SINGAPORE: What happens when young Singaporeans with few or no friends of a different race become the house guest of a family they have never met, to experience life in another Singaporean culture?
Would the three or four days they spend outside their comfort zone leave them with a better cultural understanding - or would negative stereotypes and existing prejudices prove too much to overcome, for both the host family and their guest?
To find out the answers, On The Red Dot conducted this social experiment for a new series, offering several Singaporeans a rare chance to break out of their cultural bubble and uncover misconceptions about each other’s way of life.
This, at a time when the younger generation is identifying less with the cultures of others, according to a Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies survey of racial integration between Singapore’s three major races that was released this month.
As part of their new journey, a Chinese-Singaporean undergraduate had to attend a Malay wedding solemnisation, held in a mosque, for the first time, while another young Singaporean got to celebrate her first Deepavali.
For 23-year-old Divyadharshini, the experience in store for her with a Chinese-Singaporean family also offered an opportunity to heal old wounds, as she had been teased by some children when in primary school.
“You never bathe, lah. You’re dark, black,” she recalled of the taunts. The administrator, who works in an Indian company in Little India, has since shied away from mixing with other races.
Before meeting her hosts, the Angs, she admitted:
I have no Chinese or Malay friends. I still don’t feel really comfortable talking to other races.
And indeed, being thrown in at the deep end threw up some uncomfortable moments for all three youths.
RACIAL REVELATIONS BY CHILDREN
One of things that shocked Ms Divya, as she is known, during her three days with the Angs was what their three children blurted out - such as how they dared not approach Indians.
During a dinner conversation, their son Aaren said: “When I was about four or five, I thought Indians were very scary.”
The admission hurt Ms Divya “a little bit”. She said: “Maybe kids are like that. As they grow, they’ll change.”
That is the hope that legal secretary Fiona holds out for her children. “There's a particular stereotype somehow. For them, it’s because we’re of different skin colours,” she said. “We hope to change this in them, (to) accept that we can all be together.”
WATCH: The awkward things that kids say (4:17)
Ms Divya also felt a little offended when the children kept asking about the red dot on the foreheads of some Indian women. Called a "pottu", it is to let people know that the women are married.
That explanation, however, did not satisfy Aaren, who does not have any Indian friends at school. He asked: “But then, when the Indians are married, why do they have to put (it on)? What’s the purpose?”
“(They) made me feel a little awkward and shy,” said Ms Divya, a mother of a one-year-old daughter.
Awkward questions turned out to be par for the course in this cross-cultural discovery for the young Singaporeans.
Nanyang Technological University student Felicia Toh, 21, who is studying Chinese, spent four days with the Umar family during a special time: The weddings of two of their daughters, Ms Amirah and Ms Hidayah.
But before Ms Toh could take her front-row seat at Al-Ansar Mosque in Bedok, where Ms Amirah, 27, was to solemnise her marriage, the bride surprised her guest by asking her: “Are you having your period right now?”
As Ms Toh wondered about the “sudden question”, Ms Amirah explained: “For women to enter the prayer hall, we must be clean.”
It became one of several things Ms Toh learnt about the Malay/Muslim culture. Having rarely mixed with other races in her day-to-day life, she had only known that the community was very religious.
“(They) aren’t allowed to drink alcohol, and they can’t eat pork. That’s all I know,” she said before meeting the Umars.
WATCH: "Clueless" about Malay culture (4:15)
Part-time events host and aspiring actress Cheryl Lew, 24, also had questions for her hosts, the Anands, borne out of her limited contact with other races. She had attended a Special Assistance Plan school with hardly any non-Chinese students.
Though she was afraid that she might unintentionally offend the Indian family, Ms Lew ventured to ask: “When you all speak, do you really keep shaking your heads?”
Mr Shaun Anand took the question in his stride and replied: “It’s just like a form of acknowledgement, like yes and no. But probably, over time, it has become exaggerated.”
WHITHER MULTIRACIAL SINGAPORE?
On The Red Dot producer Poh Kok Ing was initially a little surprised that the show’s researcher found youths who did not have friends from other races in multiracial Singapore.
“But… if you think about it, for some of us, our interaction with people of other races is merely transactional, like a Chinese buying food from a Malay stall, or colleagues working together,” he said.
On a personal level, many still stick to their own race and speak in their own language, whether it's a conscious decision or not.
Ms Amirah’s sister Nadirah agrees that many Singaporeans stay within their comfort zone.
“When I first met Felicia, it was quite awkward to converse with her,” she said. "But after we talked things out, I just realised that maybe we just needed more exposure to each other to connect better."
The encounters the three sets of strangers had were full of challenges. Ms Toh called Ms Amirah’s wedding solemnisation a “special experience”, yet she admitted: “There were times I didn't really feel like I should be here.”
The experiment also marked the start of change. Ms Divya used to think the Chinese were “arrogant”, but after mingling with the Angs – her first Chinese friends, in her words – she said: “Not everyone’s the same.”
And she wants her daughter to grow up with friends of all races. She added:
I don’t want her to think Mummy only had Indian friends so (she) must have Indian friends (only).
To Mr Poh, what stood out in Ms Divya’s journey was what the children had said, “which showed that today’s children still harbour the same kind of racial stereotypes as the kids from a generation ago”.
“Where does that come from? And why is it so enduring? Our show doesn't answer those questions directly, but you get a sense of why there isn't greater interracial interaction - for example, the racial make-up of some schools,” he said.
“It's a good starting point for an honest conversation about race in Singapore.”
Watch the series The House Guest on the programme On The Red Dot. New episodes every Friday, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.