Monday, 6 October 2014

Eurasians: We're Singaporeans

Some Eurasians have been mistaken for foreigners, much to their frustration
By Benson Ang, The Sunday Times, 5 Oct 2014

They are true-blue Singaporeans who were born and bred here, as were some of their parents.

Yet, many Eurasians are often mistaken for foreigners because of their European-looking features and Western-sounding surnames.

Just ask Asian Games gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling. In the past week, the 19-year-old's Eurasian looks have attracted more attention than his swimming feats.

Netizens have called him an "ang moh" (a Hokkien term for "Caucasian") and a foreign talent.

The online fuss prompted his businessman father Colin to tell The Straits Times last week - in Malay, no less - that he is a "true son of Singapore".

Their last name Schooling originated in Germany. Joseph Schooling's great- grandfather, an officer in the British army, came from England and married a local Portuguese-Eurasian. His grandfather and father were born in Singapore.

Eurasian Singaporeans tell SundayLife! that such mix-ups over their nationality are part and parcel of their lives.

Take, for example, Madam Rosalynn Heramis, 36, who runs a business providing transportation services.

She is of Spanish, Filipino, Portuguese and Chinese descent, but people often mistake her for Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian.

"Every other day, I get called a 'wai guo ren'," says the brunette with long wavy hair, using the Chinese term for "foreigner".

"An auntie at a coffee shop once said I had an Indian-sounding name and big eyes, so I must come from India. I felt irritated, but I didn't hold it against her as it was an honest mistake."

Mr Graham Ong-Webb, 39, who has English, German, Dutch, Chinese and Indian blood, is often taken for an American or Israeli.

Says the political risk consultant with a fair complexion and brown eyes: "Once, I showed my pink IC to a wonton mee seller who didn't believe I was born here, saying anyone can be Singaporean if he stayed long enough."

Mr Michael Shelley, 57, has English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai and Indonesian blood and is often assumed to be a British national because of his fair skin colour.

Says the general manager of an events company: "Sometimes, shopkeepers call me names in Hokkien or Malay, assuming I don't understand what they are saying.

"When the comments are too negative, I just walk out of the shop without buying anything. I don't want to give my business to such nasty people."

According to the Singapore Census of Population 2010, there are 15,581 Eurasian residents - comprising citizens and permanent residents - here.

As of the end of last year, 2,128 are members of the Eurasian Association of Singapore, a self-help group which serves the Eurasian community here.

The association's president, Mr Benett Theseira, 49, says: "As the name Eurasian suggests, we are descendants of a marital union between a European and an Asian.

"Those who appear more Asian might be mistakenly identified as Chinese, Malay or Indian. For those who appear more European, they might often be identified as a foreigner."

He adds: "Ask any Eurasian Singaporean and he or she will definitely have stories to relate of mistaken identity. Most Eurasians find it unacceptable that despite their families being in Singapore for many generations, fellow Singaporeans still do not recognise them as such."

Indeed, home-grown Eurasians say it is frustrating, sometimes even troubling, to be mistaken for a different nationality.

As Mr Colin Schooling, 66, said in his interview with The Straits Times: "Don't forget Eurasians are part of the Singapore population."

Mr Dean Hunt, 21, a university undergraduate whose father is British and mother Chinese Singaporean says he is often mistaken for an exchange student from Britain.

"When I speak to them in my local accent, they say I don't 'meet' their expectations of me. I once thought of learning a British accent. But now, I think it's best to be myself."

Mr Ong-Webb has also learnt to live with unwarranted comments.

"After so long, I've accepted that people will always make assumptions based on what they see. But deep down, I still hope others can accept that I'm a fellow countryman rather than an outsider."

Other Eurasians try to make light of the situation.

Says Madam Heramis: "I'll deliberately answer in Mandarin to see the shocked looks on their faces. It's interesting to hear which countries others think I'm from."

There are perks of boasting an exotic parentage too.

Mr Shelley jokes: "I've never been short of pretty and sexy girlfriends. They all want to show off to their friends that they are dating an 'ang moh kia'.

"I won't even tell them I'm actually Singaporean. Don't want to shatter the illusion." "Ang moh kia" means "Caucasian kid" in Hokkien.

Says his wife, Madam Ruby Tan, 51, a Chinese Singaporean who works as a corporate trainer: "When I first met Michael, I thought he was British because of his fair complexion and green eyes.

She adds jokingly: "It's actually better that he is Singaporean. If he were British, I'd have to follow him to Britain."

Singaporean to the core
Editorial, The Sunday Times, 12 Oct 2014

The general pursuit of a Singaporean core in the workforce, sporting arena or society at large should not overlook what it really means to be Singaporean to the core. When visual stereotypes rule, anyone who doesn't look sufficiently "Singaporean", like Asiad gold medallist Joseph Schooling, has to bear with jibes against foreigners, even though born here - as indeed was the swimming star, his father and granddad. When someone who has done the nation proud is treated thus by trigger-happy xenophobes, even having been bred and schooled here might not matter a jot.

Open-minded citizens, however, would not be hung up on birthplaces or antecedents, and find good cause to bond with others who have embraced the Singapore way of life, social values, local mores and, yes, a common love for street food. Shared experiences, memories and aspirations would then form the basis of social kinship. Such a construction of a Singaporean identity is inviting as it would accommodate the diverse identities that co-exist here.

However, when being Singaporean is bound with the politics of identity, an exclusive notion of citizenship can assert itself over other identities, despite the obvious ironies. For example, when many of Singapore's revered pioneers - including a number of the nation's founding fathers - started their lives here as foreigners, what does it really mean to be "a true son or daughter of Singapore"?

When the singular identity denoted by citizenship is at odds with the multiple identities in a hub city, it would be ruinous to see this as a bitter contest. Rather, the tension should be managed sensibly, as an inclusive project to foster mutual understanding, give and take, and better appreciation of what is needed for society to hold together. Setting the scene this way offers a better chance more will feel that being Singaporean is really about "being" - deciding this is the best for one to be and committing to it.

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