The time was about 6.20pm, Tuesday 10th January, Changi Airport Terminal 2 Arrivals, gateway nearest to belt 36. I was standing next to you, bespectacled Chinese man in your forties, sky blue polo shirt, with a large non-apple smartphone. I didn’t mean to pry, but on your screen – the ID of an Asian woman you seemed to be waiting for.
People poured in from their flights, a number of them European because belt 36 was now mostly delivering the bags of the passengers of a connector from Zurich. Some families. A few stray non-whites. Streams and lulls.
Then, in such a lull, a woman, Asian like you and me, passes the glass doors and is welcomed by a family on your left; a man, woman and child happy to see her here, finally. The child ducks under the rail to hug her like the ending of Love Actually.
Sky blue polo man, at first we all think that you are muttering something innocent. Because you literally lean into this welcome which lasts all of ten seconds, to say something incomprehensible so that the ladies are still smiling at you thinking you must be a kind stranger. Perhaps you noticed something that needed correcting. Fallen baggage?
So you repeat yourself, loud and nasty for everyone to hear. “No hugging here. Can you see? This is Singapore. Go hug outside (the rails).” The women are shocked. The child is shocked. I am shocked. Joy sufficiently wiped from their faces, they exit past the rails but the mood for indiscriminate hugging has vanished. This is Singapore, you must mean, the land where all procedures, including how to exit airports, are pre-ordained. Except this is not what you say.
The man in the family is calm enough to remark, “You could have said that nicely.” and this is your chance, sky blue Polo man to clarify your fastidiousness. This is Singapore, you mean, where it’s just about protocol and not blocking the doors for other arrivals! Never mind that at this moment the doors are clear because it’s a lull and you, sky blue Polo man, could easily step aside if the sight of hugging offended your view (I cannot say ‘impede’ your view as I cannot emphasise how uncrowded the doors were at this point). This is Singapore, you must mean, where our national psyche demands we rectify each other, whether or not we are the appointed authorities.
“This is Singapore. You Filipinos, go back to the Philippines. This is Singapore.” I stand stunned. My heart feels sick for this family that such ugliness is the first thing that greets them. The entrance to Singapore, so heavily checked for tax-evaders, contraband smokers, drug takers, but not racists. It is not until my partner arrives, breaking me out of my shock, that I decide to say:
“Sir, I am Singaporean and I don’t approve of what you did just now.”
“You Singaporean? I don’t care.”
“I am Singaporean and ashamed at you for what you said.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t care if you’re Singaporean. I don’t want to talk to you.”
It is then that I make my first connection with the woman you’re looking for, the family you offended, and me. Communication to you is combative. You’ll talk to them because you ‘know’ you can beat them with your cultural superiority. But god help you, when you come face to face with a fellow Singaporean who won’t stick by your rationale or tolerate your (ab)use of our national identity. This, more than a foreigner, is the unknown to you. I think about the woman you’re looking for: is she also a Filipino domestic, that you will treat roughly because, “this is Singapore”?
Was it about your confusion regarding class? A well-heeled Filipino and a working class Filipino, still a nationality to shit on? Of course this all my conjecture of what you actually meant, having remembered you with such specificity. And while my mind moved hundreds of words a minute, I was silent. So you repeated yourself because I am still standing there, distressed.
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
In all fairness, what happens here between us should be a national conversation. How to deal with the trauma when Singaporeans come head to head with different ideas of what Singapore is.
In my Singapore, the invocation “This is Singapore” as a way of excusing bigoted behaviour in public is not regrettable, but punishable. Because the people of Singapore are a result of never-ending waves of migration. We don’t deport people for wrongful hugging. Instead we ask them to embrace the odd but ‘necessary’ CMIO frame that serves to protect minorities. We are a lot of things, but the one thing our historical, cultural, societal make-up does not allow us to be is bigoted. More than any other crime in the state, bigotry is the most evil.
But in your sky blue Singapore, where Polo T-shirts are the de rigueur of men at Sunday family lunch in Din Tai Fung, other races and nationalities serve you. Except white people, who must be packaged as ang mohs, for your entertainment.
This is Singapore, you say, where you routinely mistake your privilege with the entitlement that comes from your labour. You work hard, other people are lazy and cannot own your success. You however can buy and own others.
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
You say, anger in your eyebrows, fear at the edges of your mouth. You suddenly remember the use of your feet and shuffle back from me. God, why didn’t you just step aside from the family just now? Was it because nobody told you: “This is Singapore. No racism here.”?
And then again, are we both wrong? This is Singapore, the politicians admit, where an inherently racist instrument used to administer education, housing, presidential candidature, helps us not be racist.