Are Singaporeans becoming xenophobic? Such characterisation of the current social tensions here is something that needs to be more carefully dissected.
Just as one may conclude that the Chinese private investor driving the red Ferrari was at fault in the tragic car crash a week ago, but one cannot simply reduce the issue to his cultural background, it is also problematic to condemn the uproar among Singaporeans and a related trend of negative attitude towards foreigners, without giving consideration at the same time to their anxiety under the larger social contexts.
It is definitely important to reflect on stereotyping and name-calling of any people of a different ethnic or regional origin; we would not like it either if ‘Singaporean’ is used like a dirty word. But one cannot hope to eradicate the current ‘xenophobia’ among us without understanding it as a symptom of more deeply rooted social problems. For all we know, a Singaporean guilty of xenophobia in our eyes may also have been a victim of racial discrimination himself or herself in our globalised economy.
What is xenophobia? According to one definition, it “describes attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity” (International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia, by International Labour Office, International Organisation for Migration and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2001).
But what if Singaporeans are playing the social scientist, citing incidents to ‘prove’ that new citizens of certain origins may not be integrating well into the local society like how the government imagines they will? Or what if Singaporeans are not entirely averse to foreigners of whatever origin, but insist there should be a limit, so that the local population does not suffer rising costs of living on one hand, and depressed wages or even unemployment on the other? Or what if the condition for accepting new immigrants is that they must also adapt to the norms here, instead of us adapting to their ways? At what point should we accuse Singaporeans of being exclusive or even ‘xenophobic’, and how do we go from there?
Stress and Culture Shock
I believe a lot of Singaporeans may not be ‘xenophobic’ in the same way that some people may grow up with racist attitudes based on physical traits, like having an irrational fear of Little India as a place of ‘darkness’. But many may be under stress due to the hard times they are experiencing. The daily stress of coping with an overloaded transport system is just a minor contributing factor. There is also the stress of having to work harder to keep a job, and the stress of balancing career with family life and trying to raise children – either way, Singaporeans fear losing out because the government is always ready to bring in more immigrants as economic solution. Last but not least, there is the stress of coping with culture shock, as new immigrants simply have their own different norms of behaviour.
To be precise, the concept of ‘stress’ comes from biology, and it refers to an organism’s fight-or-flight response, drawing from the body’s energy stores and focusing attention to overcome the challenge at hand. It is a survival mechanism in response to situations. One book I’ve read cites this example: imagine driving in a one-way road when suddenly a car heads towards you at an incredible speed; you have to step on the brake and swerve your car in time to avoid a collision. Hence one’s reaction to stress may help increase alertness to avoid possible disaster (Brislin, 1994). However, stress may become unhealthy, when it is extended over a period of time and burns a person out.
Before one misunderstands, this is not to say that anybody can now happily go pick a fight with a taxi driver or a hawker and cite ‘stress’ instead of xenophobia as defence. What I’m saying is that Singaporeans may not have been well-equipped to cope with the dramatic changes here in recent years. Example: when a car ‘kisses’ another from behind on the road, Singapore drivers would typically just frown at the damage quietly and exchange namecards. But in China, people would stop the traffic and get into a shouting match immediately on who is blind and who is retarded. So when it comes to a cross-cultural situation here, both parties must rethink which style of reaction is appropriate. Should it be survival of the fittest?
The way a lot of Singaporeans are congregating in certain websites to ‘stomp’ people of PRC or other origins is developing into an unhealthy pastime. But we need to find out whether they are making it an outlet to release stress there because they are losing the fight in real life in finding jobs, because the government refuses to moderate its immigration policies, or because authorities responsible for mediation in conflict situations do not seem to resolve issues to their satisfaction. Where can they express their grievances in a more productive way then?
Political Rhetoric against Local Culture
When PM Lee compared Singapore’s current challenge to that of Germany in the need to attract foreign talents, one could easily read between the lines a certain concern that there may be xenophobia rising here, just as there have been Neo-Nazi extremists in Germany – though we do not see cases of violence against foreigners here.
But one needs to put things into wider social perspectives in order to understand Singaporeans’ anxiety. Germany has 8 to 9% population of foreigners or people of non-German origin; in Singapore, the percentage of foreigners or non-Singaporeans may be 3 or 4 times of that, depending on the classification. Germany has a social security system including unemployment benefits, health insurance and child allowances that Singaporeans do not enjoy. Germany is the world’s second largest exporter; in Singapore, one needs to study which are the biggest companies and who really benefit from them. In Germany, foreigners pay taxes to help secure the retirement system; in Singapore, the PAP government has not only made corporate tax one of the lowest in the world, it has abolished the estate duty in 2008 and there is also no capital gains tax and inheritance tax.
Furthermore, in Germany, there has been constant debate on how immigrants should be integrated into society. For a little country like Singapore, locals may feel extremely insecure as to whether ‘integration’ would lean towards local culture or towards some other culture. Former president S.R. Nathan says a Singapore culture is yet to be developed. Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has downplayed the question of Singapore identity, saying Singaporeans themselves cannot agree on what it is. Do we simply forget what being Singaporean means then?
My own perspective on this issue of identity is that Singaporeans would have more cultural confidence to welcome foreigners if only the richness of their local identity is affirmed in the public discourse. Online comments by any ‘PRC’ or ‘Pinoy’ on the language standards of Singaporeans easily touch a raw nerve because the state itself has belittled Singlish and suppressed any dialect or local flavour in languages. If only Singapore takes more pride in its local languages and local accents and not treat them as inferior, Singaporeans may have less problem accommodating deviation from the lingua franca here, while newcomers make some efforts to adapt too.
Unfortunately, Singapore’s political idea of integration has long been to dismantle local communities, as seen in the past like in Kreta Ayer (‘Chinatown’ is a misnomer) or Geylang Serai. In actual fact, maintaining a ‘Kampung spirit’ as our core does not automatically run counter to cosmopolitanism.
What about Racial Discrimination?
Last but not least, if ever any politician criticises Singaporean for being xenophobic, he or she should also be taken to task on what has been done with regards to issues of racial discrimination.
For almost half a century now, Singapore has failed to ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted the same year as our independence in 1965 and already has 175 state parties since then.
The convention stands against racial discrimination, which refers to “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin” that may impair recognition of “human rights and fundamental freedoms in political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”. Why is it so difficult for Singapore to be state party to such a convention, if it holds itself up as a shining example of meritocracy?
Social activist Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib wrote this on Facebook last week:
I think those who criticise the growing xenophobia in Singapore are really missing the point. By choosing to focus on xenophobia, one unwittingly (a) downplays the real anxiety and problems associated with the country’s flawed immigration policy; (b) adopts the state’s mono-discourse that the influx of foreigners is inevitable and we all just have to embrace them and live with it; and (c) puts the spotlight and blame on the very people who are affected by the policy instead of asking and addressing why people react xenophobically.
Don’t get me wrong – I submit that to be xenophobic is wrong. But to have empathy is crucial to understanding this phenomenon. If we can empathise with the thousands of fellow citizens who are directly affected by the influx of foreigners into this country on an everyday basis, then we can understand why xenophobia is their response. Our task then is to channel that frustration into the root of the matter – the open immigration policy and the economic thinking of ‘growth at all cost’.
… For if a person is angry, you cannot just say “Don’t be angry”; instead, you make him understand the root cause of his anger and only then can he calm down and take a calculated way of dealing with that anger in a more productive and constructive way. That, we must do with regards to the issue of the seemingly ‘xenophobic’ reactions of our fellow citizens towards foreigners who come to claim that crumbs of whatever little that are left for the struggling ordinary Singaporeans, ourselves included. Ask not why we are angry at those who come to take our crumbs, but ask why are we receiving crumbs in the first place.
Indeed, we need to be careful with such labels of ‘xenophobia’ under the current political atmosphere in Singapore. Remember how social activists were branded as Marxists 25 years ago in 1987 when they were fighting for the welfare of low-income workers. Even now, the event That We May Dream Again: Remembering the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’, originally to be held on Saturday 19 May 2012, had to be postponed due to last-minute requirement of police permit, with Hougang by-election cited as reason. Say, are the Singapore authorities or the conservative Singaporeans suffering from demophobia – the fear of crowds?
Just as one needs not over-react with derogatory remarks by an MOE scholar like Sun Xu or a polytechnic student like Lai Shimun, we should also show some patience and empathy with fellow men whom we judge to be ‘xenophobic’, and reflect on issues together. It is all too human to try to make sense of a horrific accident like the Ferrari car crash by attributing it to typical behaviour of a rich brat from China. But after the anger, we can only try to avoid similar tragedies by demanding airbags for taxi drivers and better traffic control, or we may ask: how will Singapore regulate the driving of sports cars, as it sells itself as a destination for the rich?
On the issue of incoming new citizens, it should not mean Singaporeans are xenophobic supposing they demand to scrutinise the criteria in citizenship by registration, when the current Singapore Constitution states a condition that the person should be of ‘good character’. If it is not possible to tell if one is of good moral character, then the average Singaporean can demand to know how exactly he or she will benefit from such influx, to see the pros and cons clearly, instead of being told once again that locals are no good for the economic growth or for anything.
Photo courtesy of Shin Min Daily