We were at a neighbourhood community celebration of Chinese New Year last month surrounded by Singaporean Chinese, Malay, Indians and a bunch of expatriates from all over the world who can now call Singapore their home. The décor was simple: a red tent, plastic chairs and tables placed on the street, disposable dishes and banners loosely tied or standing on racks around the street fest ground. A great contrast with the large opulent houses and supercars parked in most of the driveways.
‘Celebrating Cultural Differences’ the slogan said on the banners and it surely felt that way. In shorts, flip-flops and weekend clothes, the diverse members of the community were together mixing all the ingredients to symbolically demonstrate the integration of this lovely neighbourhood. Some wore their beautiful Indian blouses with jeans and sneakers, others from a Malay background proudly wore their colourful summer dresses with a hijab or a simple polo and jeans. It made it all the more sincere that this Chinese New Year Lo Hei dish we were about to mix was going to truly represent the melting pot of Singapore.
Our good friends Rani and Don were the newest addition to this community and everyone made their way around the crowd to greet them with a warm welcome. Invited by Don and Rani, we were happily tagging along and blending in with traditions. After seven years, the multiple celebrations of all the religions in Singapore bear no secrets to veteran Expats like us.
Don is an Irish pilot, born and raised catholic while Rani is a lively and flourished Pakistani Muslim woman who conquered Don’s heart about 7 years ago. When he popped the question to Rani five years back, he had no hesitation to add; and I will convert to Islam for you Rani, no problem.
-Rani, where you born in Pakistan or Singapore? I asked.
– I was born in Singapore Helene.
-Since how many generations in Singapore?
-…. Heummmm that’s a long story.
-Go ahead Rani I have all night.
–Well you see Helene, my grandfather was an Indian Brahmin from northern India (Brahmin is the highest cast in India) and my grandmother was a Chinese Taoist. They met in Hong Kong, fell in love and wanted to spend their lives together. In order to make equal concessions, they both abandoned their religion and chose together to become Muslim. They moved to Singapore and started their new life while embracing their new mutual religion. When my mother was born she was raised as a Muslim and later on in life married a Pakistani man. They had my two brothers and me!
–Tell me Rani, you don’t wear a hijab but your sister-in-laws both do. Are your brothers more strict then your own father?
No, they wear it and I don’t, no big deal or deeper meaning for us. Singapore respects differences.
Cultural differences bring colours and diversity that defines what globalisation is all about. It is not one culture overtaking the way others should lead their lives but instead celebrating the differences. At Christmas, Singapore spends millions to dress the city with the most elaborate ornaments, Kuala Lumpur, with a majority of Muslims, ensures that travellers will be welcomed with Christmas Carols at the airport while all the shopping centers glitter with elegant decors. In a month’s time, all is converted for Chinese New Year with horses hanging from every lamp post, then Deepa Vali, then Easter, then Hari Raya, etc. In Singapore, we always look forward to the next cultural celebration.
In December we had the privilege of being invited to a wedding in India and although the two love birds were modern young people who work in Silicon Valley, the wedding celebrated traditions and ancient values. A month later, my friend Bob from Canada married his Thai sweet heart Pam in Thailand with the most beautiful display of traditions including 12 monks, an elephant, dancers, a Chinese tea ceremony and a procession of offerings to lavish the mother with gifts and seduce the gate keepers; symbolic guardians of the bride. Both beautiful experiences forever engraved in my memory. My souvenirs are so full of colours.
I read la Presse online every morning and follow the debate dividing one more time my homeland and my people. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone forcing women to be completely veiled, and neither do most people in the world for that matter and this, regardless of where they live. I do not condone either to be forced to do anything against your will, whether it is from the radical Lev Tahor community or any other sect or extremist communities using controlling and abusive behaviours.
But when I see people acting and voicing racism and when I see Quebec becoming colourless with its so called secular charter, and when I see the tension and intolerance rising among the Quebec society, I cannot stop feeling saddened. I have read too many comments online advocating intolerance to remain neutral. The current government distorts reality by using the charter to an extreme action, blending secularism with prescribing how people should dress. One cannot promote freedom of expression and oppress individual choices at the same time.
To separate politics from religion is a must in a society, but to stipulate what people should wear or not can easily be called dictatorship.
Let me get that right; you can wear a scarf on your head to be fashionable or if you unfortunately had chemotherapy to hide the loss of hair to go to work, but not if it is part of your cultural religious background? You can wear three or four chains on your neck, studs in your nose or tattoos on your arm, but God forbids you would accessorize your look with a cross, the star of David given by your mother or a Buddha you feel is your good luck charm in life? What about all of those who have turned money into a religion? Should they empty their pockets before going to work? I guess that next will be the need for a fashion police, but on the upside it will create new needed jobs.
So lets be safe and all wear black and white clothing with no accessories to ensure that we comply and don’t upset the new proposed Quebec charter. We will all look the same at work and demonstrate the great value of our society.
As said earlier, separating politics and economics from Religion is a must in all societies, but what is devious about this charter is the way it conveniently brings it down to decreeing how people should visually express their differences. Being a secular society has nothing to do with the way we express our traditions, feel dignified in the way we dress, define our moods or express our cultural beliefs and diversity, because quite frankly that’s what getting dressed in the morning is all about. Separating religion from politics is about not mixing and influencing government decisions due to manipulative thinking, and it seems that the current politicians are manipulating the meaning of secular society towards bigotry. What is the difference between this interpretation of secularism and the other radical behaviours we condemn?
Two weeks ago, I invited my Quebecer friends who live in Singapore to a Smoked Meat party. We had brought back a 5-kilo brisket from Montreal. We were excited to celebrate this amazing tradition brought to Montreal by the Jewish community and we joyfully plastered the meat with mustard on rye bread and needless to say devoured every part of it.
Our terrace was filled with French, Vietnamese, Chinese, a Belgian Jew wearing a Buddha on his neck, Turkish married to a local Chinese and other Quebecers from a melting pot of descendants. They all had this lovely French Canadian accent, had a love for Montreal that is forever engraved in their soul, but also had a sad heart when thinking of what it could become.
I could not stop but wonder: Can this great multicultural society loose its treasure and become colourless? I pray whatever God you believe in, it doesn’t. A world without diversity, a world without cultural differences, a world without colours is a very boring world.