By Nurul Deanna
I am an Indian Muslim. No, I did not convert. No, I am not Hindu (did I already mention I’m Muslim?). I am Indian and yes, I’m very sure that I’m Muslim.
I remember when I was in a Grab on the way to work for my internship. The driver took one look at me and the first thing he asked me was, “Eh, you Indian ah?” When I replied that I am Indian, he was shocked. “You don’t look Indian eh,” he said. I began to think. What is an Indian supposed to look like? You mean to say each person has specific biological features that determines their race?
Oh man, here we go again.
I hoped the conversation would end there and I could pretend to be asleep. But alas, the driver was an extremely curious man.
“So that means you Hindu, right?”
“Uh… No, uncle, I’m Muslim.”
“Huh? But I thought you said you Indian?”
At that point of time, I begged to be thrown out of the car. I imagined the road would open up and I would be swallowed into the black hole, never having to deal with this kind of situation ever again. But this is real life, and Singapore’s roads are smooth and efficient and probably one of the best in the world.
And then he tried to convert me to Christianity because according to him, “Islam very restricted, right?”. I thank Allah SWT for giving me the patience to sit through that ride.
Fast forward a few years later and I was sitting in an interview to qualify for my University’s bursary that would help with my tuition fees. In front of me sat four Chinese women. For some reason, I felt extremely nervous and my brain was subconsciously preparing me for some kind of fight. I remember telling myself to keep calm. I remember reminding myself that I had to stand up for my rights too if something were to happen. But I was also confused. I am in a room with women. I should be comfortable, but why was I scared?
Turns out my instincts were right.
The interview lasted about 10 minutes, but it was the longest and most painful 10 minutes of my life. To sum up, I felt attacked and violated. In the first few minutes, they asked me about my religion. When I told them I’m Muslim, they must have assumed I am Malay too. I had to explain how I am actually Indian, but it looked like they couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that I am both Indian and Muslim. The kinds of questions they were asking after that made me feel like I had to prove that I am Muslim. I was quite taken aback by all this. As an educational institution, shouldn’t their priority be helping the students get the best education they deserve? What has my religion or my race got to do with my chances of getting a bursary? My fight or flight mode began to kick in. I felt like I was being interrogated instead.
“Why do you need the money?”
“How hard is your family’s condition financially?”
“How do you get the money for your daily expenses?”
“Why didn’t you apply for a bank loan?”
“You’re Muslim, right? Apply for Mendaki lah.”
“What’s the difference between Malay and Muslim? Same what.”
For every answer I gave, they had a counter for it. And for every counter they gave, I felt my hope diminishing. I felt smaller and smaller. It was four against one, what could I do? By then, I was already preparing an explanation for my parents. I did not want them to know that I might not get a bursary because of my race or my religion. I began to list down in my head some other ways I could do to get more money to help pay for my tuition fees. All this while they were shutting me down with every question asked.
Half of the interview was them trying to convince me to apply for a bursary with Mendaki. To my knowledge, the bursary under Mendaki is only for Malay-Muslim applicants. So, the other half of the interview was me trying to convince them that Malay and Muslim are two different identities, and that I am Indian and not Malay. From anecdotes I heard, I knew my chances of getting accepted by Mendaki were extremely low. If someone I knew had to change his race from Indian to Malay just to receive financial aid from Mendaki, what makes you think I don’t have to do it too? If someone I knew, a convert, had to put in voluntary hours on the weekends to receive the financial aid from Mendaki, what makes you think I don’t have to do it too?
I felt like the weight of representing the Malay, the Indian and the Muslim communities fell on my shoulders. My answers and my explanation would determine what they would think about race and religion in Singapore. This was not a responsibility I wanted nor am I ready for. But they were ruthless. I had been silenced countless of times during the interview. By the end of it, I became quiet. What was the point of trying to defend myself anymore, I thought. I left that room thinking that I will probably never get that bursary. (I got it in the end. I guess my defence left some kind of impact on them.)
The fact that race plays a vital part in determining your access to services and opportunities is problematic. The CMIO policy, for example, continues to frame our national policies from housing to education, including public housing ethnic quotas.
With the brownface incident involving the E-Pay advertisement and local online star, Preetipls and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, it shows that conversations on race are long overdue. Avoiding such discussions by censoring them does not help deepen our understanding about racism and the offensiveness of brownface. It only entrenches our fear of talking about race. By avoiding and censoring issues, it limits knowledge and prevents the exchange of ideas. As a society, we need to mature and learn how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic. We need to have more open discussions and debates to talk about these issues without the risk of censorship, and in a safe and non-threatening environment. This includes sharing stories from minority communities by giving spaces and public platforms for them to be heard.
Not only that, sharing and reading stories from minority communities allows us to practice empathy. It forces us to analyse the thoughts and feelings of the person in the narrative, putting ourselves in their shoes. Hearing their experiences and the troubles they face can teach you not to judge, but to listen actively and understand. From these stories, it answers the question of what it’s like to be ignored and sidelined by society.
Similarly, in the Muslim community, it is important that we not only giving air time and platforms to just the Malays or just the Sunnis. A Muslim in Singapore is not always someone who is Malay or Sunni. They may not always be wearing the hijab. They may not even be heterosexual.
We shouldn’t censor the diversity in our community by choosing to present only one kind of “acceptable Muslim” and ignoring everyone else that do not fit within this restrictive and arbitrary category. In her talk at TEDGlobal 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about the danger of a single story, wherein a community or a group of people are only shown as one thing and only one thing over and over again. It reduces people to one single identity and robs them of their dignity. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.
It is important that we continue questioning the narratives, stereotypes and assumptions that has been fed to us. From these powerful diverse stories, we can become a more inclusive and empathetic community.
Nurul Deanna is an undergraduate pursuing her degree in Criminology. Her interests include studying marginalised communities and risk societies, looking at colonial and postcolonial literature, and learning about intersectional and transnational feminism.
Photo credit: Firqin