Arts & Culture

Rojak Romance: Start Meaningful Conversations About Our Similarities and Differences

What do you think of ‘Others’?

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The CMIO model, originally a tool utilised by the British, is still the main categorisation method we have in Singapore today for ethnicity. However, with mixed-race relationships on the rise, this Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework is outdated, and a weak attempt at trying to pin down this nation’s ethnic demographic at best.

Rojak Romance brings this much needed conversation back to the public eye.

Part of the programming for The Future of Our Pasts Festival, this documentary film follows the discovery process of a young mixed-race couple as they interrogate their different backgrounds. From meeting each other’s family to understanding the varying expectations on children, they speculate on how to exist as a mixed-race couple in Singapore. Being both the filmmakers and the protagonists, Jane Christine Zhang and Tinesh Indrarajah have to balance their own personal journey and the artistic vision of their message.

Who are they and why did they decide to place their own experience as the starting point of this conversation?

Rojak Romance has been very much inspired by your own shared experience. Let’s start this interview with you introducing yourselves.

Jane: I’m Jane, and I was born and raised in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Sichuan, China. I came to Singapore in 2014 to study at Yale-NUS College, where I ended up deciding to major in anthropology. At Yale-NUS, I was pretty involved with a number of sports, including netball, ultimate frisbee, and football; sports are a shared interest for Tinesh and me! Since graduating from Yale-NUS in May 2018, I have been living and working in Singapore as a Dean’s Fellow at Yale-NUS.

Tinesh: My name is Tinesh and I was born in Taiping, Perak, Malaysia. I moved to Singapore when I was 15 on the ASEAN scholarship to pursue my upper secondary and tertiary education. I was part of the founding class of Yale-NUS, and I graduated in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in History from Yale-NUS and a Master in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Like Jane, I was very involved in the sports scene while at Yale-NUS, and I have represented the school in 11 different sports. I am currently working at Yale-NUS as a Dean’s Fellow.

When or how did the first inspiration for Rojak Romance come about? Did anything in particular triggered this artistic response?

Tinesh’s capstone was about the Singaporean Ceylonese Tamil community, and we wanted to carry it forth and to share it with a larger audience through a more accessible form — a documentary. The storyline of Rojak Romance came about after months of discussion and brainstorming, when we decided to move it past just simply looking at the historical aspects of it and instead look at it through a more creative lens: understanding Ceylonese Tamil culture when faced with the reality of mixed-race relationship.

We wanted to use the lens of mixed-race relationships as well because it applies to a wider audience — for youths, as their partners will determine how much of their specific cultural background gets transmitted to the next generation, and for the older generation, how they conceptualise who an ideal partner for their children might be.

The one moment that triggered the crux of this documentary, which basically follows our journey as a mixed-race couple, happened during one of our critique sessions where, after Jane blurted out that “We are a couple!” the guests invited to the session told us that centering us as the protagonists of our documentary would make for a more interesting story line.

Out of curiosity, why the choice of film instead of other mediums? What does the craft of film give to this narrative?

We chose film because that was the medium we thought would make our story come to life the best.

The craft of film allows the audience to see the non-verbals in our interactions, which we think are as critical in any important conversation as the verbal cues.

As such, if we were to pen our thoughts down in a magazine or set it up in an installation, we would lose out on the “humanness” of the conversation we were trying to have. Thinking and talking about mixed-race relationships is messy, but it is so human, and we believe that film is the best way to capture that “humanness”.

Personally, I do feel that the CMIO model of Singapore is getting more outdated as the years go by and with the rise of mixed-race couples calling this place home. What are your opinions on it?

We agree. CMIO does help the nation administratively, in terms of making it easier for the government to account for specific racial populations and administer particular policies to particular races. However, we don’t think that alone is a sufficient reason to continually peg people into outdated boxes because it perpetuates a unitary image of that race. For example, all Indians should speak Tamil, all Chinese people Mandarin, and all Malays must speak Malay.

Not to mention, we have no idea what composite of people “Others” stand for.

Hence, if we truly care about self-expression and celebrating one’s heritage, we believe the next step is to allow individuals to define themselves and use that marker as their race. This change will allow for a more authentic representation of self as well as spark more meaningful conversations about our similarities and differences within and between races. We have progressed far enough for us to no longer rely on the shackles of divide and rule that the British imposed, and actually return back to a more fluid classification as per the case before the British colonised Singapore.

What do you think of the term Others, and if given the chance to revise it, what would be your suggestion?

As per the answer above, I think the term “Others” is a mere catch-all that fails to account for the diversity within the Singaporean population. However, in today’s Singapore, we get a sense that “Others” usually is used to refer to Eurasians or Caucasians, especially on governmental billboards about racial harmony. We think this is an inaccurate categorisation of Singaporean society, as a more useful “race or ethnicity” that should be featured would be Filipinos or Indonesians or Bangladeshis, as they make up a significant part of our population, either as wage-earners or residents on this island.

To close, the term “Others” is outdated, and if we could revise the usage of it, we would encourage displaying images of fellow South East and South Asian communities, as they do make up a significant part of Singaporean society.

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