There’s a video that’s surfaced that claims that the words ‘keling’
and ‘apu neh’ are not derogatory. As evidence, the (elderly Indian)
speaker in the video says that during his time, they were merely
descriptive terms and not meant as terms of insult.
To that, I say, for those who insist using these terms, please time travel back to those more ‘innocent times’.
I might have an elderly Malay person tell me that during his time, in
his kampung, it was all right for the Chinese to be called ‘Cina babi’.
This was because many Chinese were pig farmers, so the term was simply a
reference to a particularly Chinese occupation.
But of course words undergo shifts in meaning. What was once
associated with an occupation could later be taken to mean that one is
comparing the Chinese to pigs. And etymology—the origins of the word,
and how it was first used—is not a defence.
And why do these words shift in meaning? Not because people are
becoming hyper-sensitive. Not, as is claimed somewhere, that ‘political
correctness’ is being ‘imported from the West’.
But because somewhere along the way, people were using these terms
with an intention to hurt. How a word was said with a knowing sneer or
spat out with contempt. How it became associated with bogeymen, like ‘if
you don’t behave, the keling-kia (Hokkien) or the keling-jan
(Cantonese) will catch you’. How some Malays would not say ‘keling’ on
its own but pair it with 'pariah’. How children were chanting ‘apu neh
neh’ while shaking their heads in the most obscene caricatures of what
they thought was the body language of Indian people. A word became a
distillation of all the negative stereotypes and fears of dark-skinned
people that some ignorant people carried with them. And malice sharpened
it into a weapon.
There’s a simple rule actually. If someone who is not from your
community thinks that a word is a slur, then stop using it, no matter if
some other person from that community claims otherwise. Ask yourself
why it is necessary for you to use such a tarnished and contentious word
when other words with much less baggage are available. A slur is a
knife—if you’re the one holding the handle, you don’t get to decide how
sharp it is—this is the sole and sovereign right of the person at its
This post was first published on Alfian Sa'at’s Facebook account and republished with permission
Jewish woman’s wrap (izar) and face veil (khiliyye)
Baghdad, Iraq, late 19th – early 20th century Silk, gilt metal thread; veil: horsehair Gift of Helene Simon and Hanina Shasha, New York, in memory of their mother, Louise Zilka n?e Bashi Gift of Mazli Nawi, Ramat Gan
The most famous of the Baghdad workshops belonged to master weaver Menashe Yitzhak Sa'at, nicknamed Abu-al-Izan (“father of the izar”) due to the fabric wraps in which he specialised. One year after Sa'at immigrated to Israel, the izar industry in Baghdad came to an end.
I think the East will fall.
Starting from the Northeast.
We have Hougang, Aljunied.
And it’s all going to spread.
The closest margins were seen
In Potong Pasir, in Joo Chiat,
East Coast, Tampines, Marine Parade.
My friend said it’s because
The sun rises in the east.
So it’s no surprise
That the people living in the east
Get enlightened much earlier
Than the people living
On the rest of the island.
I looked at the Singapore map the other day.
And I was imagining what
It might be like
If the island was split into half,
You know, with the western part
Consisting of the white states
And the eastern parts being
Blue and red and orange and whatever.
I have to say that I really can’t imagine myself
Living in the West.
You can’t see a single
Shophouse at all.
The whole place is just so industrial.
Basically the West is where you’ll find
All your factories, the universities,
The jungles where the soldiers train,
And also the cemeteries.
I thought about it and actually
The West is basically a post-PAP Singapore.
It’s all the stuff that the PAP built up
When they cleared the swamps.
So you have industrialization, education
To build the workforce, defence.
But the East is different.
I’ve always loved shophouses, you know.
I just think that their architecture
Is so sensitive to the environment that we live in.
So they have these long windows for ventilation
And also that wonderful British invention
Which is the five-foot way.
I think it was Raffles or Crawford
Who made sure that in front of each shop
You had to have at least five feet of space
And then the upper part of the shophouse
Will overhang and provide shade.
So you create this covered walkway
That was part of the architecture itself.
Of course when the PAP came to power
Their response to the climate
Was to put aircon everywhere.
But what this would mean is that somehow
Easties have this history
Where the East has been settled in
Much longer, way before
The PAP came into the picture.
So they know that people have lived there
Before the PAP, and can also continue
Living their lives without the PAP.
There isn’t this dependency.
That’s why I think the government
Isn’t really interested in preserving
Our built heritage.
When you erase these reminders of our past
You create a people with very short memories.
And those with short memories
Are much easier to manipulate.
This is just my theory though.
If you’re going to put this in,
The Westies in the audience are going
To get worked up.
They’re probably going to say
That they have Holland V or something.
No offence, but that’s the only thing, right?
I’m proud to be an Eastie.
We have all these old communities
These very Singaporean communities
Like the Eurasians and Peranakans
In Katong and Siglap.
And of course we have Geylang too,
Which has all the best food,
Because the red-light district is there.
We have good beaches and the sea breeze.
Parkway Parade beats Queensway any day.
So, like I said, in the next few decades,
The West will probably still be white
And the East will become more colourful.
But the East has always been more colourful.
Dealing with censorship isn’t easy. Especially when it comes from people whose narrow lives have no space for literature. Especially when it seems as if a public institution that is supposed to protect books would rather collude with bigots in their destruction. And we are all poorer for it. As writers, we probably feel doubly diminished.
But please don’t stop writing. Even if you think that any country that bows to its fundamentalists does not deserve your writing. That where dogma thrives then literature dies. They want us to be silent. Either that or use our pens to celebrate and affirm their ‘social norms’. But the truth is if we ever subscribed to the ‘social norms’ in this country we would never have become writers in the first place.
So please do continue writing. Every piece of your writing says, ‘this was how we lived’. And given the charged politics of the day it also says, ‘this was our struggle’. It doesn’t matter if the library doesn’t carry our books. It doesn’t matter if the library betrays us, over and over again. Our works will outlive us. They will also outlive those who have tried to silence us.
And in the future a different Singapore will greet our writings. This I believe.
FB post by Alfian Sa'at. Malay Singaporean poet and writer, regarding NLB’s decision to ban LGBTQIA books and censorship in general.