JULY 21 — So a primary school teacher was introducing herself to a new Primary 3 (eight- to nine-year-olds) class.
She asked each child in the class to introduce themselves, stating their names as well as their favourite food... as a bit of an ice breaker.
The teacher started with her own name but before she could get to her favourite food, a boy in the class shouted, “Curry, chicken curry, mutton curry, beef curry.”
The teacher was ethnically Indian, the boy ethnically Chinese. She replied her favourite food was not curry but xiao long bao and the boy replied, “Huh... got pork, how come you can eat?”
The teacher then replied (I’m summarising) that this sort of ignorance of other people and cultures was dangerous. She added; “Saying these kind of things can get you killed. It’s because of people like you riots and fights break out. Because you don’t seem to respect other cultures.”
The teacher took to Twitter and reported the whole incident in detail which is how we got to know about it.
Her tweets made it clear she believed the child’s comments — you’re Indian so you automatically like curry — were racist or an attempt to make his classmates laugh by stereotyping her race.
Fundamentally she was offended by the child’s insistence on reducing her to her race and felt this was an instance of Chinese privilege.
The boy clearly had difficulty understanding the fundamental distinctions between Indian and Malay dietary habits — Indian Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.
And most importantly the boy seemed unaware that people aren’t reducible to their race; Indians don’t all like curry (I’m not a big fan myself though I guess it depends on the curry), not everyone of Malay origin loves rendang etc.
Now the kid’s ignorance is disappointing. Singaporeans even at the age of nine should probably have a basic understanding of the cultures and religions around them; multiculturalism is an essential part of Singapore’s identity, it makes us what we are.
But on the other hand, Twitter is a public forum and the boy is nine. In one of her tweets, the teacher referred to the student as “an uncultured swine” and said “I wanted to strangle that kid.”
The boy’s behaviour was certainly disappointing but perhaps a quiet correction and a meeting with the boy’s parents if such behaviour continued would have been sufficient.
Telling a child he could get killed for his words is a drastic step and not something I think a teacher should say to a student at any age, leave alone nine.
And, well, if you’re a teacher and this tiny quip makes you feel like strangling then you really may want to think about your chosen profession. I am not a teacher and I know that kids can do and say far worse than this boy.
Still this episode is just one of the many that ram home the point: Singaporeans at every age should understand each other better.
I’ve encountered plenty of adults whose thinking and understanding of race and religion are at the same level as the Primary 3 boy described.
I’ve encountered plenty of Chinese Singaporeans who have no idea the language they see on countless signboards and notices every day is called Tamil. Is it Indian? Is it Hindi — they can’t name one of our national languages.
There are also plenty of Indian origin Singaporeans and Malay origin Singaporeans who don’t know the first thing about a Taoist temple and can’t fathom the difference between Teochew and Hakka.
This is a shame and potentially dangerous. Singapore’s absolute diversity in terms of its cultures and people is its greatest strength.
Understanding these cultures should be an essential part of our education system. Curriculums should do more to emphasize the histories and practices of Singapore’s various people while pointing out that we are ultimately individuals and much more than a single “race.”
If all our teachers focussed more effectively on this, we might have fewer teachers lashing out at ignorant nine-year-olds as we’d have fewer ignorant nine-year-olds.
Less ignorance, happier teachers — it’s a real win win.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.