I met Dr Lai Ah Eng in her office one afternoon, just after she had finished teaching the class “Multiculturalism in Singapore and Its Contested Meanings”. Dr Lai is known in the University Scholars Programme (USP) for her modules on religious issues and multiculturalism - she also teaches the module “Religious Issues in the Contemporary World”. The full range of her life, however, goes far beyond academia. Her interests in race, religion, women’s issues and heritage issues have brought her into the spheres of both government and civil society. She has done policy research for the Housing Development Board (HDB), the Institute of Policy Studies and the Asia Research Institute, amongst others. She has served on committees and advisory panels for organisations such as the Ministry of Social Development and the Malay Heritage Foundation Board, and she was a founding member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Beyond her professional life, she was also a full-time homemaker for a period of time, and she participates in several volunteer activities – the most recent being otter watch groups and wildlife conservation.
Teaching at USP is just one of the many threads of the rich tapestry of her life. Having taken up teaching only in the last five years, she sees teaching as a logical and necessary conclusion to her research career. As she gets older, she feels that “it's really time to do more teaching so that I can mentor younger people more directly”. Now in her fifth year of teaching, she sees it as a way of not just passing on information, but also training young adults in how to look at things and view the world.
Making students conscious of the larger world outside of academia is one of Dr Lai’s goals as an Adjunct Senior Fellow at USP. Having grown up in a multicultural settlement and having witnessed racial riots in Malaysia, Dr Lai is keenly aware that economic, racial and religious tensions have very real meaning beyond just being academic concepts. Through her classes, she tries to communicate to students that being at university is not just about “getting that degree” or keeping up with the competition. Being at university should also involve more holistic exposure to broader social issues such as religious issues and multiculturalism. “I think there's a lot that people want to know and should know. So in that sense I'm motivated by that.”
Why does Dr Lai take such a keen interest in anthropology and social issues? Her upbringing in Malaysia contributed greatly to that. “I grew up in a slum, in a squatter area in Kuala Lumpur, in a coffeeshop that was the center of the world. It was in a place called Sentul, which was also very multicultural. I went to a Christian mission school that was very mixed, and my own parents were illiterate immigrants from China. I think that combination makes you very alert to a lot of things personal, social and political. It's just... it's just the world.”
In that colourful and vibrant world, she developed her skills of social observation, arriving at insights and observations that would shape her later life as a researcher. “Growing up in a coffeeshop, I have to deliver coffee. But I also have to study,” she says. “And the coffeeshop is a very open place, it's a center of activity. That's where all the traffic goes through, that's where all the people come to buy things, sometimes sell things, also. The Rediffusion is always on, and you hear the songs, you hear the stories, you hear the news…” From a young age, she found herself exposed to the world in a very real way.
The effects of race and religion reverberated everywhere, filtering down to the everyday lives of children. Laughing, Dr Lai recounts a light-hearted anecdote from her childhood. “I used to think, how come we're not Catholics? How come we don't pray like these people? How come Father Christmas doesn't come to our house, he only goes to those two Christian houses down the road, where the children are Christian and get presents? And I used to feel so sad that- I hoped so much that my Father Christmas would pass by and give me a present but he never did! You know?”
Yet racial and religious issues could also lead to powerful and destructive consequences. Dr Lai recalled seeing an ethnic riot in Kuala Lumpur, May 1969, and how friends and friendships were affected by that. “People would emigrate, people broke off their friendships… I think that’s why I’m alert to a topic like ethnic relations.” Knowing how important such issues are, Dr Lai does not shy away from writing about race and religion, topics which she says many academics stay away from because they are considered taboo or too sensitive.
In the 1980s, while working at HDB, Dr Lai wanted to do an in-depth study on racial issues in Singapore. At a time when people were being resettled into new public housing blocks, Dr Lai wanted to find out how racial issues complicated the issue of resettlement. She asked her supervisors, “This topic is so big, I’d like to do it for a phD. Would you sponsor me?” Perhaps, given the general sensitivity of that point in time, her supervisors were nervous of the possible consequences. “They said no no, don’t touch that topic, it’s too sensitive.”
She went ahead with it anyway. “It’s something that I believe should be done so much - I resigned [from HDB] and I just went and did it,” she recalled. She spent a few years working on a research proposal, and subsequently received a scholarship to fund her PhD from Cambridge University and Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. The fruit of that research was her 1995 publication, “Meanings of Multiethnicity: A Case Study of Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations in Singapore”, which won the 1996 “Highly Recommended Book Prize” from the National Book Development Council of Singapore.
Dr Lai’s persistence paid off. The clarity of her research and her courage to tackle sensitive issues established her as a prominent scholar on race, religion and multiculturalism in Singapore. Today, she has authored dozens of articles, chapters and books on racial and religious issues, not to mention sat on several government and civil society committees. Her other publications include “Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore” (2004) and “Religious Diversity in Singapore” (2008).
Dr Lai cares deeply about bridging racial and religious divisions, and helping people of different ethnicities and faiths live together in harmony. She is also aware that precisely because such issues are so complex, one cannot always take an interventionist or activist approach to issues. “I think sometimes you want to do something, but you understand the complexity [and that’s why] you don't just - leap into doing something. You think very carefully first before you do because it's not so simple.” For example, one cannot assume that all people of a certain ethnicity have the same concept of ethnic identity. The relationship between the personal and the social can be very complex, and there is no monolithic “Chinese”, “Indian” or “Malay” identity. One cannot also assume that issues of “blame” or “privilege” are straightforward. Bringing up the issue of “Chinese privilege”, Dr Lai points out that it is not so much all Chinese people who are privileged, but rather Chinese people of a certain class that are privileged. Class privilege hence intersects with ethnic privilege in order to reproduce power structures and elites in Singapore. Dr Lai points out that people of all ethnicities and genders can experience injustice, oppression and poor life opportunities, and that any scholar or activist must be sensitive to avoid generalising “all Chinese” or “all men” as being in positions of privilege vis-a-vis everyone else.
Apart from race and religion, gender is also a steady theme that runs throughout her work. Her first major work on gender was her Master’s Thesis, “Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes: The Work of Chinese Women in Colonial Malaya” (1986). Laughing, she recalls that the Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies wanted her to remove the word “prostitutes”. “But they were prostitutes!” she exclaimed with amusement, “They were. There was a whole colonial policy towards prostitution – they had to allow for prostitution because they were bringing in all the men to work in the mines and farms.” In her thesis, Dr Lai further argued that the subjugation of women was not always clear-cut. Bringing in a class perspective, she points out that poor women were not subjugated in the same way that upper class women were. “If you’re poor, if you’re Hainanese, you didn’t have bound feet,” she points out. Hainanese women and Hakka women both “had to work very hard”, making bound feet impractical and unnecessary. Bound feet were a “luxury” reserved for Chinese women of higher class, who could afford not to work. Dr Lai drew on her own experiences working in a coffeeshop as a young girl, saying that “there was a Hakka woman who set up a laksa stall beside my father's shop. We sold the coffee and she sold the laksa. [All of us] were working so hard all the time. So the idea of bound feet is beyond me. You know?”
Dr Lai describes herself as a tomboy who grew up in an all-girls’ school, had four sisters, as well as many strong female friendships. It was hence natural for her to champion women’s issues. She was one of the twelve founding members of AWARE, which was formed in 1985 to look at government campaigns that constructed women as being primarily wives and mothers. Dr Lai recalls that becoming a young mother in the 1990s was an especially life-changing experience, as it made her aware of the difficulties facing mothers who wanted to work. She began to devote more research to family issues, specifically maternity leave and the work-life balance issues affecting mothers.
Since the 1990s, Dr Lai has been regularly consulted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), then known as the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), for input on family and women’s issues. This was unusual because for a period of time, she was a full-time homemaker and officially unemployed. “Usually we’re not included,” Dr Lai remarks. Homemakers are not usually included on national or ministry-level committees. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, she was approached by someone to sit on an MCYS committee on the family, to talk about work-life balance and women in the economy. “Now they’re still talking about the same things,” she laughs. “But I think some things have changed for the better. Like a five-day week, maternity leave - all these are hard won fights that people and organisations have put effort into, whether it's AWARE [or other organisations].”
Being a mother of two children of university age, Dr Lai is sensitive to the needs of her own students. She is familiar with the stage of life that her students are at, having witnessed it first-hand in her own home. “I am very aware that students here are young adults” she says. “While they have a lot of resources, initiative and energy, they're still at a stage of their learning curve where a lot needs to be shaped and learnt. They need guidance, they need support, they need help – because they're just starting out”.
Hence, Dr Lai emphasises an approach that is firm but kind. Every year, she comes across one or two students who have personal problems that affect their ability to deliver in class. On one hand, she does not want to “mother” them and be overly lenient. On the other hand, she dislikes being harsh and holding her students to the strict standard of “they are adults, they either deliver or they don't". “They are young adults,” Dr Lai emphasises. Hence, if she observes a student with problems, she will usually take them aside to ask if anything is wrong. Her advice to students is “please get help – come and see me. I’m not a counsellor, but you can see me if you want to talk to me. On the whole, I do keep an eye out for people. But you also have to tell me what's your problem.”
Dr Lai also describes herself as an advocate of human rights. The principles of “equality” and “justice” mean a great deal to her, and this comes out not just in her interest in racial, religious and women’s issues, but also in the way she strives to treat students firmly but compassionately. With the cause of feminism, she takes a measured approach. “While I am a feminist in a particular way, I don't just give all my resources and my time to women's causes,” she says. “It's a human rights cause that I would go for.” Although she played a key role in the founding of AWARE, she also looks out for human interests in a broader sense. “I’ve seen women in very bad shape,” she says, “But I’ve also seen men and boys in very bad shape. And you know if the boys don't make it, the whole society is affected.” She extends compassion to all who need it – regardless of gender, race or religion.
Having spent decades on research, conferences, committees and public education, what comes next for Dr Lai? “I’ve always wanted to write about my childhood,” says Dr Lai. She has been working on a book of fiction for several years already, since before the arrival of computers. “Before the computers came, I always wrote [my ideas] on a slip of paper, and then I'd tear out that bit of paper, and I would put it in a box.” Now, she has thousands of little entries in that box, and she is going to compile them into a book of fiction. Fiction will be a welcome change from decades of academia. After years of being faithful to the evidence, she is glad that she can finally take some artistic license with her work and let her storytelling flair shine through. Furthermore, as she quips, “I don’t want anymore footnotes.” Laughing, she adds a disclaimer: “Sorry to say. I don’t say that in my classroom, though, because I require my students to do the academic work.”
Fiction, academia, policy-planning. Race, religion and gender. Human rights and heritage issues. Wildlife conservation, otters and nature photography. Dr Lai has diverse and wide-ranging interests, coupled with a strong sense of possibility – nothing is too big to be tackled, nothing is too out of her comfort zone. What carries her through it all? “My mother always said, ‘We have nothing to give you but your brains’”, Dr Lai remarks. “We were a poor family, we were not linked to any clan association, we had no extended family, nobody to help us. So I always depended on my brain power. It got me somewhere. And being streetwise. And being helpful, because there are people who will help you, so you have to continue that virtuous cycle of helping people.”
We wish Dr Lai all the best with her future endeavours, including but not limited to her upcoming book of fiction, “Cream and Cow Dung”. The USP community definitely has benefitted, and will continue to benefit from the energy, nuance and sensitivity that Dr Lai brings to conversations about religious issues and multiculturalism. Dr Lai will be teaching in the second semester of Academic Year 2017/18.