Wednesday 11 December 2013

Nitpicking the language of race, nationality & geography

It was a surprising choice of words - at least to me.

The Straits Times headline was "Little India Riot: 27 suspects from South Asia arrested in connection with the riot".

Why "South Asia"? Why not just say India?

I have mostly only heard the term "South Asian" used this way in US movies and TV shows, the same way "Asian" is used to describe anyone who looks Oriental since "Oriental" is no longer considered politically correct.

But this is Singapore, not America. We don't say "South Asian". We just say "Indian".

Growing up, we were taught that Singapore has three major races: Chinese, Malay and Indian.

Not Chinese, Malay and South Asian.

Then I read the transcript of the Dec 9 press conference about the riot. Here's an excerpt:

Details on the nationalities on those arrested?

Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar:
Yes, we have arrested 27 subjects and they are from South Asia.

Could we take that to mean that they are Indian nationals.

Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee:
We cannot…we have to verify. South Asia is a big place.

Big place? No kidding.

According to Wikipedia (my bible), South Asia means Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka - plus maybe also Tibet and Burma.

All this just to avoid saying the arrested "subjects" were Indian?

The problem with the word "Indian" is that to Singaporeans, it can mean both race and nationality. Like "Chinese".

When you say "Chinese man", do you mean just his race or that he's from China? Nowadays, the distinction is a big deal.

You may be tempted to say "China man" to make the distinction, but be aware that it's considered a racial slur in some places. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "India man" though.

So we use terms like "Chinese nationals" and "Indian nationals".

(Another problem is that "Indian" can also be either an adjective or a noun, but that's a whole other discussion.)

The Straits Times later reported:
Of those arrested, 24 are Indian nationals, two are Bangladeshi nationals and one is a Singapore Permanent Resident, said the police in a media release on Monday.

I guess we can assume the Singapore PR is from "South Asia" as well.

Just as in America where you call someone "Asian" when you're not sure if the person is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese or Cambodian, etc, will it now be more commonplace for Singaporeans to call someone "South Asian" when we're not sure if the person is Bangladeshi or Indian, etc?

And when I say Indian, I mean Indian national.

And not Red Indian. I mean, American Indian. I mean, native American. I mean... never mind.

EARLIER: Five Little India riot myths debunked