Identity Card

Discriminatory rooming ad in Dubai

There are four official languages in Singapore: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. This reflects the four major peoples who came to populate the city-state: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and colonial British. Every citizen of Singapore is issued a piece of government ID (the National Registration Identity Card) which has one of these races printed on it.

Does this discourage people from having mixed-race children?

Singapore twists the Asian brain.  Just about every other Asian country is uni-cultural, at least according to the mainstream narrative. The Japanese people live in Japan and speak Japanese. The Vietnamese live in Vietnam and speak Vietanamese. The Thai people live in Thailand and speak Thai. Etc. This makes identity really easy — except if you live in Singapore, and there’s no Singaporean race, no Singaporean language, no ancient and venerable Singaporean hertitage. Blood and place and language and culture used to be inextricable, but we can no longer use any of these things to define one another. Fortunately, it says what you are right there on the card. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea.

On the surface of it, in a black and white world, it’s always this easy. (Oh, for simpler, purer times!) It’s especially helpful to have someone whom you’re not. I’m a Hindu, you’re a Muslim. I’m Kurd, you’re Turk. Indian vs. Pakistani, which is ridiculous because, as one Indian put it to me, “we are the same stock!” But they’re different! They’re Pakistani!

And yes, race. The thing about skin color, nose size, eye slant is that it makes this all obvious. But we don’t need obvious. In fact we make obvious when it’s lacking. The key to us versus them is that you have to be able to tell at a glance whose side they’re on. Hence different color uniforms for each team, but also scarification, clothing, jewelry… we laugh at the primitive Africans for their tribal scars, but the Latino in the sharp suit pulls out his iPhone and casts suspicious glances at the Latino in the cap and baggy pants. Something makes us clump together, gravitate towards standard behaviors. No one really wants to run as an independent.

Granted, the Hutus and the Tutsis do look different, at least sterotypically. But after centuries of intermixing, there can’t be such a thing as a pure race. That young boy, naked in the abstract, could be either. He doesn’t definitively have Hutu or Tutsi features. How then did the Hutus know who to kill, in Rawnda in 1994? In practice it wasn’t a problem. So powerful was identity that everyone simply knew who was who. There were Hutu families and Tutsi families, and not much in between. Small villages share common knowledge, and every day the message is reinforced. He lived in the Tutsi part of town. He sat with the other Tutsis at school. It’s not something you can disown.

Sometimes I think the best thing about big cities is the obfuscation they offer. In the big city, my Mongolian friend does not have to be Mongolian when she doesn’t want to. Of course, this horrifies her mother.

Because it’s also about tradition. You are a ___ because your father was a ___. You come from an ancient and proud line. Sure, other castes might look the same, but are they really? Blood matters. You can see it in horses. Never trust a Capulet. Predestination: who you are was written before you were born. It’s good to have clearly labeled places, categories that amputate differences. You can spell it out with letters, said the Brahmin to the Dalit.

I am of the strong opinion that printing race or religion on identity cards holds humanity back. And if you think that’s radical, technology is going to make it worse. Just wait until changing skin color, eye color, height and countenace is as easy as lipstick.

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