At one of our primary schools, a class of primary school students, most of whom were Chinese, sang Munnaeru Vaalibaa during their music lesson. The music teacher glanced out the classroom and saw an elderly Indian woman listening in. Half-afraid that she had massacred the song, the teacher asked, “did we do that correctly?” “Ok!” replied the woman, smiling.
My wife was the music teacher, and as she relates her account to me, we realise it is in these small moments where we can grasp the precious essence that is the multiculturalism we have here in Singapore.
Many years ago, while I was serving as a vehicle technician during my National Service in the army, we had a Chinese New Year celebratory dinner for all the trainee technicians. There was a sizeable number of Muslims among the trainees, so the organisers handed out forms to record our dietary preferences. A group of us decided we would opt for the halal menu, just so we could hang out with the Muslim trainees through the dinner.
That night, about 20 tables were spread out on the workshop floor, all covered in pink disposable plastic tablecloths. We sat with at one of the tables designated for those who had opted for the halal menu. There was a pregnant pause in the air. The Malay trainees were probably wondering if we had sat at the wrong table, and we felt a little uncomfortable; unsure if we had crossed some imaginary territorial lines by being there.
When they began to serve the food, one of the Malay trainees asked me why we weren’t with the other Chinese trainees. I told them that the few of us thought the celebrations would have been more meaningful if we could all be together. I remember the next moment very profoundly: he looked right into me and said, “You are very good guys to have done this.”
I remember this very moment so vividly because it was just a few minutes before that when the caterers brought out suckling pigs for the Chinese tables, and the Muslim food hadn’t arrived at our table. The juxtaposition of my Malay friend’s approval and my very base thought of “OMG did we just miss out on SUCKLING PIG?!?!” elicited a very strong emotional response from within me. I was instantly ashamed to have allowed my appetite to dictate my immediate thoughts. We had a really great time that night, and something significant emerged from our small decision to sign up for the halal menu. There was a brotherhood that looked beyond our differences in culture and united us because we had chosen to let it be so. We had chosen not to let our differences get in the way of our similarities, and to be intrigued and in awe of our diversity, rather than be afraid of it.
It has been many years since that night, but today we still face these same decisions. Singapore stands for a great many things: some noble, others maybe less so. But few things are as precious as our openness to people of different races and backgrounds.
We need to work hard to defend that, especially at the torrid pace globalisation is descending upon all of Asia. This openness to cultural diversity is a part of Singapore we should preserve, a most beautiful part we can proudly hand down to our children.