Singapore’s subcultural identity crisis

Singapore Ah Beng

The Ah Beng that we miss

Lorong Cat - Singapore's Literate FelineBy Lorong Cat

It is no longer Singaporeans’ pet topic to talk about Ah Bengs and Ah Lians these days. That’s because we have found a different common enemy and, boy, are they bigger fish to fry! By the same token, it is causing a mini wave of nationalistic sentiment, hence we are letting up on the Bengs and Lians pretty much like how the Taiwanese have embraced their 台客 (Taike).

So I was caught by surprise when the term Ah Beng was revived to my sore ears lately, here in London. Wow, for a tiny country like us, we are sure divided as to how we see our own individual subcultural identity.

Recently Lorong Cat brought together a few random friends from Singapore, who happened to be in town, for a meal. There was Ace, a guy whom I always thought of as affable and straight-talking with a sunny disposition. And there was The Other Friends. It was the first time The Other Friends had met Ace. Dinner was pleasant and I thought Ace rendered himself well as a newcomer to the group, being friendly and eloquent with the lot.

In the following week, I met up with some of The Other Friends – separately – and they were unanimous in their eagerness to inform me that they found Ace to be an Ah Beng. I was surprised and trawled through my memory of what transpired over dinner that night to have caused such a judgement.  As I replayed the conversations over in my head, I began to see why.

Ace had liberally used pejorative Singlish slangs to refer to some of our country’s recent new inhabitants. There was AT (Ah Tiong), AN (ah neh), AM (ang moh), CAM (an extended version of AM) and a host of others. If, my reader, you have no idea what these acronyms refer to, don’t fret. I was lost as well and Ace had kindly enlightened me with relish over dinner that night, no doubt, to the growing consternation of The Other Friends.

Another poignant moment of that evening was Ace’s enthusiastic sharing of his money-saving antics to fight the high cost of living here in the UK. I remembered being given a dissection of the cost of groceries from Marks & Spencer in London versus Cold Storage in Singapore and a preview of devised plans bordering on the extremes to source for the cheapest convenience services in London.

So I gathered that The Other Friends saw these as Ah Beng traits: 1) loudly racist with Singlish slangs and 2) proudly penny conscious.

I don’t think we can all say we have never been guilty of either of the above. The difference is that most of us mask these tendencies by not speaking of it and avoid bringing it into a social conversation with new acquaintances.

Later on, I had the good fortune to run into Mr Void Decker and did not hesitate to pose this question to him: What does he think maketh an Ah Beng in this day and age? You readers may be interested to note his LKY-style response:

“Ah Bengs don’t study, drop out of schools and they hang out with gangs at arcades.”

Thus Ace would not be seen as an Ah Beng by Void Decker – though, bless him the good man is not known to be as judgemental as The Other Friends. And this has nothing to do with the coincidence that Ace was an academic achiever.

Back to the fateful dinner then. So what we had here was a bunch of folks “The Other Friends” who branded Ace an Ah Beng and on the other hand, Ace himself who displayed racist tendencies, callously using disparaging slangs to address Singapore’s new inhabitants. Throw in Lorong Cat who is undoubtedly in self denial about judging “The Other Friends” for being sniffy about frugal habits and the use of Singlish terms.

There you have a motley mix of bigoted people who are in a constant state of discontent with the subcultural elements in Singapore. Where do we draw the line to be frugal without appearing like a cheapskate? Is that a Beng trait or a laudable Confucian value? Is it better to eschew naturally evolving Singlish slangs for more atas sounding and sophisticated terms when we really mean the same thing? What is it that we really want to retain as part of the ‘vanishing’ fabric of old Singapore?

For those who have seen Void Decker’s comics, you might have noticed the frequent inclusion of a cute little blue alien in scenes depicting the general society. It is a conscious selection to represent a growing segment of our society . As we see more and more of ‘em blue creatures in our country, the Bengs and Lians, with their (our) unpolished social faux pas are exactly what will give our country a semblance of Singaporeanness – of the type we are now craving to have more of, which unfortunately seemed to have peaked already in the 90s.