Continuing with our racial harmony awareness month series, this week we’d like to hear stories from our Indian peers. From brushes with racism to fighting for better representation and more tailored mental health support, our Indian peers have much to share about their experiences and hopes while living in Singapore. Names have been changed to protect the identity of our interviewees.
1) How do you feel when people call you ‘Ah neh/Bangla’ and don’t see you as a local Singaporean?
I feel like a victim of racism, and it makes me feel like I don’t belong. I also feel angry when people can be so blatantly and casually racist.
I used to feel very hurt before, but over time I just got used to it and it stopped bothering me.
It was really frustrating because firstly, it’s quite well known that these things are said by the majority race in a negative light so it hints at them feeling superior or more advanced than us. It also feels like no matter how hard we tried to integrate and learn about their way of life, we are just an inconvenience to society. I think this is because I don’t quite see an effort from the majority to learn about our culture.
From a local Indian standpoint, it’s also quite repulsive to think that they treat us like that when us Indians have been in Singapore for generations as long as the other ethnicities have been. Just because they have more people in numbers doesn’t mean that sg is homogenous!
To be honest, I’ve not experienced a situation whereby I’ve been called the above. But there have been several instances whereby I was not recognised as a Singaporean when in reality I was born and raised in Singapore.
2. Have you ever experienced discrimination because of your race in SG? If yes, can you give an example?
Yes. One that I distinctly remember was when someone once told me that they were allergic to Indians.
Yes, people walking on the same street have crossed directions upon seeing me. Some people would automatically assume that I have an accent and proceed to mock it by talking with said accent.
When I was around 7-9 there were children who didn’t want to play with me in the playground because I was labelled a bad influence by their parents. I can’t say for sure if it was my race that contributed towards it but that was the impression I got. The kids used to think words like “apunene(?)” were funny and I was just confused because I didn’t know what it meant (frankly I still don’t) When I went to school, there were kids who didn’t want to hold my hands because I was brown and because my hand was rough. So initially I only had 2 Indian friends in school and it took me a while to realise that it was alright to speak to other Chinese children.
One of the most impactful memories I had was for a play that around 20 students including I, auditioned for. The teacher spent 2 hours running through the script with 10 Chinese students and refused to audition the remaining 10 Malay and Indian students. So I raised my thoughts and demanded we get an opportunity to audition as well. The teacher complied and auditioned us for 20 seconds before continuing to run the script with the Chinese students again. She didn’t even have the decency to officially assign us our roles. The rest of us figured ourselves that we were only given minor non-speaking roles, or no role at all. We were frustrated. I remembered my Malay friend introducing the term “racism” at that point referring to the teacher. So I had a discussion with my Indian friends during my regular Tamil lessons if there are racist teachers and they all unanimously comforted me saying they had experiences with that racist teacher themselves.
When I was around 12, I remembered expressing harmlessly that I didn’t fancy Korean songs and a girl said sarcastically “ never mind it’s like how we can’t stand her Indian music”. And I just remembered feeling humiliated because a group of them just looked at me and laughed.
When I was 14 a teacher kept criticising how my hair was everyday. The irony was I never had a single strand on my face like the other kids. All I did was braid my hair for school but because it was frizzy, I always had little curls sticking out and it must have been disgusting for her to see. The teacher even said she will buy for me hair cream if I don’t do something about it.(as if I didn’t buy all the hair creams and stressed over it) I remembered my classmates making fun of my hair because I tried different styles to tame it and they always joked about how I “look like a maid” and how I have “ugly hair”. Eventually I grew very self conscious and I rebonded it 1-2 times a year since I was 14-20 years old. Many tuition Teachers, school Teachers, peers, and family friends have asked me “all you Indians use that coconut oils right “ and will act super dramatically if my family and I ever replied that we just hadn’t really thought about using it. And they only asked because they made it a stereotype that “Indians simply use smelly coconut oil.” All of this just hints to how low their social awareness was. (in terms of not understanding that Indians have different features and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with looking different!)
When my tuition teacher was teaching, I used to have a habit of nodding my head to acknowledge her teachings. And she remarked, “don’t just shake shake like you know Indians like to shake their head like that”.
Even currently as a young adult, my closest friends make brown references every time I see them as if it’s funny. They say “did you get blacker”. Or say “why do you look more Indian than usual today”. I always felt that if I don’t make the personal effort to highlight the fact that I recognise you are Chinese, why do you feel that it’ll be such a good joke to make fun of the fact that I’m Indian? Sometimes I can’t go over to their houses, or their parents won’t exercise common courtesy to ask if I wanted a ride, because they come from households that simply despise Indians. Their parents have expressed to them that “Indians are really stupid” when they haven’t realised that we are literally in the same social standing. My parents work the same jobs as them and I am schooling in the same schools as their children. This shows they probably don’t even know that our community is progressing (maybe not in the same rate as other racial groups).
No matter the age, most people have refused to TRY to learn my actual name because it was too complicated. (I understand if people get it wrong, I’m not expecting them to get it right) Isn’t this unfair when I can put in the effort to call my Chinese or Malay peers with non-English names?
It’s also obvious that certain retail shops or eatery staff don’t like serving Indians. They don’t have a respectful tone towards us even though we politely greet them. I’m not being hypersensitive but there’s a difference between a person who is always grumpy and a person who just specifically hates us. My mom and I were clarifying certain covid-19 related regulations with a front desk staff at a private clinic once when she snapped at us and said “Y’all from India right so you don’t know”. I don’t know if this was from a racist or nationalistic standpoint of hers, but either way it wounded us for a while.
Yes I have. In school, during PE lesson a classmate passed the remark to a friend of hers “Wah, why you use so much of sunblock? You don’t want to look like her is it (while pointing at me)”
3) How are mental health issues seen/talked about among your family/community?
These mental health issues are not talked about that much among my family and community as it is still seen as an issue people want to avoid.
It’s seen as pretty serious because my mom is a trained counsellor and sheds light on these issues very frequently. As for the community I am not too sure, I guess there is some sort of knowledge about mental health issues but a lot of people are not sure as to how to seek help or approach people with mental health issues.
There’s absolutely no regard for it, at least within my nuclear and immediate relatives. In fact, any sign of “weakness” like being timid or shy gets us labelled as “psycho/ crazy/ something not right” when it’s just a personality trait. There’s also a lot of pressure placed on everyone in the community because we all have a specific role to fulfil. And when we’re incompetent at it, it’s considered shameful and there’s no regard for how the person being condemned feels. An example will be like blaming a mother for being irresponsible if her child simply looks on the smaller side. Or branding a child intellectually slow if he/she can’t get expected grades. And by blaming I mean it’s actually extremely toxic. We hear words like “name me one thing you’ve done properly as a mother? No wonder you look fat because you must be stealing your child’s portion of food.”
I had to secretly get help from a psychologist and a school counsellor when I was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder in 2019. I was lucky enough to have help from my mom but I can’t say this for everyone. I had Indian peers who would show up crying in school because they couldn’t turn to anyone and they were getting gaslighted or blackmailed at home.
My own brother is also secretly getting treatment for clinical depression and suicide. (literally only I know about it) And he has to fund his own treatment. But I can’t help but wonder what if he no longer has the resources? How am I supposed to ensure myself that he’s safe?
I think the most important thing to understand here is yes, our community doesn’t acknowledge or give a helping hand for mental health issues. BUT our community is also the epicentre of why there are mental health issues in the first place.
My family and friends have been very supportive with regard to conversations surrounding mental health. They are aware of the increasing need to have such important conversations. However, at a community level, lots more can be done. Many from the older generation still do not see the importance of mental health. This is evident when mental health institutes like IMH are being referred to as “Paithiyakaran hospital” which translates to “Mad Man’s hospital”.
4) What kind of support do you wish you had for your community?
More mental health support, because generational trauma is quite widespread. Having to endure repeated racism is an experience traumatic enough to pass on to the next generation, like a cycle that never ends.
I feel that the community should embrace the cultures of different people and uphold the image that Singaporeans live in a multicultural society. It’s fine if I am insulted because of my race because I know how to deal with it but I would hate for the same person to go through the same kind of racial/mental abuse.
Maybe have professional counselling services catered just for us. Because every time I went to get professional help, I always have it in the back of my mind that there’s no way my psychologist or school counsellor will be able to empathise with me because they’ve never experienced it and they won’t know what I’m facing. But I always felt like my Indian friends could immediately understand and advise accordingly because they’ve been through the stereotypes and pressures I’m facing.
I also think it’s good for Indians if lower SES to have access to free services because there’s really quite a large group of Indians and personal family friends I know of that have gone down the wrong path simply because they found solace in Indian gang members who understand and accept them when they faced problems at home. There’s also a lack of motivation in these youths (still speaking on behalf of family friends) because their plan is to live off of government payouts while refusing to work for the sake of their families. So I think with community help from fellow Indians there’s a way to make things right and help future generations.
The acceptance that mental health is very much prevalent in our society now. It will also be great if they willingly support their loved ones who require and would like to seek therapy.
5) Would you go for counselling, or what would your family think if you went for counselling?
Yes, I would go for counselling. However, if I tell my family that I want to go for counselling, they would think that I’m not mentally unwell enough for it, and that only those with very obvious signs of mental illness should seek therapy or counselling.
My family would be perfectly okay with me going for counselling but personally I am and always have been able to pull through difficult times and conquer difficult situations without the need for counselling.
I would say I only go for counselling when my anxiety peaks but not on a regular basis anymore because like I mentioned, there is this general thought that my psychologist won’t understand me.
My family still doesn’t know about it and I intend on keeping it a secret because I don’t need any more labels on me to aggravate my already fragile mental state.
Yeah I would, I think they would be supportive since don’t view mental health issues as a “taboo” but rather a treatable condition
6. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with mental health issues within your community?
To look forward to better things as the situation is getting better slowly. However, there is always the option to find someone to talk to, be it a professional or a friend, if you need a safe space to vent or let out your feelings.
Never be afraid to talk to someone. You never know just how helpful they and for all you know they may be the person that saves your life.
I know it looks like you’re alone. I know it crosses your mind that you wish you had different parents or relatives. And I know it looks like everyone else around you has it better. But it’s not the case. Everyone has their own struggles and demons. And there are countless number of peers you have in your community who are uncannily facing the same thing. Just trust in yourself and your own process and work towards being the best possible person you can be. And definitely not what everyone else wants you to be.
I keep diaries and solo Instagram accounts (0 followers) to just put my emotions out whenever I can’t handle what’s going on around me. And it may help you too! And there’s always people who are there to listen and be there for you. You just have to take the first step and seek help!
To always seek the support of those around you and never to suffer in silence.
We thank our four friends for taking the time to share their stories with us and our fellow readers 🙂
We hope that this sharing helps to raise awareness that the road to creating a more inclusive, more welcoming Singapore is still a long one. As emphasised by our Indian peers, open-mindedness and understanding are key to bridging divides and sparking much-needed conversation surrounding counselling and mental health. Bearing in mind this advice, we believe that you too can play a part in making Singapore a kind place for everyone.
A Kind Place supports and is welcoming to everyone from all walks of life, gender identity, orientation, and backgrounds. We have a wide range of counsellors and psychologists for you to choose from. If you have any questions or would like to book a session with us, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp us here.