob. It is a nice meal. But there is this subtext too: if you can't stand the curry, consider other options.

And after all, for all the talk about tolerance, there is one thing that you can legitimately be intolerant about: and that is intolerance. Tolerance is simply the intolerance of intolerance.

2. It is embarrassing that a protest has gathered the attention of the newspapers.

I don't think that people in Hong Kong or Taiwan are extremely embarrassed at their inability to handle people from the mainland. You tell me, what is the common factor in all of this? Singapore is just like Hong Kong or Taiwan, there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

3. Singapore has to position itself as a global city in order to attract more immigrants, so that it can further position itself as a global city.

The way in which the Singapore has integrated its races is something that is interesting. It has never been “neutral” about race. This is a melting pot, to be sure, but it is also a melting pot where the 3 main components are still identifiably there. The government, in the past, has always taken a large role in putting together the 3 races. Many of these measures are sometimes contentious, but to me they are experiments that worked. First, the ethnic quotas in HDB flats. Some people might think that this is a “forced” way of reaching out to people, and having to put up with neighbours. But putting them next to each other, side by side, even if the relationships are a little dysfunctional at first, are a great way of getting them to accept each other as a fact of life.

Second, the racial harmony act, which forbids people to stir up shit by making comments about each other’s race that might cause offence. On the face of it, this is also like forced sterilisation, where we are forced to deal with our differences by pretending that they don’t exist. In reality, when a lot of time goes by without major incidents and flashpoints, it becomes a powerful force for accepting of each other’s cultures. People start picking up subtleties and understanding how each others’ systems work. Conversely, if you study how things work in places where ethnic integration has failed, such as Iraq or the former Yugoslavia, or even medieval Spain, you understand that many years of peace and harmony can be torn asunder by one divisive act.

The old methods of integration are disappearing in the name of globalisation. Now, when we have another class of new foreigners, they don’t seem to be living in the same Singapore as the rest of us heartlanders. I once asked an angmoh who claimed to live in Singapore for 5 years, if she knew a place called Toa Payoh that was 3 MRT stops away from Orchard. She didn’t. For that matter, how many angmohs do you see north of Novena, that are not going to the zoo?

Well the fact is that we do have a lot of new migrants, and we’re going to have to learn all over again to live side by side with them. Pinoys. Non-Tamil Indians. Mainlanders. Indonesians. Things are very difficult this time because instead of learning 3 sets of stereotypes, we have a lot of cultures to learn from. In the past, it was still possible to achieve that old balancing act, where we had harmony between the 3 major ethnic groups, and the 3 major ethnic groups still maintained their separate, individual identities. Now we have the foreigner where we can’t figure out where we stand with them. We look at a new guy and can’t really tell if he’s Vietnamese, Burmese, Indonesian or Pinoy until he or she opens his mouth. People speak languages that we can’t identify. It is a strange and bewildering world. The old rules are being swept away.

I don’t think the 3 anchors – Chinese, Malay , Tamil, should go. (Yes, I said Tamil, because I don’t feel I understand the new Indians very well). At least they are like signposts to guide us through this strange new world. But they no longer stand for as much of the new picture as they used to.

Basically, the point of all this: last time, we knew how to integrate the races together. Now, we’re just not very sure. I wish we had done something like, we get a new group in, and then we try to integrate them into our structure. Of course, that means we introduce the foreigners slowly, which is something that we adamantly are not doing right now. Instead, it’s all about economic dictates.

So do you now understand the meaning of curry? Curry is a symbol of that old structure. Singlish is also a symbol of that old structure, but for some reason, this other much cherished symbol of racial integration is in danger of the government declaring that outsiders have a problem understanding us. It might be sacrificed in the name of global integration. I feel that there is a danger that the government is getting a little too dumb to realise that it’s dismantling something good. So what do we sign up for? The standard of living in the 3rd world, and our standard of living eventually converging towards each other?

It is a small war between that old nationalist integration between the 3 major races, and a newer integration with the global community. Something where we don't really know if it's going to work.

We are losing our sovereignty. We used to hang Fior Contemplacion when we thought we should, we used to cane Michael Fay whenever we thought we should. Now somebody comes into our HDB flats and asks us to stop cooking curry, and we bend over like meek obedient slaves.

Well, Singlish might be something that puts us in conflict with the rest of the world, even though it shouldn’t. New York, London (cockney), Liverpool and much of Scotland are proud of their local accents, and we have to hide Singlish away like something to be ashamed of? We have bureaucrats insufficiently enlightened to understand how Singlish can be an essential part of our branding.

Curry will not put us in conflict with the rest of the world. In London, during happier days, it was a symbol of integration between Whites, Blacks and Indians (known as Asians).

What we should be aiming for, is that we should rebuild our national identity. Now, we see all these forces tearing up all the old rules. But we should still have a national identity in place. Singapore should still feel like a coherent community. We shouldn’t have ethnic enclaves, disenfranchised foreigners, disenfranchised locals. At least we are helping to make sure that the foreigners are, by and large employed. It would be a total disaster if we didn’t do that. Those global “cities” where there are significant minorities who operate completely independently of mainstream society should not be models for us to emulate. I’m talking about violence in the suburbs of Paris. Marseilles becoming a North African city. Islamist movements in London that led to the subway bombings. These are products of failed integration.

So this is the nub of my complaint: I don’t see Singapore taking concrete steps to avoid going down that road. We are pulling dead bodies out of public parks and we don’t really know how they got there. We are no longer the clean and safe exceptional city in Asia.

And to do that, we should have some notion of who we are, and not allow these new forces to tug us around however they feel like it. Newcomers will bring their traditions, their food, their culture here, and they will be able to influence Singapore, but telling somebody not to cook curry is just plain disruptive.

4. Mediation is unbiased and neutral

I think I had a mediator writing a long essay on what mediation is all about. I suppose it is very easy to say that you’re neutral, and it avoids all kinds of legal complications. But what is absent in this mode of thinking is the voice of the community. There is no definition of what is right and wrong. Effectively it means that the views of a fresh off the boat migrant and somebody who knows Singapore really well are accorded equal status. That’s not right. If all mediated outcomes turn out to be midpoints between the positions of both parties, then there is every incentive for people to take extreme positions, so that he can get what he wants. Or the one who is more forceful in arguing the case will get what they want. There is a disincentive to start with moderate positions, and the centre is squeezed out. Suppose I were in the middle of getting robbed of $20. I would suppose a neutral approach is that I get robbed of $10 instead.

The mediator argued that it is a fallacy that the mediation outcome will always take the middle ground between two opposing stances. But how do you avoid taking the middle ground, when the mediator has promised not to take a stand? If the mediator’s job is to go through and see what is the interests of all parties, then doesn’t this contradict the other aspect of mediation, where they are seldom allowed to give advice and never allowed to give judgement? Because when you are identifying who are the interested parties, and what their interests are, you are basically making a judgement.

In this particular case, I think the mediator missed out on the interest of the community. They didn’t consider what the community thought. They should have warned the mainlander family of the consequences but that mediator told me that she didn’t forsee this happening. Now, if you are a mediator in a community and you don’t really know what that community is thinking, it is very dangerous.

The mediator brought out some very interesting insights on what a mediation means. It is not meant to be enforcible. It is not meant to be legally binding. It is not backed up with force. It is mainly there to defuse the tension. And to be fair, the mediator herself has expressed a lot of dissatisfaction with the process.

But I preferred that the government used to take a moral stand on a few issues. I'm sure that the mediator can include the voice of the government in the mediation. Even the People's Association can be represented, since they are ostensibly the voice of the village. It cannot be just about two parties, as though the two parties live in a vaccuum.

And there are a lot of boilerplate answers, civil service style. Here are the procedures. We followed the procedures. It doesn't matter that the outcome is absurd, our asses are well and fully covered. No, we will not review our procedures, even in the face of reality. (But to be fair to them, it is fucking difficult to change procedures.)


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9:20 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...


3:20 AM


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