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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.