Singapore: Melting pot or bowl of salad?

From ‘Let’s be a cultural melting pot, not a bowl of salad’, 7 Jan 2016, ST Forum

(Lee Teck Chuan): When we take a train ride, we often hear many languages being spoken and see attire that hails from varied origins. These are signs that we have become multi-faceted in terms of ethnicity and national origin.

But it begs the question: Are we evolving into a melting pot, where many distinct elements are forged into one? Or a bowl of salad, where each item remains separate from the other?

…We have gained from immigrants. They have added vibrancy to our economic and social landscapes, making Singapore more cosmopolitan. The new immigrants are quite unlike our forefathers. Many are professionals who are highly susceptible to more rosy propositions from elsewhere. Many remain distinct in their language, bearing, schooling, dwelling and way of life. Some have developed enclaves of their own.

This makes the Singapore identity even more disparate and harder to define.

Singapore was already known as the ‘melting pot of the East’ as early as the 1930s, according to Mrs Nicholas Du Pont of the famed gunpowder and nylon family. We’ve been using this banal metaphor to describe our mish-mash of races and cultures so often that we don’t ask ourselves whether the phrase makes any sense. When we say ‘melting pot’, we think of hearty soup, but if you want to be picky, nothing actually ‘melts’ when we boil a bunch of ingredients together. In fact, in the early 20th century, a melting pot was also used to describe the state of war, or otherwise it referred literally to a vessel for liquefying metals, like a king’s crown for instance.

Even Parliament had doubts about the melting pot analogy, as we all can’t agree on what flavour it should be. It can’t be bak kut teh, that’s for sure. Or perhaps we simply misunderstood the cliche all along, that a melting pot is not supposed to be about making soup at all. The term became popularised through Israel Zangwill’s play ‘The Melting Pot’, in reference to the ‘God’s Crucible’ that is America, where all the races of Europe are ‘melting and re-forming’. In that sense, it’s about breaking down old identities and forging new ones, like turning cannons into construction steel, sceptres into bullions, trainwrecks into electric cars.

This ideal state of assimilation has never been realised in America up till now, nor any other cosmopolitan state in the world today for that matter, Singapore included. We still have schools for specific ethnicities, shopping centre enclaves, a Chinatown, a Little India and dialect clans. Malays are denied some vocations in the army. Evangelists still slot flyers under my godless atheistic door. We are not going to demolish all religious buildings and re-assemble them into a giant white shrine worshiping only the PAP. We go to church, attend a friend’s Hari Raya lunch, give angpows to our grandparents and watch Bollywood videos. Let’s leave the ‘melting’ out of what we already have and enjoy, because we don’t know what we’ll get if we fuse into one united goo. It’s like slurping up the remains of a banana split. Separately, the vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream make gastronomic sense. When ‘melted’, it just tastes like sugar water, not to mention looks gross too.

So, if you prefer not to fuse with your brethren from other races or cultures to form a boring homogenous whole, want to have the freedom to hang on to your own traditions and not subscribe to the same belief system as everyone else like a socialist utopia, how else should one describe Singapore’s multiculturalism? Do we even need to resort to lame food metaphors to bring the point across? The Singapore Tourism Board belongs to ‘Team Salad’, comparing Singapore’s diversity to a hawker favourite: Rojak, often described to foreigners as a ‘local salad’. On the other hand, some ministers use ‘rojak’ disparagingly, in the ‘ugly chaotic mess’ sense of the word.

If I had to choose an analogy involving food, it won’t be a bland, traditional ‘salad’ or a lumpy, mushy broth that’s more suitable as confinement gruel. It would be a colourful, vibrant mix of flavours and textures that nourishes as well as refreshes, a dish that you can have as breakfast or dessert after a main meal. Yes, Singapore, to me you are an Acai Superfood Bowl.

 

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