Hakim Halim is living proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover. With his effervescent personality expressed with an accent he admits is hard to place, and a formidable career as a cheesemonger, one could never guess the hardships he has faced to reach this success. Born in Singapore, Hakim faced ethnic discrimination in his home country before moving to Australia. Here, as an Asian Muslim, he has faced further prejudice. Hakim generously speaks with Inclusive Australia about cultural differences, his newfound outspokenness, and his goals as a shop owner whose business has thrived despite the pandemic.
As he relays his memories of growing up in Singapore, what stands out most is the disconnect between Hakim’s colourful personality and the rigid cultural standards of his birth country. “My issue with Singapore is that I was a big fish in a small bowl,” he explains, noting that despite living there for the first 20 years of his life, studying marketing, and training for the police force, there were pervasive racial undertones which seemed to prevent him from finding fulfilment. There are four major ethnic groups in Singapore, of which Chinese is the biggest and most well-regarded. Hakim, who is Malay, explains that his ethnicity saw him branded as “hopeless, lazy and dumb” throughout school and into the workforce. “I experienced minor racism almost every day,” he says, remembering that comments such as “you’re really smart for a Malay” were pointed at him – even as a child. While Malays are the indigenous people of Singapore, Hakim says there is a preconceived and unspoken notion that Singapore is part of China, which sees Chinese Singaporeans prioritised more than any other ethnic faction. As a Malay, Hakim’s race “was not the desired one”. Furthermore, what he describes as “major racism” existed behind closed doors yet permeated all facets of life in Singapore: job descriptions would specify ‘Mandarin-speaking’ candidates in a thinly veiled exclusion of all non-Chinese people, and some roles in the military and armed forces explicitly disallowed non-Chinese applicants. While these blatant barriers to entry have given him a “thick skin”, Hakim eventually found the “straight-laced” conformity to cultural expectations exhausting, and he is glad to now live elsewhere.
Admitting that he “didn’t feel at home in Singapore anymore” and confronted with the realisation that no matter how successful he became there, he would always be seen as “dumb or a leech on society”, Hakim moved to Australia. He confesses that he had romanticised life here; he “really wanted to assimilate” and truly become part of Australian society, to the point where he consciously tried to change his natural accent in order to “fit in”. Despite most people he encountered being “amazing”, there were many who made his life and transition into his new country much harder than it needed to be. He explains that while the racism in Singapore had been subtle yet pervasive, the racism in Australia is more forthright. At first, the exclusion Hakim experienced was “blatant and really tough”. Called names on the street for his Asian appearance and routinely discriminated against at airports for security checks, he faced – and still faces today – additional prejudice for identifying as Muslim. In fact, he tends to not divulge his Muslim identity to new people, because it is “just easier” to keep it to himself and avoid prejudice. He finds it bizarre and insulting that all Muslims are expected to take accountability for the actions of terrorists, and says the idea perpetuated by the media that ‘Muslim silence means complicity’ in terrorism is “very unfair”.
Hakim’s experiences with racism both in Australia and overseas have affected his self-image and mental health for years. He says, “I perceive things as racism now, even if they aren’t – it’s hard to avoid when you’ve experienced it for so long”. For the last few years, however, he has made it his mission to tackle prejudice with outspokenness. He takes pride in calling out injustices, and has found it to be an empowering mindset because it lets him take control of the situations which once diminished him. “I’ve lived my life in fear for so long, so I refuse to not say anything for someone who needs defending,” he says. Hakim believes that in any given situation, a person with more relative privilege is obligated to protect and help those with less. While calling people out on their poor behaviour can be “anxiety-inducing” at times, he finds peace in knowing it’s the “right thing” to do, and believes that ultimately, it will take lots of time, patience and education to see long-term mindset changes in Australia to see Muslim people fully accepted.
Nowadays, Hakim finds himself enjoying the talking point that his diverse background provides for customers to his cheese shop. More so, he enjoys proving people wrong: “some people assume that as an Asian person, I won’t know anything about cheese, but then when they speak to me they realise how wrong they were!”. His shop, RIPE Cheese at the Queen Victoria Market and online, is the only cheese shop in the world which stocks only 100% Australian cheese. He finds joy in the irony that it is he, an immigrant, who is actively championing Australian produce to Australians themselves. “I love it! Aussies have discriminated against me, but I champion Australian industry,” Hakim laughs, as he explains his goal to inspire more Australians to love and embrace their own produce rather than preferring European cheeses. The highlight of his job is facilitating the ‘Cheese Talks’ sessions set up during the Covid-19 lockdown in Victoria. It connects cheesemakers with cheese lovers on the first Friday of every month via Zoom in a celebration of local produce, and Hakim thinks it’s “awesome” that they can connect metropolitan customers with rural cheesemakers through technology. These innovative seminars helped to support his store through the pandemic and ensure it emerged stronger, even, than previous years.
This year has been one for “trying to dig deep and find new ways to challenge the norm” for Hakim. In a business sense, Covid-19 forced him to find ways to support the shop even when it was physically closed. Personally, with strict international travel restrictions he was unable to visit Singapore, which sadly meant he missed both his brother’s wedding and his grandmother’s passing. Being absent from such significant events has been “really difficult”, and not seeing family for so long has been a struggle. Looking to the future beyond the pandemic, Hakim speaks fondly of his desire to become “a legitimate champion of Australian produce” and continue growing the cheese store; he also wishes to continue sharing his experiences with other people to help the 32% of Australians who are born overseas “feel more at home” in this country. Ultimately, Hakim is guided by his intrinsic belief that “if there’s ever a chance to choose kindness, you must choose kindness”. Each of us bring different backgrounds and understandings to every situation, and we cannot expect everyone to understand the same things immediately. “We all have prejudice, but we get to choose our response.”
For hear more about Hakim go to www.inclusiveaustralia.com.au/stories
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