You can say that the fascination with Olympian Joseph Schooling's heritage surfaced two years ago when Singaporeans caught wind of this swimming talent on the rise. In response to the ignorant comments that branded his son as a 'foreign talent', father Colin took matters into his own hands: By recording a video (with the Straits Times) stating in Malay — Singapore's national language — "Nama saya Colin Schooling, anak benar Singapura", which translates to "My name is Colin Schooling, a true child of Singapore".
The fact that Schooling senior had to go national to debunk what a Singaporean can look and sound like tells a lot about our current attitudes towards race. The Singapore-born businessman is a Eurasian — his grandfather was an officer in the British army who married a local Portuguese-Eurasian — who had to remind the public, "don't forget Eurasians are part of the Singapore population" in a Straits Times article, "My boy's a true son of Singapore", also published two years ago.
Well, the Schoolings are back in the spotlight after Joseph clinched a gold in the Olympics, but it appears not much has changed. The Anglo-Chinese School alumni has had insensitive comments bearing down on him, with Singaporeans both united and divided in an issue few dare to speak out about: Race. Some applauded Singapore's son, while some continued to dispute over how Singaporean he is — despite the fact that Schooling was born, raised and educated here (for most of his young life).
Yesterday, a Today article titled "More Than Devil Curry" surfaced as a reminder of what Eurasians are and what they've contributed to Singapore. But what exactly does it mean to be a Eurasian Singaporean in this day and age? We ask some multi-generational Eurasians in the arts (plus our very own beauty editor) to weigh in on what it means to that minority you hear so little about in Singapore, in light of Schooling's popularity. Their replies might just surprise you.
What does it mean to be a Eurasian Singaporean?
It just simply means being a Eurasian in Singapore. I've never really thought of myself as different from anyone else who is Singaporean. I mean, I sometimes forget I look different or speak slightly differently from other ethnicities, but I'm so used to that and it just seems natural. We have our own traditions and customs of course, like how we celebrate Easter and Christmas with our uniquely Eurasian cuisine and merry-making, but generally we are all Singaporeans, as much as the next guy.
— Timothy De Cotta, singer-songwriter and producer. De Cotta is of Portuguese, Indian and Dutch heritage.
What does fellow Eurasian Joseph Schooling's win at the Olympics mean for you as a minority in Singapore?
To be quite honest, my first reaction was pride as a SINGAPOREAN. His race didn't impact me in the beginning. I felt like Singapore had a legitimate reason to be proud of something genuine and tangible and that was a good (and rare) feeling for me. It's a bonus that I identify with him as a Eurasian and that I can feel that pride on a separate level.
— Michaela Therese, singer-songwriter. Therese's maternal grandmother was first generation Eurasian on her father's side and second generation on her mother's side.
What do you feel when fellow Singaporeans mistake you for a different nationality or race? Is it frustrating or do you not care?
Imagine going home, and having your family ask you where you're from. Being Eurasian, I have no cultural, ethnic, or spiritual home except Singapore.
In Portugal, China or Ireland (or any other place from which my ancestors came) I would be culturally and ethnically distinct. Even in the Eurasian communities of Penang, Malacca or Perth, I would be the Singaporean, the foreigner. This is where I come from, this is my history, these people are my people, and this is my home. I am Singaporean, even if my fellow countrymen cannot recognise me.
— Brendon Fernandez, actor and presenter. Fernandez is of Portuguese, Chinese and Irish heritage.
What do you think can be done to educate Singaporeans about Singapore's ethnic makeup, and the fact that minorities such as yourself exist?
I'm not sure formal measures will work and it is difficult to please everyone. Today published an informative article about Eurasians yesterday, and there were so many complaints and negative comments that the article was unnecessary and brought us back to pre-independence.
But I think one way is for people to mix with others outside of their race and have a bit of curiosity about their fellow Singaporeans. We are an immigrant society. It baffles me when people think there is only one definition of Singaporean, and that they are the 'guardians' of Singaporean-ness.
— Renée Batchelor, beauty editor of Buro 24/7 Singapore. Batchelor's forefathers came from both Europe and Asia, with a maternal great grandfather from Kerala, India.
How do you think these negative comments reflect where Singapore stands as a modern society today? What makes a Singaporean, Singaporean?
I think there is still a lot of racial awkwardness and tension in Singaporean society today. That central question, the one about what makes a Singaporean a Singaporean, is a deeply worrying one for many of us. Is food really all there is to our identity? As a nation, are we truly a happy bowl of rojak, or do we tolerate those different from us only because we have to? I think we are hostile and more fearful of otherness than normal at this point because of this deep anxiety about who we are, as Singaporeans. I think a lot of this negative sentiment and hostility stems from insecurity about our identity as Singaporeans.
These are the questions we should be asking ourselves instead: Are you going to dream big? Are you going to persevere? Are you going to punch well above your weight class, just like this country has done? What are you going to bring to society in Singapore, to the world at large, to make it better than it is now?
I think that the question Singaporeans have so much anxiety about — what it is to be Singaporean — lies in these questions, and the answers to these questions.
— Samantha De Silva, writer. De Silva is of Portuguese Eurasian descent.
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