Brown Skin, (No) White Masks: Being Indian in Singapore

By Gopal

Indian couple in Singapore, c. 1890. Source: Leiden University Libraries/KITLV

To be an Indian Singaporean, whether Tamil or Malayali, Punjabi or Bengali, is to constantly doubt whether you are, in fact, Singaporean at all. Grasping your red passport and your pink IC, you desperately try to put aside an entire lifetime of condescension, harassment, and discrimination and force yourself to believe that, yes, you are indeed a true citizen of this nation.

You might conjure up the image of establishment Indians with skin as dark as yours, S.R. Nathan, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Janil Puthucheary, K. Shanmugam, and think, “this is my country.” They made it, didn’t they? They have power here, don’t they?

But more importantly, what else do you know besides this small island? Where else could home be? Your parents were born here and your grandparents too. You may be more comfortable speaking a Singlish inflected with Hokkien, Teochew, Malay, and Tamil than the language of your subcontinental ancestors. And yet…

And yet, how to forget childhood memories of being told that your skin was the colour of excrement? How to forget being called “black,” as if it were either accurate or an insult? How to forget being taunted with shrieks of “apu neh neh?” How to forget the spectacle of Racial Harmony day when the same people who made fun of you daily suddenly donned sarees and shalwar kameez and sang Munneru Valiba in a grotesque caricature of… well, you?

How to forget Chinese Singaporeans scrunching up their noses as you walk by? How to forget all these daily forms of exclusion, of which the accumulation over a lifetime sometimes paralyses you? How to forget housing and employment discrimination on the basis of “preference?” How to forget the pervasiveness of Chinese privilege throughout society?

How to forget that time when you met a group of Singaporeans overseas and, when you told them you were Singaporean too, they refused to believe you until you showed them the pinkness of your IC to exorcize the brownness of your skin?

How to forget elected officials who denigrate those of your ilk with impunity? How to forget Choo Wee Khiang, who said in Parliament in 1992 that “one evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around.”

Most of all, how to forget our so-called founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his vile racism towards the Indian and Malay citizens of this nation? How to forget that the mythological Singapore Story writes you out of history, turning the “success” of Singapore into a narrative of Anglo-Chinese invention?

What do the Nathans, Tharmans, Janils, and Shanmugams think? What did they feel when Choo said there were too many Indians around? Did anyone ever say to them that they were shit-skinned? Does the money and power that comes from their loyalty to the PAP lighten their skin? Does the all-white uniform of the PAP also give them a white mask?

For the rest of us, I am afraid, we remain brown-skinned with no masks.

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