It goes deeper than just aroma

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On 8 August, the Today newspaper reported the incident of a family from China, which had moved to Singapore recently, resorting to mediation by the Community Mediation Centre to stop its neighbour from cooking a popular local dish, curry.

Since the report, both online and ordinary Singaporeans have criticised the Chinese family’s actions and also the decision of the CMC to ask the neighbour – an Indian family – to “agree to cook curry only when the Chinese family was not home.”

Ms Frances Ong, in a letter to Today, said: “I feel strongly that it is inappropriate to ask the local family to only cook curry when the neighbour is not at home. It is equivalent to asking my neighbour not to burn paper offerings when my husband is home, which is a ridiculous request.”

I agree – but I also feel that the issue is one which goes deeper and provides a glimpse into the undercurrents of Singapore society which I hope the government will pay attention to.

Since the public outcry over the arrival of foreigners, new citizens and permanent residents to our shores, the government has urged locals to accept these new arrivals and guests, and to help integrate them to our society. The government has also allocated millions of dollars to its integration programme.

However, such incidences as the one mentioned above threatens to undermine all the effort of the government.

Already, there is simmering unhappiness over the perceived usurpation of job opportunities by foreigners from Singaporeans. The number of crimes committed by non-Singaporeans have also raised concerns. And while small and seemingly trivial incidents such as this “curry cooking” one may seem insignificant, they add up and add to the underlying discontent towards foreigners.

This “curry cooking” episode is not the only one thus far which has riled locals.

In recent times, there was the incident of an Indian mother who made disparaging remarks about Singaporeans at a shopping centre’s children playground, and the assault by four Australians on three Singaporeans at Suntec city. The recent spate of violent crimes by foreigners and the number of bodies found have all contributed to a sense of unease among Singaporeans.

Yet, the authorities have been rather silent on all of these.

I would like to urge the government to say something about these to give Singaporeans assurances that it – the government – is aware of what is happening, and more importantly, to address this effectively.

As I said previously, keeping silent is not helping. And worse, to continuously praise the presence of foreigners, as ministers have been doing, is also adding to the discontent.

As one can see from the horrendous actions of 32-year-old Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, who resorted to murdering scores of people on an island because he was unhappy with the country’s immigration practices, not addressing such visceral sentiments can lead to serious consequences.

While I am not saying – and certainly not encouraging – anyone to take matters into their own hands, it is incumbent upon the authorities to address feelings of unhappiness about policies.

The “curry cooking” episode is just a symptom of underlying tension among the populace. While it is all good and well to say that we should live and let live, when it comes to such things it is more complex and harder to deal with. But this does not mean we turn a blind eye to it.

I can understand that some feel foreigners should accept our Singaporean way of life – and indeed they should. On our part, the locals, must also understand that it takes time for non-locals to understand and accept our way of life too.

But when incidents like this “curry cooking” one happens, the authorities should step in – as it did. The unfortunate thing here is that the authorities do not seem to know what to do or how to resolve such problems in a sensible way. Asking the Indian family not to cook curry when the Chinese family is around is just well, stupid, to put it bluntly.

Instead, the mediation (which itself was a good thing) should have included an invitation for the Chinese family to visit the Indian family and yes – as the Indian family offered – the Chinese family should try the curry.

I am sure the Indian family would also be thrilled to explain what curry is and the reason why it is a staple food to them. The whole episode could have ended on a high note of understanding, mutual respect and even perhaps an understanding of each other’s cultural practices.

The government, and its officers, need to not only be sensitive to the needs of foreigners, but especially more so towards the needs and feelings of Singaporeans.

It is my sincere hope that the government will take these minor incidences seriously and address them – before they accumulate into something more serious.

Anyone who has his ears to the ground will know that this “curry cooking” incident is more than just about the aroma of a dish.


If you’re wondering, here’s how you can cook curry.


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