“I’m not xenophobic.”
“I don’t hate all of them. Just the irritating ones.”
“What right do they have to come here and take our jobs?”
Dig deep enough into the discourse about foreigners in Singapore and, and you will find two threads running through the conversation: fear and anger.
The narrative of xenophobia in Singapore does not stem from a unified voice or attitude. It exists in a wide spectrum of intensity, ranging from privately voiced discomfort to outright, public vitriol. It exists in many places, from the kopitiam to Facebook. In our offices, at the dinner table, in our IM history. It’s here, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
We’re afraid of losing our jobs. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of losing our identity, of the dissonance between the ethnic and cultural components of the Singapore we knew and Singapore as it is now. We’re afraid of the status quo changing. We’re afraid that with the influx of foreigners, we’re going to see a new socio-economic pecking order, and we have no idea what our place in that new pecking order is going to be.
It is the fear of being left behind that is making us so very, very angry.
“Get out of my country.”
“I’m a true blue Singaporean.”
“Get this foreign trash out of my country.”
There is a sense of entitlement and sacrosanct superiority lurking in the language of hate if you look closely, if you look past the jingoistic overtones. Sure, you were born in Singapore. You’re a 3rd or 4th generation Singaporean. You’ve lived and worked in Singapore your whole life, and maybe you were part of the Kallang Wave when Singapore kept kicking ass in the Malaysia Cup in the 90s.
But what have you done for this country?
Considering the fact that we are a supposedly collectivist society, we are shockingly individualistic when it comes to the future of this country. For the majority of the population, your average man on the street, one’s free time is largely spent on TV, movies, shopping, and all the inane things that will never introduce change where it is sorely needed. There are, of course, Singaporeans who are trying to change the script. To make us better, kinder. To make us more than we are right now. I’m not discounting their efforts. On the contrary, these are the true patriots, the ones who have a right, if any, to say that this is their country.
How can you call yourself a “true blue Singaporean” if you haven’t claimed your ownership of this country? How can you say that this country belongs to you more than it does to others if you have done nothing but sit back and expect other people to right the wrongs of this society and the policy missteps of our leaders? How can you claim to be a patriot when you have never even thought about what you can do to make this country better than it is?
How can you say that you are standing up for other Singaporeans when really, all you are doing with xenophobic sentiment – whether you express it or simply condone it – is reacting in fear instead of acting for positive change?
“This doesn’t feel like my country anymore.”
Of all the xenophobic statements, this is the only one I agree with. But not in the way you think.
This is not my Singapore. The Singapore I grew up in, the Singapore I love, is a place where I can sit down and have a random conversation with an ah pek at the coffee shop about Candy Crush and how he can unlock the next level. (Yes, this actually happened to me.)
In the Singapore I love, we remember where we came from, and fear and hate don’t make us forget where we are going. Have you forgotten where you come from? Or how you got here? You speak of being a true-blue Singaporean but you forget that we are all the descendants of immigrants.
Singapore, do you remember who you are? Have you forgotten what our country’s narrative is?
Just three generations ago, we were immigrants. All of us. This country was a tiny patch of earth that represented a glittering, tantalizing dream for our ancestors. They came from every corner of Asia and beyond, looking for a better life and braving long, sometimes fatal voyages in horrific living conditions, all for a dream. Not because they were stupid, but because they decided to push past the fear of the unknown. They had no guarantee that life would be better here, but they journeyed here anyway. Our ancestors had balls of steel. So what the hell happened to us?
It is time we learned from those initial waves of immigrants and stopped listening to our fears. It is time we took a long, hard look in the mirror. It is time we made a choice between what is easy and what is right.
One line of reasoning put forth by apologists for xenophobia here is to simply deny it. According to them, Singaporeans aren’t really xenophobic, because xenophobia is an “intense, irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.” And since we don’t fear them, but we’re simply angry and frustrated about so many of them being here, and being loud and annoying on public transport/ undercutting us at the workplace/dumping their trash in the corridors/(insert grievance), it doesn’t count as xenophobia.
Sorry, but I don’t buy that for one second.
After denying that xenophobia is an actual issue here, a tangential but very valid point is sometimes made: bandying the word “xenophobic” around is polarizing and unfair, and we shouldn’t label people as xenophobic just because they are voicing discomfort and frustration. I agree that labels can be polarizing. However, a head-in-the-sand approach to xenophobic attitudes, speech, and behaviour is even more dangerous. Denying the existence of a problem is a sure-fire way to ensure that it continues.
If the xenophobia in Singapore is left to fester and ferment, we will lose the soul of this country.