School days: When I had just one non-Chinese classmate

By Sean Lim

The author’s (seated on front bench) class taken during Racial Harmony Day 2011, with a potpourri of ethnic costumes. But isn’t that a farce if one lives in a racial bubble with few friends outside of his own race? PHOTO: SEAN LIM

It is almost blasphemous in multi-racial Singapore for a Chinese to admit to having only a handful of non-Chinese friends. But please hear me out before you accuse me of being racist. 

I studied in Chung Cheng High (Yishun) and Nanyang Junior College. Both are not Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools but they have a predominantly Chinese student population. Throughout six years of study, my classmates were all Chinese, except for the sole non-Chinese in my secondary school class. But even she spoke Mandarin — and did Higher Chinese.

Most of us conversed, cussed and sang karaoke songs in Mandarin, which is unsurprising given that all of us studied Higher Chinese. As someone who is (and still) rooted in Chinese culture, I was proud of this background and of the community. Somehow, an interaction with another individual becomes more cordial when we converse in Mandarin. Talk about tribal attachment.

It did not help either that I was posted to the air force during my national service where the majority of servicemen are Chinese. It is an open secret that the Government does not assign Malays to sensitive military positions due to regional sensitivities.  

To cut a long story short, my network of friends are mainly Chinese. I only have a handful of non-Chinese friends, mainly from my childhood because I studied at a more racially-diverse primary school.

I take comfort in a combined study by the Institute of Policy Studies and done in 2018. Based on over 4,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents, there is still a greater tribal tendency for people to be friends with those from the same race. 

Among the Chinese, only 30 per cent had a Malay friend and 25 per cent had an Indian friend. Although the numbers increased from 2013, the statistics are still a cause for concern. Why do fewer Chinese Singaporeans have a friend from other races? Is it merely a result of the larger numbers of Chinese?

It’s been taken for granted that the 11 secondary SAP schools would practically be all-Chinese since they only offer Chinese as the official mother tongue subject. But there are other schools associated with the Chinese community which remain Chinese-dominated, like the one I was from, with just a smattering of other races.

In my secondary school, all 23 members of the school management committee are Chinese, including prominent community leaders such as banker Wee Cho Yaw. The school has its roots in Chinese nationalism, since it was named after the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Government Chiang Kai-shek, who is also known as Chiang Chung-cheng. It was founded in 1939 by a group of Chinese philanthropists including Aw Boon Haw, better known as the founder of Tiger Balm. 

Students are taught moral values and proper behaviour rooted in Chinese culture, especially from Di Zi Gui (standards to be a good student) or teachings from Confucius. 

I cannot help but wonder if a school that is Chinese-centric would deter non-Chinese from enrolling in them, which further entrenches the Chinese dominance in these schools. 

I can understand that SAP schools exist to keep up language standards. They have been in existence since 1979, but you can bet that such schools still raise some hackles for those who see it as a door for the Chinese only. Then Senior Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary put it this way at one Racial Harmony Day celebration: "It is important for us, as a Chinese-majority country, that the Chinese-majority have the comfort and confidence that Mandarin is being supported and enhanced." 

Beyond the 26 SAP primary and secondary schools, there are many others that have their roots in clan organisations or Chinese community groups, such as Chongfu School under the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Some students go through their whole education from primary to even junior college, in a Chinese-only bubble. 

Suggestions to widen the network of Chinese students are easier said than done, when most of your waking hours in those teenage years are either spent in school or at home. Even at home, my neighbours in the condominium I live in are mainly Chinese, so there are not many opportunities for inter-racial mingling.

But what’s the fuss about living in a racial bubble, singing cantopop at Teo Heng and peppering conversations with Mandarin? On a personal front, it’s no big deal, until the time comes for you to interact with other races, which is inevitable at some point. 

There were times when I committed faux pas such as blurting out Mandarin references to a fellow Chinese in the presence of a non-Chinese. Or that particular time — which I regret till today — when I asked the sole Malay friend in this particular group I was in to confirm her attendance for a makan meet-up because her presence “would determine our food options”. Damn it, my words sound so offensive now that it is written out. 

It is hard for me to check on my Chinese privilege when living in a racial bubble. Take the Preetipls saga for example, where siblings Preeti and Subhas Nair co-produced a vulgarity-laced rap in response to a campaign that featured Chinese actor Dennis Chew darkening himself to appear Indian. 

I disagreed with their action as a Singaporean who believes in racial harmony, but I did not feel offended at all. As Chinese, we have strength in numbers and do not feel the same threat of being undermined, compared to the hurt non-Chinese would have felt over the “brownface” ad campaign. That’s Chinese privilege. 

Here’s the downside of being in a racial bubble. In hindsight, I missed out on all the fun associated with having multi-racial friends such as house visits during ethnic festivals. Other than that one time in JC when my primary school friend Natasha invited me over to her place for Hari Raya, I did not have the opportunity to soak in their festivities. I could only read about them in a social studies textbook.

Maybe there are more opportunities for me now, in university with a more racially-diverse crowd, as well as the workplace in the near future. But I confess it takes a little more effort to get out of my Chinese comfort zone. I keep having to remind myself to be aware of my blind spots and not be insensitive towards them through my speech and actions. 

How does one inculcate empathy for other races when placed primarily with people of your own race? Regular socialisation is important, more so than infrequent National Education field trips that schools plan for their students to visit the mosques or Indian temples, and the annual Racial Harmony Day celebrations where most are interested in comparing ethnic outfits.

In fact, what is the point of understanding what racial harmony means when you remain in a racial bubble?

I am now trying to burst my bubble. Hopefully in time to come, I will no longer use “handful” as a collective noun to describe the number of non-Chinese friends I have.

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