Offensive comments and dirty looks

The incident involving an interracial couple being scolded by a Chinese man last week has raised eyebrows, but people say such encounters are not all that uncommon.

Housewife Yvonne Neo, 38, was once out in Orchard Road with her then boyfriend Mohamed Shahrom Mohamed Taha, 42, a history teacher, when a woman suddenly glared at her and muttered loudly in Malay: “There goes another one of our Malay men.”

Another time, after they got married in 2010, two Chinese men inside a lift with them asked her why Chinese men were not “good enough” for her.

Despite interracial marriages becoming more common in Singapore, it is not uncommon for mixed-race couples to be on the receiving end of racially insensitive or offensive comments in their daily lives, said interracial couples who were interviewed.

The issue has been thrust into the spotlight in the wake of an incident involving Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior lecturer Tan Boon Lee, 60, who was seen in a widely circulated video clip confronting mixed-race couple Dave Parkash, 26, and Jacqueline Ho, 27.

Among other things, Tan told Parkash that Indian men like him were “preying” on Chinese women.

Police are investigating the incident.

Mixed-race couples said that improving education and exposure to other communities, and creating more opportunities for civil conversations about race, can help to correct stereotypes and address racist attitudes and behaviour.

Some Singaporeans – like content marketer Denise Lee-Verghese – learnt first-hand how it felt to be the target of racist comments only after they started dating someone of a different race.

Denise, 34, who has been married for three years to bank analyst Leon Lee-Verghese, 43 – an Indian – said it is not uncommon for them to get dirty looks from strangers.

They decided to take on the same double-barrelled surname when they got married to “start their own branch of the family tree” and reflect their cultures and families coming together.

About two years ago, when a woman in a restaurant made rude comments in Mandarin about Denise’s husband, it stung.

“He didn’t want to make a scene, but it isn’t fair to always be the bigger person, especially if someone is denigrating you,” she said.

Negative perceptions about mixed-race couples often stem from misguided notions about why people choose to be in interracial marriages, as well as negative racial stereotypes, the couples said.

For instance, Tanya (not her real name), 28, met her Armenian husband at work.

An elderly woman at a hawker centre told Tanya that she should not date Caucasians because they were playboys who cheated on women.

She also asked why Tanya, who is Chinese, was not dating a Chinese boy instead.

“I just smiled at her and told her that if I met a suitable Chinese boy, I would also consider him.

“She and others like her don’t realise that I didn’t choose to marry my husband because of his race.”

When asked what they would have done if they were in Parkash’s shoes, the couples said they thought he did the right thing by staying calm and not reacting aggressively.

But it frustrates Leon and his wife that people tried to offer reasons for the lecturer’s behaviour, thus downplaying the hurt suffered by the couple.

“Some people have given all sorts of reasons for his racism. Some say he is from a previous generation, that he has mental health issues. Some people are even denying that this was racist,” he said.

Radio presenter Divian Nair, who is 34 and who has an Indian father and Chinese mother, said the incident hit close to home, as it could have happened to his parents as well as to him and his wife Rachel, 28, who is Chinese.

But he added that he was quite heartened to see many Singaporeans of different races reject the lecturer’s prejudiced sentiments.

Couples like Pathma Gurusamy, 29, who is married to Ng Boon Jun, 31, stressed the importance of continued education as well as open conversations about racism and discrimination.

“The importance of continued education to combat institutionalised racism cannot be emphasised enough,” said Pathma. — The Straits Times/ANN

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