When my father first came to Singapore 25 years ago, his nickname was ‘Chinaboy’. Chinaboy this, Chinaboy that, because he had no money, no connections, no status, no house, no car, no nothing. He worked at a small construction company for a while, until he realised that he was never going to make it big in a place where one’s colleagues and supervisors don’t see him as an equal. He started his own company in the same line of business, he found his own customer base, he hired his own workers, he got his own vehicle, he bought his own house. When his old company collapsed, my father’s thrived in the booming late 90s’ to early 2000s’ industry. By that time, nobody called him Chinaboy anymore.
25 years later his son walks into the interview room in the Ministry of Exterior Matters building, an entrance granted only to those who had good University scores, the intelligence and social skills required to pass the first 2 rounds of tests, and of course, a Pink IC. As he sat down, the interviewer across the table threw a question at him along the lines of, if China and the USA got into a fight over the South China Seas, who should we be siding? Calmly and logically, the man’s son explained Singapore’s historical position in diplomatic struggles, he quotes Tommy Koh on the importance of morals and how to insert them into foreign policy debate, he remembers the advices from a talk by Bilahari Kausikan the previous week that he attended, he reiterates and contexualised some points written in Kishore Mahbubani’s Can Singapore Survive in current realities, and he invokes his history training to conclude that everything depends on the situation itself and there does not always have to be a clear leaning to one side or another. The interviewer squints his eyes and glares at the boy, as though the boy had misunderstood his question. ‘No,’ he says, ‘you, not Singapore’.
This was not the first time the boy had heard that comment. It was present, albeit somewhat less directly, during one of the tests in the previous interview round. It came up again, this time from another panel in the 4th round, and later again in the 5th. His local-born friends got into the ministry, and he is happy for them, but he can never talk to any of them about the prejudice he faced. Because as one of his closest friends who now works with the Ministry of Country Protection has shown, the very mention of this possible flaw in her meritocratic Singapore meant that the boy was attempting to undermine her hard work, her effort in getting her job, and her capability as an equal person. She will not listen to his explanations, his thoughts, and instead feels that it is justified for her to defend her nation both literally and in debate to ensure her own ego bubble was never attacked again.
And the boy slowly realises that the tone in the speech of his civil service friends have shifted drastically 6 months into their new jobs. They start to lecture the boy on the importance of patriotism and loyalty in working in those jobs, as though one had to be born here to possess any of those sentiments. The boy closes his eyes as he continued to listen to the ramblings, and suddenly, in between the lines and hidden within the subtext of the ‘advice’ his employed friends are giving him to ‘help’ his job search, he hears a word that had been absent from his life for a long while.
I started studying in Singapore at the age of 3 in a local nursery. I went through the exact same education system as every other Singapore child. I didn’t do particularly well in Chinese just like other Singaporean kids did, because I learnt the language here just like all the other kids. I speak Singlish, probably better than a lot of my peers. I went through the big Os and then the big As. Then I got my Pink IC, and gave it to the state when I went to Army. I still go for my reservist trainings. I went to a local University because I wanted to join the civil service upon graduation.
I was rejected by the Ministry on a Thursday night and I spent the whole night up reflecting on this matter. The morning after I spent half a day in bed crying. Thinking back to specific moments during the interview, the picture that I can clearly see now started falling into place. I tried denying in, but eventually I just gave up trying to make justifications against the only logical conclusion for the rejection. My rage towards the injustice I suffered would come later. The only emotion I felt for that day was sorrow. Not for the loss of a great career option, but the feeling of a loss in identity and my place in this world. Where do I go now? China doesn’t want me, and this place where I’ve spent my entire life doesn’t seem to want me either. It felt like there was nowhere in this world I could call home anymore. And in this temporary land I stand on where I once thought I’d live on forever, I did not know what else to do to have equal rights as everybody else.
And then I remembered that time when a certain organisation suddenly did not have slots for their internship program after calling me down for interview. I realised the reason behind why people with worse grades and less-impressive CVs are getting calls from certain places while mine just never rang. I remembered the awards and scholarships I could not apply for because I was different. I remembered that every time I am presented an application form for anything, I would have to fill in my country of birth on every single one of them, as China. The nail in the coffin came when Joseph Schooling received his gold medal at the Olympics. Reading pages and pages of comments on the divide between ‘true-blue’ and ‘new’ Singapore citizens, I was finally awoken from my illusion that integration and naturalisation meant I was now part of the community and the people. I was not part of this nation, and after all I have done I am still not, and it seems that I never will be. And that was when I realised the name calling had never stop. They did not say it out loud like back in the days where openly confrontational xenophobia was socially acceptable and completely without backlash. But in their hearts and minds they never saw me as an equal, and under their breath they would mutter that word, over and over and over again.