I was 14 years of age at the time, a sheltered, sweaty little boy who was just beginning to push the boundaries of exploring the little island of Singapore. I would take random buses with my friends, ending up in deserted-looking bus interchanges and having cokes in unfamiliar neighbourhoods.
One of those sweaty days, I found myself stranded at a bus stop in the Potong Pasir area. My TransitLink card (the predecessor of today’s EZ-link card) was down to zero, and I had no coins for the 45-cent bus fare. I had a two dollar note, however, and I was prepared to sink that into my bus fare (no change, argh!) when an Indian (or South Asian) foreign worker walked to the bus stop. He obviously came from a construction site nearby, and was still carrying his yellow hardhat.
Without thinking, I approached him to see if he had change for my two dollar note.
He didn’t speak much English, but I managed to convey the sense that I needed coins for my bus fare. Once he understood what I needed, he put a 50-cent coin into my outstretched hand. My hand remained open, with his coin in my hand — I fully expected him to hand over more coins, so that we could make the coins-for-note exchange. So there I was, standing like an idiot with my hand open. The Indian man with the hardhat pushed my hand closed, and in return I pushed the two dollar note towards him. He refused the note, and I started to feel really, really guilty.
In my head, I was thinking: no way in hell am I gonna let a construction worker give me money for my bus fare! My father has a nice job, he gives me money, while this Indian fella has to work under the sun for his money! No no no no.*
(*The assumption that he was a manual labourer was a racist assumption. He could have been a visiting businessman from India who wanted to get his hands dirty with one of his investments. I’ll never know what he actually was doing there!)
The pair of us continued our awkward tango, with the foreigner getting more and more amused. His bus came after a minute or so, leaving me 50 cents richer. Hardhat in hand, he gave me a cheerful little wave as the bus pulled away.
That gentleman was the beginning of my journey away from racism. (Confession: I used to believe that all Malays were lazy, all Indians were smelly/dirty, and that all Chinese were superior. Don’t blame my parents or teachers, they didn’t consciously teach me those things.) If he was really a manual labourer, 50 cents — from a salary of S$500 or so a month — was not an insignificant amount.
As the fallout from the Little India riot continues, let’s bear this in mind — that racism is never acceptable, and that there are thoroughly good people in the army of foreign workers who are trying to make a living in Singapore. They face difficulties that most of us will never be able to handle. Let’s spare a thought for our foreign workers, yeah?
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