Yawning Bread. 19 December 2009

Churning cities




Friday's Straits Times is the first I've read at leisure since I returned, and the headline that caught my eye was "Mosques urged to embrace immigrants" (Straits Times, 18 December 2009). Alami Musa, the head of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) wanted Muslims to "avoid taking a fanatical, dogmatic or intolerant attitude towards differences within the Muslim community." (His words as quoted by the newspaper).

Immigrants, even if they are Muslim, have practices and views that differ from the local Malay-Muslim community. Language differences are the most obvious of all. Almost all mosques have traditionally preached in Malay -- a few in Tamil -- and Muslim piety is generally interwoven with Malay cultural norms, as is obvious from the dress adopted on Fridays when many go for prayers. But almost no immigrants speak Malay. The nearest would be Indonesian. Others speak Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Turkish, English, Somali, Serbo-Croat and even Uzbek. Not only do they have different cultural practices, their interpretation of Islam will also differ.

Even a simple thing like mosques organising activities in English to cater to newcomers faces resistance, as reported by the Straits Times. This even as an entire generation of Singaporeans, including Muslims, have been educated in English. The resistance should hardly be surprising. As Singapore has become less Malayan and more multicultural over the last 40 years, there has been a retreat by Malays into mosques. These have become their community spaces, not just in the religious sense, but in the linguistic and cultural sense too, their last redoubt against an alien world. Of course, there have long been non-Malays in their milieu, e.g. Indian Muslims and converts from other ethnic groups, but traditionally, non-Malay Muslims have tended to defer to the primacy of Malay norms in these spaces. Now however, as numbers of non-Malay Muslims climb, this deference will fade, and to the incumbents, the introduction of the English language and non-Malay cultural practices into these spaces would be seen as an assault on their privileged place there.

The Malay community is the last of the major communities here to face the challenge of immigration to its self-identity. Its characterisation of itself, stable for so long as one synthesised from two sources -- Sunni Islam and Malay culture -- with spaces it assumes as exclusively its own, is now being called into question. The Chinese community's self-characterisation has long been undermined, first by immigration of Indonesian Chinese, then mainland Chinese (and before that, was anyway all stirred up by the suppression of dialects in favour of Mandarin). The Indian community has in the last ten years struggled to redefine itself in the face of immigration from India that, as a ratio to Singapore Indians, is probably far greater than Chinese immigration to Singapore Chinese.

Increasingly, Malays will have to share Islam with non-Malays -- starting with the sharing of religious spaces -- but inevitably it will call into question notions of Malayness. This especially as Islam is so central to Malay identity, much more than even Hinduism is to Indian identity.

* * * * *

One face of New York

If there was one thing I kept noticing throughout my recent trip to New York, Trinidad, Austin and London, it was that of human mobility. Migration, in varying degrees from temporary to permanent, is everywhere. Even sleepy Trinidad had Chinese construction workers in quite evident numbers.

London and New York are now multi-hued, polyglot cities. Tidal waves of Hispanics, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and Eastern Europeans have swept over them. I've met with servers from Peru, Mexico, Cambodia, China, India, Tunisia and any number of East European countries. In my last London blogpost, I wrote about Italians working in London. In my first London blogpost, I wrote about meeting a Ukrainian working in New York. From Austin, I wrote about a Vietnamese-owned supermarket that seemed only to employ Hispanics.

If there are any Singaporeans who think we've been hard hit by immigration, with the unspoken line that this is not how things should be, I have bad news for you: Many cities around the world are seeing the same phenomenon.

This is not to say that New Yorkers or Londoners have no difficulty getting along with immigrants. Sure, they do. Canal Street has largely become a no-go area for New Yorkers; it resembles the Third-world in places. Nearby, the denizens of Little Italy are probably not happy with the encroachment of newly-arrived Chinese into their district. A friend in London spoke about how restaurant service standards took a nosedive when Eastern Europeans came.

Another face of New York: Canal Street

In Austin, much real estate around Canyon Vista Middle School, a school with a good reputation, has been bought up by Chinese families wanting to ensure that their children get admission. They are beginning to crowd out the Whites, changing the character of whole neighbourhoods. You can bet some people aren't happy.

Yet, New York and London were the most culturally vibrant of the four cities I visited. Sure, they were the largest two, but population size alone does not explain it. Look at Jakarta with its 12 million inhabitants -- does it feel anything like the first two?

Yet another face of New York: West Village

Wealth certainly has more to do with it. With civic resources great museums can be founded and stocked, lavish (and sometimes garish) entertainment options find markets. But wealth alone cannot deliver the sheer variety of niche experiences, from Moroccan food to Tibetan furnishings to Sufi music. It also takes open mindsets for a city to sustain other niche interests: build your own musical instruments, join a glass-blowing club, stick to wholly organic diets, start up a gay Muslim porn industry... okay, maybe the last is still a work in progress, but you get what I mean.

These cities are constantly changing, always reinventing themselves. It's stopping that's hard.

Hi-tech start-up, Lower East Side, New York


The daily blogs from the five-week trip can be seen here:

New York: 
Day 1
, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7

Port of Spain: 
Day 1
, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10

Austin, Texas: 
Day 1
, Day 2 and 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8

Day 1
, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5


The one place that didn't seem to have changed since I was last there was Port of Spain, Trinidad. Religion is still setting the tone, there's the same race rhetoric and the same limited, unexciting food choices. But nearly everybody lives in houses with their own gardens. In a physical sense, there is space to breathe and nights are placid. A good place to bring up children, some might say. 

It was also the one place where quite often I didn't understand what people were saying, even when they've repeated themselves four times. Trinidadians, and the people of the Caribbean generally, have developed their own bastardised English that is impenetrable to outsiders. Even the accented English of migrants from Austin to the East End was easier to understand.

I saw Trinidad as the kind of place that some Singaporeans might wish to emulate, a place where the racial mix does not much change, religion is a huge part of private and public life, everybody has his own garden, even a small one, to relax in, and a language to call your own. Above all, no immigration. A stress-free life. A place where change comes slowly, if at all. 

To me it was claustrophobic and unrelentingly boring. I couldn't get out of Trinidad fast enough.

Yawning Bread 


Selected photographs:

New York (57 photos)
Port of Spain (24 photos)
Austin, Texas (19 photos)
London (42 photos)