Corrupting our youth

“Yang in saya bagi kakak. Extra. Saya tak beri orang lain tahu?” she added conspiratorially, “Hanya Kakak, kerana kami orang Melayu.”

Kathy Rowland (TMI)

“Muat tak?”  

The young girl’s head snapped up in surprise. In Singapore, once the centre of Malay culture and literature, switching unconsciously from English to Malay and back, as you’d do back home, can catch people off guard. 

I was at the supermarket checkout, and the cashier packing my groceries into a bag seemed to be struggling, prompting my question.

“Kakak dari mana?” she asked, ignoring my query.

“Dari Malaysia.”

“Saya juga.” 

We continued chatting as she checked out my groceries, item by item. Taufoo, S$1.90. “Adik dari mana?” 

“Taman Pandan, Johor.” Akak? 

Low-fat milk S$4.80.

“Petaling Jaya.”

The girl made the trip from Johor every morning by bus to work as a cashier at a supermarket in Singapore. Working here paid more than back home. I wondered how far we were from sending our young men and women, en mass, to work in lowly paying jobs to neighbouring countries. Once hailed as an Asian tiger economy, we seem more like those hapless ceramic cats, waving their arm tirelessly at the entrance of businesses, in the hopes of attracting investors who are just not interested in our pussycat anymore.   

She was a sweet girl, polite and eager to chat with someone from home. At 17, she could easily have been my daughter, and we spoke about her plans for the future. By the time we got to the bag of dog food, we were on the topic Malaysians in Singapore inevitably come to: the high cost of living and how difficult it is to find decent hawker food here.

It’s an exercise in building solidarity with our fellow countrymen, as much as it is a genuine search for the taste of home. Within the safety of our own language, we could gently mock the country that was the source of our livelihood without offending our hosts. 

She rang up my bill and I could not resist the urge to convert the total from Singapore dollars into ringgit, even though it never failed to depress me. The exchange rate was a mathematically inconvenient S$1 to RM2.46. I was trapped in a fog of mental multiplication, and so was caught off guard by what happened next. 

As she gave me my change back, she surreptitiously handed me a row of coupons. The supermarket chain was running a promotion, which offered customers a coupon for every S$35 they spent. Collect enough and you get to exchange them for various cooking ware. It’s a scheme designed to boost sales and ensure customer loyalty. The prospect of getting something “free” worked like a charm, and I’d been slowly building up my coupon collection.

The day’s shopping was nowhere near enough to have earned so many coupons. The girl, seeing my confusion, said quickly, “Yang in saya bagi kakak. Extra. Saya tak beri orang lain tahu?” she added conspiratorially, “Hanya Kakak, kerana kami orang Melayu.”

I was embarrassed, and stunned speechless. I should have, at that point, returned the stickers or said something but she was already on to the next customer. I didn’t want to get her into trouble by calling attention to what she’d done. Plus, who was I to deny the wisdom of the old proverb, “rezeki jangan ditolak, musuh jangan di cari”? 

But even as I rationalised my silent walk away from the counter, I knew that something truly ugly had just happened. While it was clear that the young Malaysian girl had been well-intentioned, her act was nonetheless driven by a profoundly racialised view of the world. What appeared to be a friendly exchange between two Malaysians, her parting comment had exposed as a naïve little fantasy. To this 17-year-old, a product of our education and political system, every interaction can only be viewed through the prism of ethnicity.

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