S’pore athlete UK Shyam, Rai from Jack & Rai share experiences of being called “apu neh neh”

We can do better.

By Mandy How | March 5, 2018

If there’s one thing we learnt from this episode, it’s that Singapore is not as racially harmonious as our pledge aims to lead us to believe:

Chinese S’porean parents requested child not be taught by qualified Indian tuition teacher

And in a recent post by local initiative The Pride, this harmonious front crumbles just a little bit more with the stories told.

There, Singaporean athlete Umaglia Kancanangai Shyam Dhuleep — better known as U.K. Shyam — and Rai from local singing duo Jack and Rai share their experiences with discrimination, and how they learnt to deal with it. 

We extract some of the most disturbing accounts they related:

“You Indians have the audacity to talk so big when you live in our country.”

This was what an ethnic Chinese guy told U.K. Shyam — who is Sinhalese, by the way, not even Indian — when he bumped into the sprinter at a bookstore.

“Many years ago, I was in a bookshop and browsing through a book when this Chinese guy bumped into me,” says Shyam, 41. “I looked at him, but he did not apologise.”

So Shyam shook his head and stuck his nose back in the book, but the man wouldn’t let it go.

“He asked me if I wasn’t happy, so I told him he was really rude – bumping into me and not apologising.”

“He said to me, ‘You Indians have the audacity to talk so big when you live in our country.’

“He said I should be grateful. I was stunned,” says Shyam, who was about to complete his national service at that time.

“He then said he wanted to teach me a lesson, and went on to berate me, saying that Indians know only how to talk, but can’t study. I told him I was from Raffles Junior College and that I was about to go to the National University of Singapore once I was done with national service,” says Shyam, who holds a double degree in Philosophy and Political Science.

“He went on to say that I pray to Shiva – I’m Catholic, but what he said was irrelevant anyway,” adds Shyam. “And he was well-spoken – an educated guy.”

Sadly, this is not the only instance of discrimination Shyam has faced.

Growing up, children at his block also called him “apu neh neh” — a derogatory term to describe Indians that some even tried to pass off as affectionate.

As society presents him with more of such instances (being looked down on in a fancy shop, for example), Shyam has become used to it, and laughs it off instead of trying to reason with them.

“I sometimes think it is a lost cause – to try and change people’s racist attitudes. Unless they can empathise or have experienced racism themselves, it’s difficult to rationalise with them because it is so deep rooted.

It is by no means easy to re-examine our biases and assumptions about race – it is tedious and requires self-reflection, and for those who make up the majority race with their privileges, they feel no compelling need to do that, which is why I’m sceptical that anything can really be done.

Besides, when someone from the minority speaks against racism, it will be viewed as whining and won’t be taken seriously anyway.”

Being called “smelly”

Like Shyam, Sivadorai Sellakannu (or Rai, as he is better known) was also called an “apu neh neh” as a kid.

But if it’s any consolation, Rai also says that he hasn’t experienced much racism, except in the way of banter. But that is usually in jest.

The most he was at the receiving end of in his time growing up came in being called “smelly”:

“These are usually in an Indian setting, but what they are smelling are really the spices… So if they said that, it would have been done out of ignorance rather than antagonism.”

However, seeing that Rai’s experience is not the norm, we can definitely do better.

You can read the full article on The Pride.

Top image from U.K. Shyam’s and Sivadorai Sellakannu’s Facebook page.

About Mandy How

Mandy is a pantry rat. She eats everything in the pantry (except other people's food).

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