Ethan’s experiences at his National Service term strongly reveals just how racist the system really is – and how it’s institutionalised:
We were asked several times to line up according to race (Malays here, Chinese here, Indians here, Dan Lain-Lain here) in order to distribute the races equally when it came to sorting us into classes, companies, and dorms. There are Wakil Bangsa (race representative) members for feedback about the food we have in the canteen. We are to see our respective Wakil Bangsa if we have any comments or complaints. The basketball team has a race quota: two Malays, two Chinese, and, if I’m not mistaken, room for one Dan Lain-Lain. The week before we were due to return home for holiday, they picked a representative from each race and announced that if we had any questions regarding the traveling arrangements we could talk to our Wakil Bangsa.
A friend of mine missed roll call one night because he wasn’t well. When the head of his dorm reported it to the trainers, they didn’t even bother to inquire about what he was down with, they only wanted to know his race. The following day he was sent to the medic. He had dengue.
One trainer told us that everyone had a religion. No, he corrected himself, everyone should have a religion. If you didn’t have a religion, you might as well climb up a building and jump. What was the use of living? And so, if you had a religion, you’d better do as your religion dictated. If you’re Buddhist, go to the temple. Hindu, go to the temple. Muslim, go to the surau. Christian, go to church. We nodded. One can’t argue with such logic.
Ethan stood out as a Christian Chinese (and the sole Christian), which caused some problems when he tried to go back for the Hungry Ghost Festival:
The Hungry Ghost Festival is that time of year when Buddhists, or Taoists, or maybe just Chinese, go back home to pay respects to their ancestors. So all the Chinese in camp were given a few days off. I’ve never cared about the Hungry Ghost Festival before, and I can assure you that I had no intention of praying or doing anything for the sake of my long-gone ancestors. My fellow yellow were puzzled when they heard I was planning to take off with the rest of them.
“You’re going back?”
“Sure, if I can go back I’m going to go back.”
“But,” – cue the frown – “but you’re not Buddhist.”
“I’m Chinese. Teacher said all the Chinese could go back.”
“You can’t speak Chinese, you aren’t Buddhist. You’re not Chinese. You’re Christian.”
I had a bit of a problem explaining the difference between race and religion and, of course, no problem whatsoever explaining simple opportunism.
And this is supposed to encourage national unity?
You only get national unity when you stop caring about races and treat everyone as equal. Having “race representatives”, insisting that people follow set boxes (and have no provision for non-boxed people), and only caring about race when emergency issues come up completely go against national unity.
This is a huge reason why I am a strong opponent of National Service. I would at least be empathetic if it was truly national and not segregated.