“Everybody’s a little racist, sometimes. Maybe it’s a fact, we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race” – Avenue Q:
Over the past years we have seen many incidences of similar nature in Singapore, targeting either those of minority race or nationality. This really begs the question: are Singaporeans xenophobic? Forum discussions are rife – from Yahoo! to SGForums – all of which agree that Singaporeans are indeed prejudiced against specific groups of individuals.
This is certainly not unique to Singapore. Over the decades, we’ve read and seen one too many reports or racism across the world, from anti-black slurs in the US to anti-Asian incidents in Australia. While these hardline bigots exist as part of a very small minority of the population, by and large xenophobic thoughts are very much alive in people’s minds, especially in countries with a strong immigrant population makeup.
“There’s one idea that people tend to associate black people with violence, women with weakness, or older people with forgetfulness — because they are prejudiced. But there’s another possibility that what’s in your head is not you, it’s the culture around you… And so what you have is stuff you picked up from reading, television, radio and the Internet.”
– Paul Verhaeghen, professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology
I remember how my mother used to get us to behave in public places by warning us that “if you are naughty the ah pu neh neh will come and catch you”. I often still hear similar racist comments coming from other parents, and while I believe they are just using it as a passing remark, children are generally impressionable and pick up on nuances like these.
Social media could also be responsible for amplifying such negative thoughts and making it seem as though Singaporeans are more xenophobic than before. The incident where a local student made offensive remarks about Indians is just one of the many insensitive comments made on cyberspace.
Should our government be blamed in part for increasing xenophobia? For one, the government has made it an imperative to categorise Singaporeans by race and religion in most if not all official documents and this, unfortunately, has created a society obsessed with race and the stereotypes attached to Singapore’s melting pot of communities. And now, the influx of foreigners in the last five years – which has led to severe overcrowding, rising cost of living and a highly competitive job market – has resulted in growing anti-foreigner sentiment.
But protesters at Hong Lim Park on May Day insisted that there was nothing xenophobic about their attitudes towards foreigners and disapproval of the population whitepaper, which indicated a projection of 6.9 million people on this tiny island by the year 2030. In fact, much of the anger was directed at the government for their open-door policy of the past few years, and for projecting that the Singapore population could be half foreigners by that time. I guess there’s a distinction between being plain racist and being nationalistic, but the line can be blurred sometimes.
Protesters at the second event organised by Transitioning.org on May Day to speak out against the population whitepaper
The irony: Foreign workers clearing the field after the mass protest at Hong Lim Park
(Editor’s note: The earlier picnic required no cleaning/setting up. The organizers had made it a “Do-it-yourself event)
For some Singaporean netizens, though, xenophobia is xenophobia and there’s no two ways about it.
In fact, a Facebook group Stop Racism in Singapore has also been set up to make a stand in stopping racism, and that they “DO NOT condone hatred towards any community, race or religion in Singapore”.
While I acknowledge that it is only human nature to have personal biases against certain cultures, races or nationalities, we also have to bear in mind that Singapore’s social makeup makes us vulnerable to the slightest hints of xenophobia.
I shudder at the thought of a grossly intolerant and xenophobic Singapore 10 or 15 years down the road. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, it is highly imperative that we exercise responsibility and reason in anything we say or do about other people – whether Singaporean or foreigner – especially when it’s so easy to let loose on social media behind a keyboard under a veil of anonymity.