I was in a Chinese primary school when Singapore joined Malaysia and I was required to study Malay language. By the time when Singapore was separated from Malaysia, I was in secondary school and continued to study Malay language for two more years.
When I was a child, my interactions with other ethnic groups were basically at the social level. I could still vividly remember the Malay wedding that I saw of the Malay family who lived down the same lane. I also often patronised a Malay noodle stall and an Indian fried noodle stall near my house. After watching the Indian uncle frying the noodle often enough, I could almost practice it if I was given a chance then.
I could also remember the tension of racial differences. On the day of the racial riot in 1964, I was in primary school and was told by the principal to leave the school immediately. I took the school bus which was driven by a Malay man and the bus assistant was a Chinese woman. The bus took a different route that day and was on the road much longer than usual; nevertheless, I got home finally. I could feel the anxiety of the driver and the bus assistant during the journey as they pointed at some directions every now and then and at some points, the bus got into some lanes but backed out again.
If I were to recall a sign that had left a profound mark in my childhood memory that could symbolise multicultural, I would think the sign formed by four arms connected together, similar to a hex sign, would be a representation of unity of four main races in Singapore. This sign was seen at many public places as well as in the media for a period before it silently subsided from the forefront. However, it remains in my memory.
All these memories of food and costumes were just bits and pieces of impressions of others’ cultures which we could not equate to knowing their cultures. Generally, most people’s understanding of an ethnic group would be on food, costumes, language, or names of the religion. For instance, many people enjoy sharing food at the food centre without really knowing the meaning of ‘Halal’. Some may not be mindful that it is not appropriate to use the same pair of chopsticks for fish balls and then use them for Malay or Indian food. They may not be aware that some Indians are Muslims too.
Being respectful and sensitive to such issues could help to promote harmony in our society. Once, I saw a Chinese family who shared a table with me at the coffee shop using cutlery from another stall for Malay food and I reminded them. They replied that it was alright for them to do so since the stall owner did not notice them. In contrast, on another occasion, I met a parent who made an effort to explain the importance of respecting the Muslim culture when his child wanted to use the cutlery from a Chinese stall to eat Malay food. In this case, the child gained knowledge about the food taboo of a certain culture and would learn to pay attention to it.
We need to go beyond the surface of what we see in a culture to understand the reasons behind the ways things are done, as well as how values and life are being perceived in certain culture. We will then discover that there are similarities deep down in every culture in the way we view life and the world around us. The theatre Doyen, late Mr Kuo Pao Kun, described multiculturalism as a forest. The branches and roots extend, weave, and connect. It is at this level of cross cultural connection and interaction that the beauty of multiculturalism could be appreciated. Thus, more has to be done in cross cultural work for us to gain a deeper view of multiculturalism.
When I was still a civil servant in the1990s, I attended an international conference on culture in Jakarta. The entertainment programme that followed the farewell dinner was a challenge for the Singapore team. We deemed that it would not be appropriate to sing a Malay song given that there were representatives from Malaysia. We could not sing Indian song too as none of us speak the language. Choosing an English or a Chinese song might not be representative of our culture and could end up giving others an impression of a shallow cultural base in us. At the spur of the moment, I boldly suggested to sing a Chinese version of an Indonesian song, ‘Ayo Mama’.
The Director of Indonesian Culture Bureau came on stage and joined me after I had just started singing. When we finished singing the song in our respective language, he queried about the meaning of the song in Mandarin, and I was informed that the song was commonly known by Indonesians. The Singapore team received great applause from the floor. We had struck a chord with the hosts with the tune, in a language familiar to each of us. Similarly, I believe that we would be delighted and open up to other ethnic friends when we hear them singing songs familiar to us such as ‘Chan Mali Chan’.
Hence, to know more about cross culture, we need to support translation work, so that we would have the opportunity to discover the depth of others’ religion, literature, arts, songs, and more. It is unrealistic to expect everyone be proficient in many languages. However, it is possible and feasible to reach the depth of other’s culture through translation work. One effective way to connect cultures is through songs. In the early days of China’s liberation, in order to gain friendships from Asian, African and East European nations, the Chinese translated tons of folk songs from these countries. Many Chinese educated in Singapore knew these songs well and when they travelled to Philippines, Korea, Romania, Spain, Italy, India, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, Russia and other places, they were able to share these songs with the locals and be rewarded by their warm welcome.
In the 1990s, the National Archives of Singapore organised a workshop on translated Chinese, Indian and Malay nursery rhymes. Many Malay nursery rhymes have rich depictions of the life and play of children that could be sang along with the melody on string instruments. Just imagine when a Chinese child could sing the Malay rhymes in English and Malay, one shall expect such joy from our Malay friends. Likewise, there will be joy beyond words when a Chinese see an Indian student playing the Chinese musical instrument ‘Guzheng’.
Much resource is needed for translation work for cross culture purpose. Society effort alone will not be sufficient to sustain the work. The country shall have to consider channelling resources in this area by identifying some possibilities, such as translating literature or songs so as to promote cross culturalism. Some efforts were made in the past and many were one-off events. What the country need is a well thought out plan to promote cross culturalism. On the day that we could, in any public activity sing the same song together in different languages, or name literary figures in the various ethnic groups, then were we able to announce ourselves as having obtained a better understanding of each other’s culture.
We shall not take racial harmony for granted as it requires cultivation with much hard work and constant care. We would truly acknowledge that we are in harmony when we could think beyond the skin colour, culture, and religious background of our Prime Minister. Our nation building is deeply rooted on such a principle and aim; more has to be done to reach this vision.