I’ve been watching the conversations about foreigners and foreign talent on social media (and eavesdropping in coffee shops) for the past six years. And what I have observed is sobering.
It started as sporadic expressions of disgruntlement from around 2009–2010. When GE2011 rolled around, xenophobic sentiment in public discourse (particularly in social media) spiked. It’s been increasing steadily since then, both in frequency of expression and intensity of hatred.
Exhibit A: In 2012, I was at an event with some Singaporean and Norwegian friends. A well-known local comedian performed at this event. One of his jokes, roughly paraphrased, was this: “If you see a PRC when you are driving, don’t slow down. Just run them over!”
Almost all of the Singaporeans in the audience laughed. It wasn’t uncomfortable okay-let’s-just-go-with-it laughter, but real merriment. While I was squirming uncomfortably, one of my Norwegian friends turned to me with an expression of polite horror. I could only shake my head sheepishly as the vast majority of the Singaporeans in the crowd continued to laugh. What was there to say?
I sometimes joke about being embarrassed by the Merlion and avoiding Singaporeans in tour groups like the plague when travelling, but that was the first time in my life I felt truly disgusted and ashamed of my countrymen.
Is this what we’ve become? Do we want to be a country where it’s okay to laugh about running someone over with a car and probably killing them because they’re from a different country? We get indignant about Caucasians here who still have a colonial hangover, but it’s okay for us to joke about killing Asians from another country? When most of us came from that country three generations ago?
Do you still think we’re not more xenophobic than we were 5 years ago?
Exhibit B: I asked a friend why she went to the 6.9 million protest in 2013, knowing that Gilbert Goh had organized it. She said that she just wanted to protest the policies. I pressed her further: didn’t it worry her that by turning up at the protest, she was not only condoning, but also legitimizing the xenophobic sentiments that the organizer had publicly expressed?
My friend didn’t think it was a problem; she said that what they were protesting was more important than that. I was disturbed by this response, because that is a dangerous line of reasoning that leads nowhere good. I then asked her a question which I was sure would elicit a “No!” from her. I asked her if she would have still attended the 6.9 million protest if it had been organized by, say, Adolf Hitler.
She said yes.
This perfectly normal, mild-mannered, otherwise compassionate Singaporean answered that question with a resounding, emphatic yes.
Let me be brutally honest about the discomfort caused by the influx of foreigners. Yes, I do find some behaviour aggravating. I don’t enjoy being the captive audience to other people’s conversations in the bus or train simply because (a) speaking loudly in public is not frowned upon in their culture, and (b) they really suck at cultural assimilation and don’t realize that people are staring daggers at them during each daily commute.
However, I do not think that it is okay for me to be angry at every single person from a particular country for this reason. I do not think that it is acceptable for me to hate the people from another country simply because they behave differently, as annoying as their behaviour can be.
Perhaps this fear of outsiders doesn’t come so easily to me because of my own ethnic heritage. You see, I’m Eurasian, full-blooded Kristang. In my formative years, I had no fear of the Other socialized into my perspective, because I grew up with two confusing realities that effectively cancelled each other out: (1) I was the outsider, and (2) everyone else was the Other.
Once I hit my early twenties, I realized that life was a lot more awesome if I stopped looking at people through the lens of ethnicity and just saw them as people, without divisive racial parameters (yes, CMIO and those who still think it’s a good idea, I’m looking at you) and the barriers that they put up. Humans, just like me.
Do you want your descendants to say you helped to preserve one of the most beautiful things about this country? Or do you want them to hate others because they are from another country?
Ask yourself: what is it that you love about Singapore?
If diversity is the answer, then start acting instead of reacting.
We are on the cusp of a very important moment in our history. Generations to come will look at how we reacted to this wave of xenophobia, and they will either judge us or learn from us. Anger is seductive, and reason often pales in comparison. The choice is yours: go with what is easy, or what is right. Each one of is writing our nation’s narrative with our choices, with our action, with our inaction. Every single day.
It is entirely up to us to decide how the story turns out.