In Singapore, food is serious business. Perhaps that is unsurprising in a city that calls itself a ‘food paradise’. But exactly how serious is serious? The answer is: enough to cause a public controversy when local cuisine is challenged by foreign taste buds—like in the recent Dîner en Blanc affair, for example. Here is a quick lowdown of the incident that was the talk of the town:
Dîner en Blanc, a pop-up, invite-only picnic originating in France was organized in Singapore as its first Asian location. Thousands were keen on being invited to the exclusive event, which involves a large group of people dressed in white meeting for an evening of ‘fine dining’ while only learning of the location of the event just before it occurs.
In every iteration of Dîner en Blanc there are strict rules that, according to the organizers, ‘[recall] the elegance and glamour of court society’: guests must attend with a member of the opposite sex and men and women sit across each other in a planned arrangement, bringing their own food, white tables, chairs, fine china crockery and dress only in white.
Along came food blogger Daniel Ang, who recommended 12 white colored local dishes to bring to the dinner on his blog. Mr. Ang, an invited guest, was soon told by the organizers to take down his post and was subsequently uninvited. Angered, he shot back, stating, ‘You can disrespect me as a blogger, and disrespect my blog posts, but you do not disrespect my culture’, adding that ‘Singapore local delicacies are the classiest foods ever in our hearts’.
The indignation of the food blogger certainly has an element of irony in it. After all, this is an event that celebrates ‘fine dining’ à la ‘court society’, a clear red flag, while food blogs themselves are likely to be guilty of some kind of food elitism by portraying particular eating habits in similar, if less comical, fashion, for example as being ‘classy’.
However, the reaction of the public is even more interesting, as large numbers of internet users rushed to come to the blogger’s defense, some attacking the organizers and the French for disrespecting local culture. Was the rejection of the local food items by the organizers such a grave insult to Singaporean society?
Public sentiment towards the incident is perhaps not that clear-cut. Rather, on closer examination, the controversy is actually rooted in two social undercurrents that trace their existence to the very fabric of Singaporean society: a cultural fear of losing out and a multicultural mono-culture.
This incident recalls another one a few years back, when someone calling herself Samantha phoned in to a radio show to complain about sloppily-dressed ‘heartlanders’ in the trendy district of Holland Village. ‘Heartlanders’ refers to Singaporeans living in areas dominated by subsidized government housing blocks, a term that is comparable to the American ‘Joe-Six-Pack’. And, like in the Dîner en Blanc incident, Samantha’s declaration that ‘heartlanders’ should stay out of Holland Village attracted public fury and spawned events in which people gathered to do precisely the opposite.
Looking at these two incidents, we might conclude that Singaporeans loathe elitism. But their reaction is not so much righteous anger as plain touchiness. As members of a society in which the notion of meritocracy has been drummed into everyone’s minds, Singaporeans are a very competitive people. There is a pervasive psychological need to keep up with the Joneses, a mentality that is locally termed as being ‘kiasu’, meaning ‘afraid to lose’ – an extension, perhaps, of the East Asian obsession with ‘face’. That is why sentiments that belittle the majority’s habits and preferences rankle more than they probably would in a different society.
Often, many Singaporeans are happy to declare that they live in a ‘First World’ country, that they are better than their neighbors across the border. If the local food items had been accepted, the holding of Dîner en Blanc in the country would ironically have been a source of pride, another sign that Singapore is gaining recognition as a wealthy and sophisticated society. But since those items were explicitly rejected, the conspicuous elitism of the event, which, if anything, had been viewed positively by local food lovers before, promptly became a magnet for everyone’s ire. So clearly, besides hypersensitivity, the public’s reaction is also infused with a dose of bitterness.
At the same time, the delicacy of Singaporeans’ national pride in this incident points to another elephant in the room: a major flaw in Singapore’s multicultural social compact.
Multiculturalism or, as it is less accurately called there, multi-racialism, is one of the central pillars of Singaporean society. Singapore’s model of cultural integration, however, isn’t the conflictual melting pot that America is famous for. Instead, the Singaporean government has done an admirable job in forging a multicultural society that is harmonious and relatively free of segregation. Unfortunately, the rigid top-down style of management that instilled this form of multiculturalism has also created a model that is static. Singapore may be multicultural, but it is only so within the bounds of a certain order: in the leading position we have Singaporean Chinese culture, followed by Malay culture, and then by the various Indian and Eurasian cultures.
The influx of immigrants in the last several years, the majority of them from China, has upset this balance by introducing a large number of people belonging to new and increasingly visible minorities. And, odd as it may sound, Singapore’s multicultural society is not configured to integrate the new immigrants, especially with the latter’s strange habits and lack of ability to communicate in English.
So it turns out that Singaporean culture, the dynamics of the interaction among the original cultural groups, is a mono-culture of its own — if one does not master the local lingo consisting of a fusion of English and elements from the various local tongues, if one does not appreciate local cuisine, then one is not sufficiently assimilated. And the resulting culture clash has contributed to bitterness among Singaporeans, who are increasingly vociferous about foreigners taking their jobs, contributing to overcrowding, causing accidents etcetera. The derisive use of the term ‘foreign talent’ has become ubiquitous in the online public sphere.
The Dîner en Blanc incident has also been swept up in this xenophobic trend. Like in a past incident in which a foreign family complained about the smell of their neighbors’ curry, foreigners’ lack of ‘respect’ for local cuisine prompted a slew of anti-foreign outbursts from the public. And Singaporeans are inclined to take offense at foreigners’ rejection of local cuisine because it gives them one more reason to try and purge incompatible foreign cultures from their soil.
Thus, as is often the case, national symbols are a double-edged knife. Even a relatively benign symbol such as local cuisine can become the locus of conflict and jingoism. But as a Chinese idiom wisely prescribes, ‘eat according to the dish’, one’s actions must be in accordance with the situation. So surely, the best reaction to such an inconsequential matter would simply be to abstain from going to the event; or so we might think.
More than eight hundred people turned up for Dîner en Blanc in Singapore in the end. Perhaps Singaporeans were only having a lovers’ spat after all.