Monthly Archives: December 2011

Gayle Goh, on Immigration and Xenophobia (2009)

(Emphasis mine! -Visa)

Singaporeans have often been accused of not having a heart for home. The identity angst of our young nation-state has manifested itself variously in aspects such as high emigration statistics and cultural dialogue. “Singapore you are not my country”, poet and activist Alfian Sa’at once wrote. “Singapore you are not a country at all.”

A recent paradox has emerged in the bitter debate over immigration policy that challenges this impassioned shout. On the one hand, Singaporeans profess to feel alienated and second-class in their homeland – Singaporean, perhaps, but cynical as to what this identity actually offers or entails; on the other hand, they retreat into terms such as ‘us’ and ‘them, ‘ordinary citizens’ and ‘foreign trash’ – terms which I have seen thrown around Internet forums with alarming frequency. This polarizing rhetoric of difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ demonstrates that our alienation has developed into an identity of its own; that some long-buried territorial instinct to defend our home, long suspected of being absent in our kind, has given us the energy to say that we have some manner of definitive rights to its riches. Yet this very rhetoric damages our sense of self. It amplifies our emotions of disenfranchisement and reinforces our insecurity in our identity as Singaporeans. To and fro, these two phenomena – alienation and xenophobia – feed each other. If nothing else, the dynamic of interaction between them demonstrates that when it suits us, Singapore is a country. When it concerns our rice bowl and our future, Singapore becomes our country.

But as much as this debate over ‘us’ and ‘them’ has allowed the dormant feelings of national stake to stir its hitherto-lethargic bulk, it is ultimately a destructive force. Nationalism is a many-headed hydra, and the head that has been awoken has an ugly face of hate and fundamental mistrust. It is indiscriminate in its choice of foes, blurring all unfamiliar faces into a monolithic prey in its myopia. It does not discern between the many different types of ‘foreigners’ that are immigrating to Singapore – I use the term in inverted commas because many of these so-called foreigners have lived, schooled and worked in our midst for decades before making the bold choice to make this their home. This form of nationalism attacks, rather than reinforces, our social fabric. Perhaps most damagingly, it does not question the sources of its hate.

Xenophobia allows us to put a face to our fears. It projects our deepest concerns about our future onto a convenient group of blame. It does not recognise that our real enemies are far more complex and non-physical. The ageing population; the unpredictability of the global markets; the rising costs of living contributing to a declining birth rate. These are some of the real sources behind our discontent. But how do you hate a burst in the U.S. housing bubble after decades of improper financial management precipitating a global crisis? How do you hate a shift in the hegemonic paradigm needing us to realign our industrial strategies and wage policies in order to stay competitive? Far easier to hate something with a body – far easier to hate the bitter pill, instead of the insidious disease.

No doubt, it would be patronising to ask the population to blindly swallow any medicine the state prescribes. Immigrant influx is not a blunt solution. Recent comments by PM Lee in his speech to NTU students dated 15th September promise a slower and more calibrated intake. Slower and more calibrated or not, however, the intake is inevitable. Every developed nation has had to accept immigration at least to some extent as part and parcel of survival in today’s world. The question that remains is: what do we do about the ones that are already here? How should we treat those who have made the life-changing decision to take this country as their own?

Having studied in the UK for the past two years, I have found myself in the midst of a European society that is growing increasingly uneasy in the face of an immigration phenomenon that they have neglected to address for too long. The streets of London hum with hundreds of different languages being spoken all at once, and the heterogeneous multiculturalism of the city, while a testament to colour and variety, also sits uneasily on many minds. Mere cultural tolerance is a fragile foundation for a society. Tolerance waits, and bides its time to break. It is up to times of crisis to test the ice, such as the recent economic havoc that political commentators agree helped to usher the British National Party (BNP) into the European Parliament and three county Councilor seats in the local elections earlier this year. The BNP is famous for its whites-only membership, its history of anti-Semitism and its staunch opposition of immigration. One of their recent party leaflets declares that black and Asian Britons ‘do not exist’, in a startling denial of the validity of a significant segment of the population’s identity. It is not the mere existence of the BNP that is worrying. It is the growing base of support for their hardline antagonism towards recent generations of Britons that is symptomatic of a social illness. Post-colonial Britain has struggled to find an identity whose civic glue consists of more than the Empire mentality of their reign. In such a vacuum, dangerous ideas gain currency; ideas of race supremacy and targeted hatred thinly-concealed behind a veil of sophistry and misdirection. What if, ten years down the road, we started to believe that Singaporean Indians or Singaporean Caucasians did not exist? What if we began to confine the Singaporean identity to those whose ancestors were perceived to be native to the soil, or only arrived in times of pre-independence?

At the same time, however, the melting-pot approach of claiming a singular national identity at the expense of all cultural and historical differences is equally untenable. We have long prided ourselves on being truly multicultural: not simply living side by side with people of other races and religions, but trying to understand and empathise with their traditions as well. Hence, by and large our schools are secular, emphasising multicultural interaction and learning about the customs and practices of various religious and ethnic groups. We should not deny that first-generation immigrants often come from very different contexts, with different religious and ethno-cultural practices. What we should aim for is not an erasure of those differences, but an integration: different hues and shapes put together in a harmonious composition. If this sounds like a delicate and uphill task, make no mistake that it is. The one thing we cannot do, however, is leave it all to sort itself out. It is only too easy for the state of things, left to its own devices, to degenerate into a destructive cycle of insecurity and polarizing hate – the early symptoms of which I have pointed out in my opening paragraphs. Instead of degeneration, we must treat this furore over immigration as an opportunity to regenerate our identity, and as part of the teething pangs of a nation still searching to define itself. Only then can we emerge from this dialogue with something constructive: something that builds up, rather than tears down, our identity and our hope for the future.

Reaching this result requires us to ask ourselves: what’s in a name? What does it mean to be ‘Singapore’? I think we should not insult ourselves by pretending that Singapore is just some kind of property we can inherit – some patch of sea-devouring soil we can keep within the family. Neither is Singapore simply the sum of its immigrant roots; while we must call on our past to define ourselves, it is meaningless if we cannot integrate our past with our present reality. Antiquated and professionally-retouched photographs of mama-sans and coolies, or quaint heritage centres in colonial ethnic districts, are not sufficient to give weight to our meaning. In effect, Singapore is not a hand-me-down. Singapore is ours in the here and now, ours to define, ours to live. Singapore is a choice. The National Integration Council cannot make the choice for us, or buy it from us with a price-tag of $10 million: it can only give us the opportunity to make an informed choice, by interacting with unfamiliar faces in our communities, talking to them, learning about their personal histories and the reasons why they have chosen to define themselves as part of Singapore. I found myself personally inspired to love my country more by my interactions with my friends who are new citizens, learning how they have come to cherish this country for its aspirations of equal opportunity, religious freedom and racial harmony.

Perhaps I should clarify myself on this point. The choice to which I refer is not whether immigrants can truly become Singaporean citizens. I think the discussion on that point is moot. They have the passport, and they have the equal rights of every citizen, including that to call themselves Singaporean. In some respects it could even be argued that they are even more appropriate recipients of the label ‘Singaporean’ because they have taken the leap to embrace the term, in contrast to the many Singapore-born citizens who struggle to navigate the troubled waters of identity, jetting back and forth between countries unable to decide who they are. In terms of the law, and in terms of their own choices, new citizens are therefore no longer foreigners – just as there are black and Asian Britons whether Nick Griffin thinks so or not. The choice to which I refer is whether we can accept them as such – if our definition of our national identity can expand to include them in the spaces of our own heads. This has been our home turf for longer than it has been for many new Singaporeans. We have, I feel, the advantage and the responsibility to level the psychological playing field now that they are in our lives and part of our community as well.

The outcome of our choice will determine the harmony of our society, and if we are truly concerned about our future, then surely we should prize that enough to open our minds, and give a little bit of time and understanding towards accepting our new compatriots.