Oct 042012

I’m reading Martin Jacques’ book “When China Rules The World” at the moment – it is an interesting look at the political, economic and social changes likely to take place over the next 20-50 years. Mr Jacques has a number of interesting observations to make about the emerging economic powerhouse of China – past, present and future – and it makes for fascinating reading. I attended a couple of economic history units at university and find what he has to say both plausible and fascinating. But I digress.

Ordering lunch, Penang

The one point that jarred for me was this – top of page 150, 2012 Penguin paperback edition: “The instincts are tribal: in the food hall at the National University of Singapore, I was struck by how the Chinese students ate Chinese food, the Indians ate Indian, and the Malays ate Malay, with little crossover.

Let me start by saying that I have not eaten at the food hall of the NUS. I’ve attended talks nearby, but never knowingly even entered the campus proper. And also, as a guest within this country, I must exercise due caution when discussing matters of culture and ethnic background. The government (rightly) takes a dim view of racial vilification in social media.

I do not believe that this behaviour is representative of wider Singaporean society where people meet to eat in groups. As most Singaporeans are of Chinese cultural background, it makes sense that traditional Chinese dishes (mainly from southern China or derived from local Nonya/Peranakan culture) are a feature here. Similarly, given the numbers of Tamil-speaking immigrants from southern India in the past, there is a lot of southern Indian food in Little India and across the island. Does this mean that people from Mandarin or Teochow speaking households only eat Chinese food when they go out? Or that I, by birth a Caucasian from Australia only eat steak and chips when I go out to eat?

Good grief, no.

I don’t want to say that separation along cultural background lines never happens at NUS or anywhere else, but I do have to say that it is not my experience of Singapore at all.

When groups of former colleagues and I would go to Little India to share an Indian-style Fish Head Curry, we (a group of people from Chinese, Indian and Caucasian backgrounds) would sit in a room full of a very representative Singaporeans and foreign visitors – on a typical weekday evening at Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road it would be roughly half and half people of Chinese and Indian descent, with a fair scattering of “Europeans” (judging by accent, mostly from Canada, the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia). When I eat Prata at my local mall here in Tampines, I sit down to eat it with locals of mainly Chinese and Malay descent.

I can’t speak to how people eat within their homes over all. It may be that there is more differentiation along cultural/ethnic lines, especially at religious/cultural festival times.

I believe that there is no “tribal” distinction when it comes to foods that Singaporeans have made their own. The Singaporeans I’ve met overseas profess to miss the Indian Fish Head Curry, the Malay desserts, and Indian Roti Prata as much as any other food here. And that is a good thing.

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