A richer Singapore is one full of ghettoes populated with identity-hoppers

Deepavali bazaar

Deepavali bazaar

I wonder when we’ll see the emergence of an anti-immigration political party. Most democracies with high levels of immigration and social stress have such beasts — usually referred to as “far-right” parties. It is undeniable that Singapore has high levels of immigration and social stress. The only thing that may forestall the emergence of such parties is that we are not a democracy. Any such party may be shut down and its leaders imprisoned (without trial) before it gets off the ground.

Alternatively, an existing party, struggling to find a message that will resonate with crowds, may try to adopt a far-right and anti-immigration platform. So far, we haven’t seen this happen, but I’m not going to rule it out. The National Solidarity Party, Singapore People’s Party and the Singapore Democratic Party will probably prefer to be careful about any such association, while the Workers’ Party dislikes taking any stand at all — on just about anything. But right at the margins are lonely politicians that sometimes pop up under the banner of the Singapore Democratic Alliance. I’ve heard some of them speak at previous election rallies and my sense is that, for them, anti-immigration vitriol is just a turn of phrase away.

It sometimes seems as if the ground is being prepared by a daily dripfeed of xenophobic “news”, particularly on social media. Most such “news” are quotidian events that happen in every large city and which would otherwise be unremarkable, except that agitators here have turned each one of them into racially-stereotyped posts. Anxiety about economic security amongst the middle class provides a ready audience. What is posted is readily shared.

A group of Filipino residents organise a get-together and it is quickly turned into a sinister fifth column but nobody remarks about civic events in which little else but Hokkien is spoken. A inconsiderate couple (who could well be tourists from Shandong) fails to give up their train seats to elderly folk and the incident is used as a slur on all new arrivals from China — forgetting that lots of native-born Singaporeans also hog the same seats.

New Chinatown (Geylang)

New Chinatown (Geylang)

PAP can’t resist the trend, because they fed it

The troubling thing is that even without a far-right party surging at the polls, the rhetoric of the establishment has been yanked to the right. I will argue here that this is not surprising, because the ruling People’s Action Party has long pretended to be the defender and champion of “Singapore” and “Singaporeanness”. In the face of a competing demand for more Singaporeanness, the PAP has no alternative intellectual argument. It simply has to claw its way rightwards to protect its flank.

Bengali Film Festival

Bengali Film Festival

It’s like this:  For years, the PAP promoted itself as the ultimate defender of “racial harmony” and “multiculturalism”. These words however do not mean what they appear to mean.  If you look at the way the words are translated into images, you’ll see that these notions are always presented as a static, nostalgic mix of Chinese-Malay-Indian-Eurasian (“CMIO”). We are only multicultural within the tight confines of 1950s and 1960s race-consciousness. The model does not even admit mixed-race kids well, let alone non-CMIOs. Moreover, the model is predicated on race, whereas Singaporeans actually see ethnicity. It is for this reason that planners are shocked that Chinese Singaporeans don’t identify with Chinese Chinese and Indian Singaporeans remain cool towards new Indian arrivals. These reactions only go to prove how divorced from human reality Singapore’s multicultural stage set is.

Separately, the state has created a pervasive sense of external threat — albeit used more as a kick to get Singaporeans to make ever greater economic sacrifices — and thus the notion of Singaporeanness acquired a certain fortress quality. As argued in a paper that a researcher has awaiting publication (and thus I shouldn’t say too much) Singaporeans have been bred into always thinking that somebody’s out to steal our lunch. I too came to the same thought (before I saw his paper) and in my view this has created fertile ground for deep suspicion of foreigners who move here for economic reasons (as most do).

Fixed racial quotas

Another aspect that needs mentioning: precisely because the government has been so committed to a fixed percentage of racial Chinese in the citizen population, they found themselves having to grant permanent residence and citizenship liberally to new migrants from China, as the birthrate of Chinese Singaporeans declined. In trying to shore up one implicit promise — that of an unchanging ethnic mix in an unchanging social Singapore — they ended up destabilising the whole.

And now they’re promising that the percentage of Malays will never change.  This is stupidity. In any dynamic society, anything and everything will change. The government should stop speaking through both sides of the mouth.

Taken together, this notion of Singaporeanness that has at its essential core a particular racial mix (while ethnic-blind) and an appeal to simpler, less competitive and more communitarian times, and that perennially speaks of external threat, has certainly tilled the soil for rising xenophobia. We shouldn’t go as far as to say the PAP’s actions created the present trend — any society with high levels of immigration would have the same forces at work — but the PAP’s messaging acted more as accelerator than brake.

The irony was that the PAP’s economic policy was one of extreme openness, first to foreign trade and investment, and lately to immigration. One almost suspects that the further they travelled the road of economic openness, the more they felt they needed to play up the “value” of Singaporeanness. They needed some answer to accusations of pandering to foreign capitalists and money-launderers.

As you’d guess, the anti-immigration lobby is fuelled by a sense of betrayal. The government has long promised a certain kind of Singapore, only to deliver something altogether different.

Little Manila (Lucky Plaza)

Little Manila (Lucky Plaza)

Fair Consideration Framework

In response to a rising complaints about foreigners doing business in Singapore preferring to hire their own countrymen at the expense of jobless Singaporeans, the Ministry of Manpower recently announced a Fair Consideration Framework to get employers to give first shot at jobs to qualified Singaporeans. This has been criticised as a toothless policy, but unless one wants a formal ban on hiring foreigners — and indeed, there are some who do — it is never going to be possible to design a rigid system. To work, the Fair Consideration Framework will depend on the vigilance of the Ministry of Manpower on a case-by-case basis.  As it is, the ministry has already flagged that:

9. MOM and other government agencies will also identify firms that may have scope to improve their hiring and career development practices. For example, these firms may have a disproportionately low concentration of Singaporeans at the PME level compared to others in their industry or have had repeated complaints of nationality-based or other discriminatory HR practices. Such firms will be asked to provide additional information to MOM such as:

  • Organisation charts with nationality information;
  • Recruitment processes;
  • Staff grievance handling procedures;
  • Framework for staff progression; and
  • Plans to develop local internal staff to take on higher roles or reduce reliance on EP holders.

10. If firms are not responsive towards improving their recruitment and training practices, MOM may impose additional requirements, such as requiring the firm to:

  • Attest that the firm will not displace any similarly employed Singaporean within 60 calendar days before or after applying or renewing EPs; and
  • Display a factsheet containing key information submitted to MOM at its workplace.

11. Unresponsive firms should expect greater scrutiny and a longer review period for their EP applications. They may also have their work pass privileges curtailed.

Dealing with bias is always going to be more art than science, simply because no two companies are the same, neither in terms of their practices nor their needs. The Fair Consideration Framework is an appropriate way to start.

Boat Quay

Boat Quay

Integration numbs the senses and dulls the mind

While I have no quarrel with the Fair Consideration Framework, I have a problem with the calls for “integration” that some ministers and members of parliament are increasingly making. Like “racial harmony”, embedded within the word are connotations that can make a problem worse. The first connotation is that one should strive towards homogeneity, and the second is that the “traditional” core Singaporeanness — comprising values, behaviour, worldview — is the reference standard to fold others into. We speak, for example of “foreigners integrating”.

Frankly,  I’d rather speak of Singaporeans growing up.

Ultimately, it boils down to what we think Singapore is. I suspect that we are trapped by ideas of “nation-state” which hardly suit us as a city-state. As a city-state, we will always have a mobile population — all cities do. Our “stable core” will always be relatively small compared to the numbers of new arrivals and the numbers of native-born emigrants (i.e. Singaporeans who have left). It is unwise to see ourselves in terms of an unchanging CMIO mix in a sepia-toned collage of slower-paced life.

Our vitality has to come from constant change, from ceaseless washing back and forth of new peoples and new ideas. I stand by this vision; it is more consonant with our economic future than nostalgia for a fossilised past.

Old Chinatown

Old Chinatown

Great cities are agglomerations of colourful villages, both spatially and socially. It is wonderful to have Tagalog-speaking community events. It is richness itself to have ghettoes of Vietnamese, Iranians, and Nepalis, and corners filled with emigres from Henan or Australia. Or for that matter, a street or two of outrageous gay bars. Humans need identity, and people are happier when they can find communities that celebrate their identity. We should also remember that each of us has different dimensions of identity and those who live here will have different degrees of Singaporeanness, juxtaposed with different degrees of Vietnamese-ness, Australian-ness or Henan-ness.

We can’t speak as if there are neat distinctions between being Singaporean and being Other. Everyone of us is a bit of this and a bit of that. Even the Bangladeshi construction worker, after six years here, will have a bit of his heart forever reside in Singapore. He learnt to speak English here — he speaks of makan, kopi-si and MRT, and names like “Choa Chu Kang” and “Khoo Teck Puat Hospital” pose no pronunciation hurdle. Just yesterday I saw Alamin eat a side order of bean sprouts with gusto. “Never see this in Bangladesh; don’t even know what it is called in my language, but I like it.”

Plenty of Singaporeans meanwhile are marrying foreigners or living part of their lives abroad, becoming a quarter French or an eighth Indonesian. Some of us know the difference between a crepe and a galette while others can nail distinctions between Javanese and Balinese gamelan music.

Little Yangon (Peninsula Plaza)

Little Yangon (Peninsula Plaza)

What is needed is not a push for homogeneity, which is what “integration” implies, nor a fetish for purity, which is what thoughtless mouthing of “Singaporean/Non-Singaporean” leads to, but an encouragement towards nimble channel-switching. Indeed it is potentially fractious to have people in isolated ghettoes seeing others negatively and afraid of interaction. Instead, we should love it to see someone like Nibun who is Cambodian one hour and Singaporean the next. Or Felipe who is Singaporean in the morning when he takes his kids cycling in the park, and Spanish when he’s drinking with his friends in the evening watching La Liga fixtures. Or Meiyin who is Chinese Singaporean most times, unless she is immersed in classical Indian dance which she totally adores.

Demands for purity lead to stasis and grief. Such people say “contamination” when I would say “cross-fertilisation”. They see decline when I see new horizons. It’s time for liberal-minded people to speak up against the rising xenophobia, confident that we have in mind a better future for Singapore. The Singapore government is too hobbled by its confused messaging and its innate social conservatism to provide any clear response. It’s up to us now.

47 Responses to “A richer Singapore is one full of ghettoes populated with identity-hoppers”

  1. 1 GS 20 October 2013 at 17:18

    Singapore is a nation-state because of national service. Hence, the only way to become more “city-state” is to give up the pretence that Singapore is a nation and abolish national service. However, that will never happen. Nationalism remains a potent force in the world as can be seen by anti-immigration sentiments around the world.

    • 2 nigel 21 October 2013 at 13:10

      I don’t know about you, but I have no issues defending a country that houses a large proportion of foreign immigrants.

  2. 3 yuen 20 October 2013 at 17:34

    >homogeneity, which is what “integration” implies

    I dont think the government is so ambitious; integration simply means (a) different groups get along (b) support the current system

  3. 4 medschneverends 20 October 2013 at 18:41

    This is brilliant Alex. I especially liked these bits

    “Frankly, I’d rather speak of Singaporeans growing up.”

    “Our vitality has to come from constant change, from ceaseless washing back and forth of new peoples and new ideas. I stand by this vision; it is more consonant with our economic future than nostalgia for a fossilised past.”

    “We can’t speak as if there are neat distinctions between being Singaporean and being Other. Everyone of us is a bit of this and a bit of that. Even the Bangladeshi construction worker, after six years here, will have a bit of his heart forever reside in Singapore. He learnt to speak English here — he speaks of makan, kopi-si and MRT, and names like “Choa Chu Kang” and “Khoo Teck Puat Hospital” pose no pronunciation hurdle. Just yesterday I saw Alamin eat a side order of bean sprouts with gusto. “Never see this in Bangladesh; don’t even know what it is called in my language, but I like it.””

  4. 5 Attcch 20 October 2013 at 19:34

    “It’s time for liberal-minded people to speak up against the rising xenophobia, confident that we have in mind a better future for Singapore.” While I am against xenophobia, I can understand the desire by those who wants a “reboot”. It can demand quite a fair bit from those who now feels that they have lost sight (much less control) of their future.

    I agree largely with your views, just to add a different perspective on your exhorting Singaporeans to “grow up”. When you see kids whose lives are strictly regulated by their parents from birth, do you ask the kid to “grow up” or the parent to “let them grow”? Without a change in status quo, my bet is for the kid to rebel when he is of a certain age, just like Singaporeans now?

    “Indeed it is potentially fractious to have people in isolated ghettoes seeing others negatively and afraid of interaction.” Yah right, try picturing some party which is desperate to keep their House pure and willing to go all out to fix the “opposition”. From values to policies and politics, the mindset is all about “me, myself and I”. No one owes us a living, we must ourselves defend Singapore, it is unfair to have cross-subsidies, dig spurs into their hides so that they realise the competition that out there and not be complacent. No surprise why we need the flourishing of isolated ghettoes, walled gardens, simply NIMBY.

  5. 6 Loke Fook Seng 20 October 2013 at 19:51

    Most people focus only on the differences but more important to seek are the common characteristics that made us Singaporeans. It could be the use of Singlish in informal setting or the freedom we switch from one language or tongue to another in our daily interactions, even though we don’t really know one another’s languages very well. It could be the understanding of a social situation, the sharing of a common value, the shared enjoyment of a national, or international, sports event.

    Some years back, I asked this question – whether are we developing a multi-racial, multi-cultural society with common Singaporean characteristics or just a cosmopolitan melting pot like a hotel that admits guests from all over, each keeping to his cultural orientation, doing his own thing. Today, we are beginning to see more and more the latter, even if the intention is to achieve the former, as the setting up of ghettos and sub-committees seems to have taken a higher priority.

    Maybe I have been mixing with the wrong crowd or maybe integration is a long tedious process. But at least, it is fair to ask for some signs of the willingness to assimilate to the adopted environment. Singapore should not be just a place to take advantage of the goodies that it yields at this period of time which will be abandoned when there are no goodies left. The Singaporeans who have built this place, sacrificed their two years and some more defending it, would feel very short-changed.

  6. 7 Constance Singam 20 October 2013 at 20:23

    “Great cities are agglomerations of colourful villages, both spatially and socially” Hear!Hear!. I happily concur and endorse your vision for Singapore. Thank you for writing this..

  7. 8 Lady J 20 October 2013 at 22:00

    How about first freeing up Chinese dialects and allowing the Hokkiens, Cantonese, Hakkas etc to jostle for their own ghettos?

  8. 9 seorang 20 October 2013 at 22:33

    I think the government by-and-large wants to open its doors ‘wide-wide’.

    I quote from LKY’s ‘Hard Truths'(p. 292), when he was asked this question by the interview, “What constitutes the Singaporean identity? How would you pick out a Singaporean in a crowd?” :

    “….My defination of a Singaporean…is that we accept that whoever joins us is part of us. And that’s an American concept. You can keep your name, Brezinski, Berlusconi, whatever it is, you have come, join me, you are American. We need talent, we accept them. That must be our defining attribute…”.

    LKY also talked about making the pie bigger, and this is what would happen when you bring in the foreign talent.

    However, this is a process that can take over 20 years to bear fruit.

    Voters in general tend not to think so far. Most seem to be able to look only a few years ahead.

    And then you have the elections every 5 years.

    PAP might want to keep the door open, but some in their ranks might reason that it is impractical to implement enlightened policies when that would get you thrown out of power in the next election.

    I think at the end of the day, PAP has just got to make a stand.

    They must have the guts to tell voters, “We are implementing policies that is good for Singapore and Singaporeans in the long-run. It would not bear fruit immediately. In fact, there might be quite a lot of ‘growing pains’ at the initial stages. But we do what we believe is right. Please think carefully, for yourself and your future generations. And if you decide to throw us out, we accept your verdict.”

    This is a very complex issue. It calls for great leadership, and deadly serious hard work.

    • 10 Din 21 October 2013 at 23:23

      Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said during the SMU Lecture that “you have to do the right thing even if it means losing the next election”. But PM Lee does not agree at all about the part on “losing the election”. Being in absolute power and retaining absolute power matters more. There you have it!

    • 11 Rogueeconomist 22 October 2013 at 20:51

      The difference between Singapore and the United States is that Singapore lacks a defining cultural myth or national ideal that all citizens would readily agree defines being Singaporean.

      If you look at the U.S., their ideal is simply that they are, in fact, a nation of ideals, founded on liberty etc. Whether that is true or not in practice is beside the point. The point is that all will agree being a U.S. citizen means believing in those founding ideals.

      Likewise all will agree what being a French citizen, or a Chinese or Japanese citizen means. There is either an ideal of culture, or an ideal of ethnicity, that defines citizenship. (again, whether all French citizens share the same culture, or whether there exist many non-Han chinese citizens is not so important. these are the main elements of citizenship in the respective countries)

      So what do we have in Singapore? I disagree that a nation can be founded and sustained simply on the basis of economic success, or on the sort of ‘world citizen’ cosmopolitanism that characterizes New York, London, etc. Immigrants are proud to be U.S. citizens or British because they aspire to the ideals represented by belonging to those nations. We must offer something – for ourselves, if not for others – to aspire to.

      For a long time we defined ourselves by our success in adversity; e.g. we were the accidental country which succeeded against all odds to become first in the world at so many things. That clearly doesn’t work now; not only do fewer Singaporeans (the post-independence generation) really believe in it anymore, we can’t expect new citizens to have any feeling for it. So we need something else.

      We cannot be a nation based on ethnicity or culture. I think our only option is to be based on ideals, like the U.S. or the Swiss.

      • 12 Anon jcP4 23 October 2013 at 19:06

        I concur. There’s no cultural or historical buttress to what constitutes as a Singaporean identity

      • 13 Hazeymoxy 28 October 2013 at 10:03

        Absolutely. I remember reading an article in ST some months back where an immigrant said her brothers moved to the US instead and almost immediately identified themselves as American, while she has not been able to identify herself as Singaporean, despite living here for decades (I think that’s how it went).

        Frankly, I struggle with the term too since I don’t know what it means. I’m asked all the time: “Are you Singaporean?”. When I reply that I am, I’m told I don’t sound like one. I mean, really. This is what it boils down to? My accent. I have to speak Singlish or put on the Singapore tone to be included in the workplace. I’ve experimented with this and it’s weird and frightening.

        We need a whole new set of ideals to aspire to. Perhaps then, we’d find more people ready to sink their roots in and not see this place merely in terms of dollars and cents.

        Singaporeans need to grow up indeed.

  9. 14 Siva 20 October 2013 at 22:54

    I could have agreed with you if Singaporean males don’t need to serve NS. Singapore is NOT just a city. It is also nation. Did you serve NS? Do you know the hell we go through? If Singaporeans can accept foreigners on equal terms, then either they serve NS too or we don’t serve. Else I will never accept them as equals or allow them equal opportunities in Singapore.

    • 15 yawningbread 21 October 2013 at 10:35

      Just to take your line of argument further, how about accepting foreign-born women as citizens on equal terms?

      • 16 Siva 21 October 2013 at 10:55

        As far as I am concern, I don’t mind accepting foreign-born females becoming citizens since local-born females don’t serve NS. We are talking about fairness and equal opportunities here. Local men are competing on VERY UNEQUAL footing due to NS.

        If the PAP government wants Singapore to be a global city like Hong Kong or a New York, first, abolish NS. Else don’t think about that and don’t ever mention it to us male citizens who have spent 2.5 years and 13-year reservist. It is an insult to us.

        I think you are totally detached from reality on the ground to come up with such proposal. It is totally absurd that you are proposing to share the fruits of our forefathers’ labour with any Tom, Dick or Harry who have 0 loyalty and no commitment to this place.

        Singapore is a NATION. Do get this into your head. Thanks.

      • 17 Anon e6Ef 21 October 2013 at 13:57

        I like the concept you write here Alex, but Siva brings up an important point. This isn’t about being anti-immigration or anti-foreigner, at least not for me. But the reality is, citizens have national obligations, and those national obligations does not make an equal starting point.

        I won’t get into an argument about how those obligations gimp Singaporeans, or whether it even does, or what precisely those obligations are. The important thing is that there is at least a perceived inequality.

        Again, without getting into the details, (and yes, I know I’m dodging a bullet) if that perception at least is not addressed, or seen to be addressed effectively (and no, I’m sorry, but I disagree that the Fair Consideration Framework does that) then it’s going to be a hard sell.

      • 18 wilswong 21 October 2013 at 16:01

        on one hand we do not want to be xenophobic but on the other hand we are also being called sexist.

        What i think is most important is how our local women and foreign born women thinks about National Service. The mothers that I know accept that going for National Service is part of being a Singaporean male albeit a lot of them would be like the mother of Malcom in The Army Daze or the mother in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys to Men.

        Throw the same question to the women of sending their boys to ‘certain death’ called NS and you should see their reaction. And i am proud to say an Indian friend ticked off a newly minted Singaporean in Shanghai just because she don’t see the reason why she should sacrifice her son to NS.

        That’s the reality we are facing here. Acceptance is a 2 way street. If one wants to be accepted, the whole family, be it the father, mother and the children, has to understand that being part of a larger whole, would require the sacrifice that the majority has went through.

        So one thing’s going for women is that they do not need to do NS be it local or foreign born. The only way to distinguish those who is truly dedicated to Singapore is to see where they have their child and how they accept the responsibilities of being the mother of a Singaporean son.

        That’s why my Indian Singaporean friend gave a good lashing at the new Shanghainese ‘Singaporean’.

        Singapore is unique because we are a nation and the psyche of being part of a nation is to accept certain inalienable things that will make Singaporeans, Singaporeans – NS inclusive.

    • 19 Anon BDsW 22 October 2013 at 06:18

      I hope you would reconsider your stand. They can just abolish NS and you’ll be out of cards to play. The institution is fast out-living its usefulness, and really, do we really expect us to defend this place? With only 3 million plus “real” Singaporeans (that’s right, women, children, babies, grandma, grandpa), we’ll only die trying.

      Instead of getting the new comers to serve, it probably be easier to just employ a professional army. And then what relevance will the Singaporean male have left? At least the girls can give birth!

    • 20 Crazy 3 November 2013 at 18:41

      If their sons and grandsons have to serve NS, it’s not that bad right? The first generation might escape from it, but not the future?

      Singapore being both a nation-state and a city-state, we can neither abolish NS nor shut our doors to immigrants. At the end of the day, I think we have to acknowledge that we will receive both the benefits as well as the drawbacks of having such dual identities, and learn to deal with it (not easy).

  10. 21 liew Kai Khiun 20 October 2013 at 23:17

    There are already such ghettos in Singapore from the expat Sentosa Cove in the south, the offshore migrant worker colony at Jurong Island, transient ethnicize enclaves at Joo Chiat, Geylang, Katong, Beach Road etc. Not forgetting too are the non-Singaporean residents in HDB flats and condo around the country. And, yes, we do have gay bars right? As far as I know, on my floor of a typical HDB block, 4/7 households are foreign.

    However, what is presented in this article is a kind of the same superfical multiculturalism that the state presents with its CIMO vision with the utopian assumption of a happy harmonious and hybrid hypenated identity hopping by a mobile world citizenry in an exciting city-state. . .

    I am sorry that I don’t see this happening. What I see is instead is the development of a dystopic society where you are witnessing further hierachalization of society between different groups of people each accorded to their privileges or lack of it, usually at the expense of other groups. We are seeing this in the dominance of expats and some token privileged cosmopolitan local elites at the top, and armies of exploited migrant workers at the bottom. Increasingly stuck in the middle, the born and bred Singaporeans will find themselves further peripheralized and parochialized by this cosmoplitan vision that favours transientness over belonging and markets over meaning.

    While I enjoy reading this article, what I find absent is a heart for the heartlands. What YB is envisioning here is a permanent house party instead of a quiet home.

    Kai Khiun

    • 22 yawningbread 21 October 2013 at 10:37

      Levelling society is an important project, but it is a different one from re-imagining our cosmopolitanism.

      • 23 Nat Zi 21 October 2013 at 10:57

        Well, you can’t have it both way; a welfare state with open borders. That is what the Europeans are grappling with now.

      • 24 JL 21 October 2013 at 21:12

        The two questions are somewhat intertwined. When u introduce competition, the income gap would widen., generally speaking.

      • 25 SN 22 October 2013 at 04:57

        Kai Khiun, that was very well put. I guess, Alex, Kai Khiun’s point is that the PAP-styled cosmopolitanism is anti-egalitarian in nature.

  11. 26 Olives 21 October 2013 at 06:27

    A set of common core values shared by all would help to bring about better relationships. Again the hotpot of action is in schools n we already have the United Nations in our classrooms.

  12. 27 Nat Zi 21 October 2013 at 10:44

    Most other cities in the world have escape valves for the rest of their citizens; many of those upwardly-mobile twenty-somethings in NY eventually grow up and move out of the city into the tri-state area, or the surburbs in their home states. Same with London and Paris, there are places for their citizens to get out of the elite, uncaring faces of their cityfolk. In Singapore, where are we supposed to decamp for? Do we become refugees in Johor, or Batam?

    Singaporeans have a right to more than a transactional relationship with the state, because this country demands extraordinary sacrifices from her people. We put up with all sorts of indignities and privations in the economic & socio-political realm (I need not go over the laundry list here), with an implicit understanding with the establishment that they will look out for our interests. And when the establishment betrays us, by handing over half of this country to foreigners, with the fruits of prosperity mostly going to them and their elite partners, then the contradictions all come to a head: for whom are the sacrifices for, and why are we being made to bear most of the costs?

    Those one-quarter-whatever Singaporeans you referenced, traipising around the world, are not representative of most of us living here. Aside from short-trips to KL or Bangkok, most heartlanders remained rooted to this country in the same way most other folks in their countries remain rooted to theirs. Unlike the enclavers, we do not live in hermetically sealed environments, we travel in one hot mess instead of via enclosed vestibules. We live in constant insecurity at being low-balled by a foreigners who has the option of cashing out and high-tailing it back home instead of paying for sky-high home prices. Most importantly, we are the ones who have consistently pulled the lever for the PAP, not the traipising one-quarters. It is only right then that we have called for a full accounting of the PAP’s performance, and that they respond.

    This notion of a globalised, borderless world where we all sit in a circle singing kumbayah, it does not exist at all, in any other state. Maybe in hipsterville, where all diversity is homogenised under as gentrified ethnicity, wry puns, & Apple products. Even they soon grown out of such childishness. This kumbayah world you speak of is a pipe dream of modern humanists, who seek to reach utopia “by building a titanic Tower of Babel on terrestrial foundations.”

  13. 28 what to say 21 October 2013 at 10:50

    you are writing about turning singapore into a hotel, not just a city state or country. yes, the pap government is trying this and tearing singapore and its core down. this meat called Singapore is free for all now.

  14. 29 Kuah Jian Ming 21 October 2013 at 11:03

    A very nice take on the possible reasons behind the current unprecedented phenomena of xenophobia in Singapore, Alex. But I would say that there may be a greater underlying or primal reason that is driving the rising xenophobia: the difficulties that a local Singapore may face in maintaining or improving their quality of life.

    Similarly as in post world-war 1 where the Jews were actively made the target of negative sentiments arising from the social and economic plight of Germans, the foreigners in Singapore currently make an enticing and convenient scapegoat for the difficulties that local Singaporeans may face in maintaining their quality of life. As an example, it may be easier to attribute one’s unemployment to the influx of foreigners that may have created a greater competition for jobs, rather than to one’s stringent criteria when job-searching.

    All of this isn’t to say that the xenophobic sentiments displayed by Singaporeans are unjustified. As you and several other bloggers have pointed out, a deteriorating quality of life for Singaporeans, especially manifest in the suppression of wages for a certain group of people, may find its roots in the influx of foreigners.

    From a common-sense ’cause and effect’ perspective, Singaporeans may also naturally regard the difficulties they face in their lives as causally linked with the growth of foreigners in Singapore.

    As an example, if 7 years ago the trains, buses, and roads were hardly as busy or crowded as today, and when it certainly was much more difficult to spot a foreigner on the streets as compared to today, a Singaporean may logically ascribe foreigners, whom they have never seen 7 years ago, as the main cause for the ‘crowdedness’ that he or she encounters today. It is unlikely that as a Singaporean, you would blame a fellow Singaporean (whether he or she is Malay, Indian, Eurasian or Chinese) for causing the current state of affairs.

  15. 30 nigel 21 October 2013 at 13:12

    “Frankly, I’d rather speak of Singaporeans growing up.”

    Goddammit thank you

  16. 31 Chris 21 October 2013 at 13:39

    Thanks for an enlightening blog entry. It is good to read something more thought out that sets it apart from the shrill anti-foreigner rhetoric that seems to be taking over the online space in SG.

    And following the rhetoric are new regulations, many of which are intransparent and make foreigners feel more and more unwanted. Clear regulations – say, PR all but guaranteed after 7 years in SG with min income, or unproblematic EP/WP/S-Pass renewal – would go a long way, and would likely help create a better sense of identity than sticking to fixed race ratios.

  17. 32 Lucy Davis 21 October 2013 at 14:49

    Hi Alex,

    I read your article this morning and on first read, I liked it, mostly as a counter to the scary, bludgeon-chauvinistic rhetoric we are seeing online from friends and foes alike at the moment.

    But KK is right:
    A celebration of cosmopolitan identities – the ability to go shopping in an identity supermarket is the exclusive purview the elite.
    Uncle Zizek warned us about this way back in 1997 with his New Left Review article http://newleftreview.org/I/225/slavoj-zizek-multiculturalism-or-the-cultural-logic-of-multinational-capitalism

    Looking at the pictures you posted, there are huge differences in the potential for mobility and access between the different “ghetto’s” you suggest as enrichment for Singaporeans starved on the rigidities of CMIO.

    The bankers in Clark Quay have as much access and mobility as you or I … (mostly more..) with certain skin-deep limitations, they can choose to consume and enjoy the differences of others along with you.
    This is not the case for the domestic workers sending remittances home. Not all ghettoes are equal and not all identitarian subjects can so easily subject-hop.

    I totally get why you are writing this today and I know that in your work and writing elsewhere you are precisely concerned with inequalities and particularly with those facing migrant workers.

    But I don’t agree that you can divorce a celebration of cosmopolitan ideology from class critique.

    Much respect Alex for everything you do


  18. 33 Lucy Davis 21 October 2013 at 15:30

    PS 🙂
    In other words, making cultural or identitarian difference “the problem” is certainly wrong. But so is mirroring this logic and making cultural/identitarian difference “the solution”.
    Both responses allow inequalities of income and access and the related, “authentic” anger underlying the monstrous chauvinisms we see emerging in Singapore the moment, to go unchallenged.

  19. 34 Jake 21 October 2013 at 20:38

    The main problem is the packing it in policy which the govt has to swell the GDP statistic. If they had also taken care to ensure that our infrastructure could handle the load, there is no cause for any of the current unhappiness seemingly directed against foreigners. I think it’s not so realistic that Singaporeans can “grow up” to the idea that this is a city state where human capital is fluid. It’s completely anathema to the conditioning to think of ourselves as a nation state – pride sometimes bordering on hubris (“every can learn from us”, constantly asking foreign visitors “what do you like about singapore?” and expecting a positive answer – always).

    Let’s start with getting rid of the hubris we have unwittingly acquired. Stop being so obsessed with the x number of things Singapore is supposedly another number 1 in – stop lording over supposedly less developed countries that they need to emulate the Singapore model. Love this country only for the people around you rather than some abstract idea of Singaporeaness. Beyond this, we should be informed by a spirit of fairness and justice in how we treat others – compatriot or otherwise.

  20. 35 Xela 21 October 2013 at 20:50

    You are good in theory, a wonderful picture of utopia.

  21. 36 Janice 21 October 2013 at 21:05

    Xenophobia is a reaction to economic exploitation.

  22. 37 Qyna Quek 21 October 2013 at 23:33

    I do not agree that PAP wide open immigration policy is to the benefit of Singaporeans. Like most PAP policies, the immigration policy also has hidden agenda, which is to keep the PAP in power. Influx of foreigners keep wages down. By keep wages down, most Singaporeans will have just enough to spend which make them easiest to govern. Low wages also keep people from getting married and form families which is what the elitists PAP have always wanted: eliminate the incompetent people to make room for immigrants who have less sense of entitlement in comparison to a local. (LKY once said only graduate parents produce graduate children).

  23. 38 Jordan 22 October 2013 at 00:54

    I’m disappointed that this article (indeed, many of Alex’s articles) have a simplistic view of the antipathy towards foreign migration, instead of addressing the core of unemployed Singaporeans who have been unceremoniously thrown out of jobs at senior levels, and quickly replaced by foreign workers. Not to mention the hordes of Singaporean 50+ year olds who find it impossible to work after age 50 and have to reply on their children for handouts.
    The image of cosmopolitanism presented in this article magically sails across these issues, when in fact they are one and the same issue. (ie. an unequal society has arisen due to high immigration, not by itself from nowhere)

  24. 39 KAM 22 October 2013 at 04:18

    It is all about greed and corporate ruthlessness.

    Many MNCs in the WORLD, has adopted aggressive outsourcing and cheapest sourcing for productivity and enlarged margins. The locals are forced to put in more effort or they are forced out of the numbers game.

    Singapore is no exception because it is (drum roll) afterall just a Corporate Hotel where the top management (Govt) are made up of CEOs and their likes. Where else do you get politicans with ZERO emphathy? UK and US are quite similar too. Don’t need to laugh at them.

    Their main goal is not to instill a corporate culture (Singapore spirit), but rather to maximise the milking of the Singapore Cow (aka GDP) before they take their bonuses and migrate to “higher echelons” (aka high society) of Singapore and when all hell breaks loose, they will take it overseas.
    Which minister or their family members take MRT? I rest my point.

    When you have not enough “cheap” workers, what do you do? Ask any respectable CEO or GM and they will tell you that they will import them via the lorryloads from cheap countries. Better cheap labourers than ingrates who bite their hands and steal their votes.

    Integration? It is too last minute. It took LKY (ok ok not just him but his generation and team) about 40 years to get Singaporeans to NOT spit on the roads and not throw Cigarette butts. We were getting there and I was really proud to hear our National Songs and so on. But then what happened?

    It took LHL (the sleepy dragon) just 10 years to dismantle that social cohesiveness and bring the Casino culture and money-takes-all mentality into Singapore. KPI, KPI, GDP, GDP.

    For those who benefitted from this short-term winfall, don’t be too cocky. You have benefitted in the short term, but you may have LOST a whole country to this reckless and ill-conceived wealth making scheme.

    卖国求荣 (sell out country in search of wealth) comes to mind. I wish someone will write a History book for Singapore (not ST or SPH please). And when the children of these people read this book, they will be shamed.

    Our country, land and spirit are being SOLD inch by inch, meter-sq by meter-sq to the highest bidder.

    Can you stop it?
    Can I stop it?
    Can we stop it?

    I think cannot leh. Too late already.

  25. 40 aaaa 23 October 2013 at 20:15

    I’ve been browsing The Real Singapore page and my god, that site is really a cesspool of ignorant, naive, bigoted racist and xenophobic Singaporeans. Just seeing some of the comments really makes me nauseous and disappointed that there are so many Singaporeans like that.

  26. 44 The 24 October 2013 at 09:06

    Singapore was never, is not, and will not be xenophobic. It has been cosmopolitan from the word go since Raffles’ days. We have been welcoming foreigners in our midst, while many countries are wary of foreigners.

    The problem is, since 1990, we have opened the floodgates to foreigners. From 3 million, in 1990, the population grew to 4 million in 2000, and exploded to 5 million in 2010. No country in the world has such an explosive growth in population. No country in the world has such a high percentage of foreigners – more than one third. Yes, the oil rich countries such as Brunei, UAE and Bahrain have large foreigner content – but they are the blue collared workers and not PRs or citizens. Yes, London and New York may have large proportions of foreigners, but they are cities, not countries. If an American does not like to live in a crowded city like NY, he can always choose to live in Alaska or Nebraska. But where do Singaporeans go if they want to be packed like sardines? Pulau Ubin? Pulau Hantu? Horsburgh lighthouse?

    Those Singaporeans who appear xenophobic are not anti-foreigners. They are angry with the government for letting in so many foreigners without the commensurate increase in infrastructure and transport capacity. Not enough housing, hospital beds, trains, buses, etc. And the government-mouthpiece MSM is the one playing up the xenophobia fairy tale.

    • 45 Clear eyed 24 October 2013 at 17:35

      Very well said. In fact I would say that Singaporeans have been and still are too tolerant and accepting so much so that the government just brushes off our unhappiness at being displaced as just noise.

    • 46 Jordan 25 October 2013 at 22:27

      Absolutely. I get the feeling people talking about “xenophobia” have never lost their jobs to foreigners, bought a flat, worried about rising prices, worked long hours for a mortgage, had foreign bosses or colleagues, or even shopped in a supermarket lately.

  27. 47 JL 24 October 2013 at 19:22

    1) Singaporeans in general are not very sophisticated, in large part due to the ‘parenting’ style of LKY and his ilk (with hatchets’ for the heck of it) for over 50 years.
    2) For the most part of the 50 years, Singaporeans are relatively well taken care of, without needing to look beyond the well that the frog is in.
    3) Since the turn of the millennium, the livelihoods of many Singaporeans are destroyed or threatened by the hyperbolically open immigration policy.
    4) Like children, many of us react viscerally against foreigners.
    5) Being good human beings that I guess most of us are, it’s important to acknowledge that it is a childish reaction in the first place, but still
    6) All of us are human. When something as basic as the ability to put food on the table is threatened, most would react in base manners.
    7) Some pple can traverse across cultures better than others, but it’s no use pointing at those pple poorer at it and say pls grow up. I’d say if livelihoods are not in such dire straits, many more pple would be pretty mature.

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