DECEMBER 31 — A rather interesting article has been doing the rounds on the internet lately: an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) which discusses why ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia don’t owe their loyalty to China.
It’s an interesting article that I think makes a broadly valid point that the so-called “Chinese” of the region have in fact become a multitude of different peoples who often have very little to do with the modern Chinese nation.
Now the writer of the SCMP piece looks at the matter from a strategic perspective: the role these ethnic Chinese populations should play in the face of a rising China.
However, for me the article raises even more fundamental issues regarding race, identity and discrimination. Basically, is there even such a thing as a South-east Asian Chinese and can such a people coherently exist?
I have always been told it can. On just about every form from the essential IC to gym application forms (why?) I am asked if I am Chinese, Indian, Malay or other.
From birth I have been taught to answer that I am Indian. Though I am a Singapore citizen born in Singapore to parents born in Singapore and with my grandparents also, largely, born in Singapore
I have also been told since birth that I am different from the majority of Singaporeans who are Chinese. But when you really give this some thought, it doesn’t make that much sense.
What is Indian about a person whose ancestors have been born in Singapore and Malaysia for over five generations? Who has been to India, at most three times in her life.
The answer is well, maybe not that much. I can speak Tamil because Singapore’s education system forced you (circa 1990 but it is a little different now) to study your “mother tongue” (my mother’s tongue is largely English but she’s brown so Tamil it was).
Now I am very happy I speak Tamil and I wish I spoke it better, but does that make me Indian?
I have an aunt who is of Chinese ethnicity but was raised by Singaporean Indians and went on to marry one: is she therefore Indian?
And what if you, or your parents at least, didn’t eat the bitterness of the Cultural Revolution, don’t know the pain of Gao Kao (national exams), don’t know your Liang Hui (annual political decision-making session) from your Zhèngzhìjú (Politburo), can you really be Chinese?
For the most part, I think not. National identity is about more than language or skin colour, it’s about feeling comfortable in the place you’re in, knowing where you belong and having a set of references and experiences you can share.
But how can someone who has never seen a country belong there? For years and generations, many Singapore Chinese never set foot in China.
These people created a culture of their own — from laksa to the Nonya kebaya — this culture was a clear fusion of Chinese and indigenous elements.
It was the British with their obsession for classifying, the Singapore government with its determination to foster a Chinese identity and the intolerance of regional governments who made ethnic Chinese feel unwelcome that created this determination for a people to pronounce themselves Chinese.
In other settler-dominated nations like Australia, Argentina and New Zealand you don’t see this as much. Many/most white Australians/New Zealanders are of English descent (unlike the USA where there are all sorts of origins) but for the most part they don’t go around saying they are English though they are in fact at least as English as I am Indian or Singapore Chinese are Chinese.
But in Singapore we are quite fixated on the idea of “race” (though we mean ethnicity, at best). We commonly say things like: I saw an Indian guy arguing with a Chinese taxi driver. Though we know neither of these guys is Indian or Chinese, they are both Singaporean.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In Thailand a huge number of people (up to 25 million or nearly 40 per cent of the population) are of partial Chinese descent — opposition supremo Thaksin Shinawatra and millions of others all have ancestors from Southern China but they clearly identify as Thai first with Chinese ancestry being, generally, a very secondary part of their identity.
This makes sense to me; while I don’t deny my Indian heritage I am Singaporean first, Westernised second, a Yishun-rep third, a Beyonce fan fourth or something like that. Identity is layered and complex; where does India fit in my identity — somewhere but not too much.
Our ethnic origin is only a part of our identity and trying to equate us with the land of our ancestors will only weaken our actual nation.
If you tell people from birth that they are Chinese, and if they must state their Chineseness over and over again, would you be surprised if some of them end up being loyal to China?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.