5 S'porean millennials get real about their friendship - including race, culture & even toilet habits

Yes, featuring 3-ply toilet paper.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | July 11, 2021, 11:05 AM

Through their years of friendship they have gone on two overseas trips together, seen two within the group get married, and never shied away from addressing misunderstandings, which has strengthened the special bond that they have.

The group, who met as undergraduates at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) about eight years ago, comprises creative executive Melanie Lim and content specialist Faiqah Rizliana, both 27, teacher Sumaya Jahan, 28, trade specialist Alvin Kosasi, 29, as well as content and marketing executive Mohd Jahafar, 31.

They got to know each other at different times, but it was only after Jahafar invited all of them for a surprise birthday party he threw for Sumaya that the five, who were all English majors at NTU, bonded.

In fact, Jahafar is now married to Sumaya – which in this case, holds true to the saying that you do indeed marry your best friend.

From left to right: Jahafar, Sumaya, Melanie, Faiqah and Alvin

Multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-national

The first thing that one might notice about the group though, is how diverse they are.

“We always joked that NTU should put us in their marketing campaigns because of how multi-ethnic we are,” shared Faiqah, who’s Malay-Muslim.

But they didn’t set out to be poster children for Singapore’s racial harmony.

Shared Melanie: “I don’t think our group dynamic has ever been something like ‘we want to intentionally be a racially harmonious group’, it’s just that we all managed to click and get along with each other, and it so happens that we are of different races.”

As with all great relationships, their natural chemistry is what made these friends come together despite their completely different backgrounds.

“I think for us, we were able to find ‘our people’ within the cohort, and then we just naturally kind of floated together and converged to form a friendship,” said Jahafar.

Agreed Alvin, who’s Indonesian-Chinese and a Singapore PR: “I would say that we become friends due to compatible personalities. Having little friends and no guidance at the start of university, I was able to talk to Melanie and Jahafar about some difficulties I was facing.”

“It was nice to be treated as part of the group when many would normally just retreat and keep into their own circles.”

That’s not to say that they always see eye to eye. In fact, the beauty of their friendship is that the group doesn’t always have to.

“We don't have that expectation where we want each other to agree with each other all the time,” said Jahafar, the acknowledged leader of the pack.

“There’s always the understanding that we know each other’s opinions, but there’s no expectation that everyone has to be on the same page.”

But with a group as ethnically and culturally diverse as they, misunderstandings are bound to arise, and it can happen even after years of friendship.

The one with the toilet paper

One recent misunderstanding, dubbed the “toilet paper incident”, threw the door wide open for a discussion on their toilet habits and how it relates to their own cultures.

Explained Melanie: “Basically, we had a gathering at Sumaya and Jahafar’s place. And before we met up I kind of asked in the chat, ‘do you all have toilet paper at your home?’"

“I have been to their place before, and it had toilet paper, but I wasn't sure if they use the bidet and then they just have toilet paper for guests. So I just wanted to clarify, in case I needed to use the toilet and there was no toilet paper, I could bring my own.

“I didn't want to assume anything. That was where I was coming from.”

However, Sumaya reacted with a certain amount of incredulity at first.

“Like, why would you even ask me that when you have been to my house before? And would you have asked that if it wasn't a brown person's home,” she explained, although she understood where Melanie was coming from.

Said Sumaya: “I've had a similar experience where a Chinese friend went to an Indian friend's house and she came out of the toilet moments later because he had no toilet paper in his home.”

For the record, the answer to Melanie’s question was: “Yes we have toilet paper, and it’s a luxurious 3-ply one.”

Added Faiqah: “I thought it was okay of Melanie to ask, because it's a household preference. If she were to come to my house I’d probably have to get her some.”

But rather than let things slide, the group’s modus operandi is to address matters whenever “there might be an ounce of ignorance or a bit of stereotyping happening,” said Sumaya.

“And after we have gone through that, then I think we can look at it with a sense of humour.”

Despite the misunderstandings, of which this is just one, Jahafar emphasised that they have “never been a deal breaker”.

“If anything, it paved the way for us to talk about our race and religion and to confront internal and external prejudices that we might have been too embarrassed to ask or even think about.”

But it is not always issues pertaining to race and religion that froth to the surface within the group.

They have disagreements over other things too and they deal with them in the same way, cliched as it might be — with openness and respect.

The group during their graduation trip to Malaysia in 2017.

Travelling together for the first time to Malaysia in 2017 for example, put a strain on the group, as Faiqah felt that besides herself and Jahafar who were doing most of the planning, the rest of them “weren’t pulling their weight”.

“We even had a chat at the end of the trip to see what we liked and disliked about each other. And I think that honesty was very hard to take in but I also had to understand that I was being too controlling, so we all grew as a group,” said Faiqah.

Not the norm, but should be normal

What most of them can agree on, however, is that their group can be seen as unusual when looking at other friendships around them.

“I think people in general are just more comfortable with sticking to their own race and what they already know,” reflected Melanie.

Sumaya agreed: “I have had instances where friends did not even bother to invite me to a meet-up because the place isn't Halal. And when we have to choose from a limited range of Halal options, I always felt bad that they had to sacrifice their preferred eateries for my sake.”

“I grew up having almost exclusively Chinese friends but I don’t think it was an intentional choice to begin with,” said Alvin.

For Jahafar however, all his friend groups are multi-ethnic. “My best friend and my longest friend whom I've known since secondary school are both Chinese,” but he understands that his experience is “not the norm”.

Their shared background has also helped them navigate these potential minefields, added Faiqah.

“I think as English majors, we’re very critical and conscious of being a token friend. We understand that a race is not a monolith and while we do talk often about social issues and ask for each other’s opinions, we don’t really have this blanket understanding that ‘oh, all Chinese people are like that’, for example, so there isn’t really any friction when it comes to racial or religious issues."

That being said, there are still some things they wish Singaporeans could be more aware of when it comes to their own culture.

Said Jahafar: “I am a Singaporean Indian-Muslim. But for the majority of Singaporeans, this is baffling because they believe race is synonymous to religion."

“Since I’m Indian, I have to be Hindu, or since I’m Muslim, I had to be Malay. And I know other Indian-Muslim friends facing the same struggles.”

Added Sumaya: “People still get shocked that the Muslim community consists of more than just the Malay community.”

For Faiqah, being at the receiving end of backhanded compliments such as “oh, you speak very well for a Malay,” has also been a disheartening experience.

On another occasion, she had a colleague who said ‘I’m proud of you and [another Malay colleague] because you guys know how to save. Because, you know, Malays aren’t good with money’.

“It’s microaggressions like these that build up over time and it takes a toll on a person.”

Providing a safe space

More than anything else, it’s the safe space that this group of friends provides which Melanie appreciates.

“I think it takes a lot of trust and vulnerability to reach a certain stage of friendship with a person (or in this case people) where you know that they will safeguard what you tell them and have your best interests at heart.”

For Faiqah, there’s a wariness that she can come across as an “angry minority”, “so sometimes I just learnt to shut up”.

“But with this group of friends, it is a space where I can let out my frustrations as well as voice out my opinions and no one will condemn me for it."

“I like how we all have different perspectives on things and the fact that we can openly talk about issues like this without any sense of shame or judgement.”

But as with all relationships, it takes work too.

“Friendship is one part chemistry, one part effort so we really make it a point to carve out time for each other,” said Faiqah.

As the one who usually initiates meet-ups at least once a month pre-Covid, Jahafar knows the effort cannot be discounted.

“He actually made us promise that we wouldn’t let the friendship fade and we would make a commitment to meet regularly,” Sumaya revealed.

“I think maybe each of us knew that if we didn't make the conscious effort to stay together and check up on each other and hold each other accountable, this friendship would have ended."

The group having their once-a-month meet-up in 2020.

And their friendship has even entered into the sphere of their families, said Sumaya.

“Our families know and enquire about each other, and my friends have literally watched my siblings grow up,” she added.

Contemplating on their friendship, Faiqah shared: “Our friendship group is not just multi-racial and multi-religious, but also multi-national, so we get to know more about the experiences of being a PR or how hard it is to get a Singaporean citizenship, which I think a lot of us take for granted.”

So what would make their friendship even more of an achievement?

“I think it was Faiqah who joked that I should get a Eurasian boyfriend so the group can be ‘complete’,” said Melanie.

“Or an Indian who celebrates Deepavali,” Faiqah added, with Jahafar chiming in: “Or anything that’s missing right now lah.”

Not that anything else is missing from this fab five — but we believe anyone can fit right in and be at home with their warm, genuine ease and respect they have for each other.

These are indeed #friendshipgoals in our city.

This post is sponsored by SGinHarmony, an initiative by the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth with support from community partners, to grow mutual understanding and respect for our racial and religious diversity through everyday actions in their lives.