The public debate on brownface ad vs K.Muthusamy rumbles on. 

A Singaporean Indian, Yudhishthra Nathan, drew upon the musings of his own great-grandfather, R B Krishnan, some 80 years ago, and asked the same question - what does it mean to be an Indian in Singapore?

Here are his thoughts:

How would I answer the question my great-grandfather, R B Krishnan, considered 80 years ago if I had the chance to speak to him?

I suppose I would inform him of things he may never have imagined in his wildest dreams. That today, the locals of Singapore do indeed occupy an honourable position in the body politic of our country, that we have the independence to determine our future. That his brother’s youngest son would one day be elected by a Chinese-majority single member constituency to a multiracial Parliament of Singapore. That a personal copy of his book would one day be donated to the National Library by a man named S R Nathan who occupied the highest office of the land in the Istana built by those indentured Indian labourers. I would tell him that the “new Malayan consciousness, culture and tradition” he dreamt of evolved to become the Singaporean life I live today – an Indian amongst Chinese, Malays and Eurasians I count as family, some of whom I’ve had the chance to serve alongside under an oath to defend our country.

But I would also tell him that, sometimes, being Indian in Singapore means having to engage in moments of quiet questioning. The quiet questioning we do as children when primary schoolmates laugh at the sounds of our mother tongue. The quiet recognition of the barber’s condescension when you hear him say “hēi rén” and “tóu fa” literally behind your back as a kid. It’s the quiet loss of words you possess when people tell you you’re “not like other Indians.” It’s the silent consideration of whether the conditions in an advert may be prejudice disguised as preference – for tuition gigs, jobs and in the rental market. Questions which we learn from young hurt less when eviscerated from our minds as quickly and unexpectedly as they tend to emerge.

I would tell him not to worry too much about me because the irony of discrimination of any form is that it reminds me to be the bigger person, to check my own privilege, and to be thankful for all the people, of all races, who appreciate me for who I am.

I would tell him that, like him, I want to live in a Singapore where Indians can not only represent themselves but can be represented by others. A Singapore where “your” problem is “my” business – where you don’t have to be Indian to learn that brownface ads are in poor taste, where you don’t have to be Malay to call out the institutionalised discrimination in the armed forces, where you don’t have to be Chinese to start a conversation about the socio-cultural effects of the state-driven erasure of dialects. A Singapore where we look out for one another.

I would tell him that while he desired freedom from white men, I desire a Singapore where men in white free Singaporeans from being pawns in a political game. Where racial reservations for the Presidency are repealed, and where one’s race is not a determinant as to whether one can become Prime Minister.

Most of all, I would tell my great-grandfather that just as he dreamt of a common Malayan consciousness which he never got to witness, my hope is for the continual progress of the Singaporean consciousness we possess today even if, like him, I may never live to see the wonders of its eventual iterations.

There have been great strides made by the community.

Yet, there are factors, some systemic, that may not be in the community's best interest, or in their favour.

What kind of Singapore do you want to live in? 

Are we even aware of the privileges we have simply be being in the majority?

For a Singaporean identity to truly form, and to build a Singapore that is more inclusive, we have to break these barriers between the majority and the minority communities, and help them along.

We need to care about their issues and their problems too.

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