Ambiguous Ethnicity in a Plural Society

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Also in Mrs. Selvaratnam’s class is a young Eurasian boy, Philip Gomez. Not performing quite as well as Mariam in school, he faces a rather different set of daily cultural choices. First among these is his identity. Although by Singapore government classification he is categorized as Eurasian, in fact, both his parents are Asian—his father is Chinese, from the Peranakan or Baba subgroup. Many in this subgroup historically do not speak much Chinese, but rather speak a form of Malay that is dying out now (Clammer 1980; Chia 1980; Tan 1993). His mother is of Sri Lankan origin from an old community known as Dutch Burghers, a group who in the past intermarried with European settlers and planters in Ceylon. The term “Eurasian” itself is rather complex in Singapore and rarely refers to the children of mixed Asian–European marriages; such children are usually classified by the ethnicity of their father. Rather, Eurasian is a category encompassing a diverse array of peoples known as “Others” in the formal division of Singapore society into Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others (CMIO). In Singapore, Eurasians are usually of mixed Asian descent. They have created a culture that contains a large percentage of Roman Catholics and is distinct in its hybridity. Philip Gomez’s father has at least one Thai grandparent (Thai–Chinese intermarriages were quite common during the colonial period). He also has a Burmese great-grandmother. Often the Gomez family jokes (half-seriously) that they are actually “ideal Singaporeans—a little bit of just about everything somewhere in the family history.” The problem is that in a society with a penchant for clear and unambiguous classifications, their identity is not well defined. The parents do not find this so problematic, but for Philip the situation is confusing and sometimes distressing. As all schools in Singapore are bilingual, he has to study a second language, but the question is, which language? On his identity card the box that says “Race” classifies him as Eurasian, but the one that says “Language” classifies him as one who speaks Hokkien, which he does not do, but which is his father’s official language. His father does not really speak Hokkien fluently, either, as he actually speaks standard Malay, using the Peranakan dialect that is mixed with Hokkien, and English. Mr. Gomez runs a small fashion-and accessory shop in a medium-sized shopping center in one of the HDB estates. Many of the customers are Malay. Mrs. Gomez was a hairdresser when she married, and still helps out occasionally at a nearby hair salon. Although Mrs. Gomez retired from full-time work after Philip’s and his sister Alice’s births she kept all her hairdressing equipment and makes quite substantial pocket money doing the hair of neighbors and friends at home at bargain prices. Although a Catholic (religion serves as an important bond in this diffused Eurasian community), Mrs. Gomez quietly practices birth control as she does not think they can afford more than two children. She is old enough to have kept her family size in line with the earlier government policy (now abandoned) of encouraging severe limitations on family size (“Boy or Girl, Two is Enough” used to be proclaimed from posters at bus shelters and was even projected in huge letters onto the blank end walls of HDB high-rise apartment blocks).

In the 1980s, curtailment of family size was encouraged by way of tax breaks for those who conformed. Those who did not comply faced penalties such as lower priority status for admissions to elite schools for third and subsequent children. Mrs. Gomez is an active member of women’s groups in the Catholic church in nearby Katong, an old seaside suburb now separated from the sea by new high rises on reclaimed land. She confides her worries about who her children will marry. Another Eurasian? A nonya (a Peranakan woman) for Philip? Or perhaps in Alice’s case the ideal spouse might be an Australian or American. This sort of foreigner would be less likely to be concerned with the family lineage than with her daughter’s attractiveness. In fact, this is the de facto choice for many Eurasians, not least because it carries the possibility of migration to nations where the intricate details of descent and ethnicity will not matter. Not surprisingly, many Eurasians, like many members of Singapore’s once thriving Jewish community, have married out and moved to England or Australia. The west Australian city of Perth, only four hours by air from Singapore, is a particularly popular destination: it has become home to a large community of former Singaporeans, many of them Chinese, but with a substantial proportion of Eurasians and Jews. And where can these single “Caucasians” (in Singapore parlance) who might end up marrying Singaporean women be found? Some might be drink�ing at a bar in one of Singapore’s watering holes as many do on a regular basis since they have little real social life beyond their office, bank, or diplomatic jobs, other than the company of other educated foreign professional workers. Most likely he is one of the many “expats,” the foreigners working for international companies in Singapore or for larger local companies too, some of which have attained the status of multinational corporations. Many of these now live in rented HDB flats in ordinary Singaporean neighborhoods, not in upscale air-conditioned apartments with huge balconies, multiple bathrooms, and bedrooms for the domestic workers as was once the case for foreign professionals.

 

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