What did Shimun Lai say that has gotten so many people riled up? Indians upset over her remark; non-Indian netizens upset over it in a show of solidarity; other netizens upset that people are upset with Shimun….

Something is not right with this picture. Let’s just face it. Racial stereotyping is a common feature in every society. In just about every country I’ve been to, racial comments, racial jokes, insensitive racial stereotyping is part of the ordinary social landscape. Singapore is no different.

From the time that I was in Primary school, I can remember comments and jokes about my dark skin. Sometimes kids would shun me because the darkness of the skin equates with being dirty and I used to get those comments thrown straight at my face. I have heard people characterise Indians as slimy, fork-tongued, liars. Even as a practising lawyer, I used to get back-handed compliments about why so many Indians make good lawyers (because we are good at twisting things around).

There are racial stereotypes about Malays. There are those that relate to Chinese. Let’s be honest. Even those of us that try to live life with a sense of universal brotherhood, have the weakness of resorting to the base instinct of classifying certain mannerisms and behaviour as being peculiar or predominant in a particular race, nationality or culture. The difference is often about whether we are prepared to allow our entire thought pattern to be dominated by these classifications or we are willing to rise above these base instincts.

It comes as no surprise to me that Shimun felt that Indians are smelly. All throughout the time that I was growing and a long period throughout my 20s, I have experienced situations where some aunty in a bus or train would cover her nose or move to another seat if an Indian sits next to her. It is a perception that does exist. Some netizens in Shimun’s defence have said that she was referring to Indians from India. There are others that have enjoined the debate by saying that many foreigners (especially PRC and Indians from India) are noisy and smelly. Somehow, foreigner bashing is seen as being not racist and therefore pardonable in comparison with bashing a Singapore Indian.

I think we are all getting quite mixed up about this whole episode.

Firstly, as an Indian let me just say that my instinctive reaction when I read about Shimun was to chuckle. Was she racist? Well there is some element of that in all of us. It is just a question as to where we target that emotion. For some it is merely in the thoughts racing through their minds. For others, it exhibits itself in the words that they casually use. Yet others, hurl it out as insults. These people are harmless when we compare them with those that would deny a person his socio-economic opportunities in life. Some people refuse to employ a person or to promote a person on account of his race. That is more vile, insidious and worthy of condemnation than some young girl that went crazy with her words.

When I was much younger, I used to get all worked up by racial remarks. But, over the years I have learned to ignore nasty comments. The human animal is rather strange. The very person that is capable of making racially insensitive comments is often capable of forming friendships with persons from such other races. It is not the remarks that make a person racist. It is the actions of that person that make him racist.

Take a deep breath. Give each other some space. There are more pressing concerns than the hasty comments of a 19-year old.