Why we’re afraid of foreigners, and what we ought to do about it

I’m sure everyone can think of at least a couple of foreign friends who are a welcome addition to our communities.

I remember having lunch at Burger King somewhere in Orchard Road, and I observed 3 foreigners- a black guy and two white guys- having a pleasant conversation as they ate. They then disposed of their food waste and put away their trays. I thought to myself, “Man, Singapore could use more people like this.”

I’m talking about the behaviour, not the nationality. We need more gracious, thoughtful behaviour. From everybody.

The frustration that citizens have is usually when the foreigners don’t make any effort to assimilate into the community- and this effect is worsened when the immigration happens en masse. This isn’t unique to Singapore- it happens in Australia, it happens in the US, it happens everywhere where there are immigrants.

The xenophobia, I think, is an unenlightened expression of fear at losing grip on the cultural status quo. I’m not trying to defend it- I don’t think it should be defended- I’m just trying to understand it. Why are some people so nasty? “Some people are just nasty” feels like an oversimplification to me, and I don’t like living life feeling like I’m somehow better than other people, because I’m not.

So here’s my guess:

Some among us are hateful because we are fearful, and we are fearful because we feel ourselves losing grip in our own home. And fear can lead people to do some pretty grotesque things.

It’s interesting to contemplate how, for example, LKY used to worry that Singaporeans were too complacent, too safe, too comfortable- and now we’re almost the opposite of that, we’re almost paranoid at the idea of losing our fledgling identity and so some of us carpet-bomb anything unfamiliar, new or foreign.

Safety and security at all costs! That’s what we’re thinking when we cast stones at foreigners. It doesn’t matter if we have to crack a few skulls or do things that are unethical. Where did we learn such nasty behaviour from?

They say children learn from their parents’ actions- I wonder if citizens learn from their leaders, too. I wonder if our culture and behaviour at large is a direct consequence of the ruthless pragmatism of our leaders.

But, moving forward. As JK Rowling put beautifully in her commencement address, there is a time limit for blaming your parents for who you are. Similarly, there’s only so long we can blame our politicians and leaders for our behaviour. I think one of the metrics to discern whether or not we have “arrived” as a nation is- do we take personal responsibility for our actions? We should.

I’d like to ask a couple of questions:

Can you imagine a Singapore where foreigners who come in are respectful of local customs and mannerisms? (Think of Neil Humphreys, for instance. Nobody thinks of him as an annoying foreigner that needs to get out. We think of him as a welcome addition to our family, don’t we? Why is that? Think about it.)

Can you imagine a Singapore where these respectful foreigners add to, rather than subtract from, our cultural identity?

I think it can happen, we just need a little more grace from everybody. Yes, it’s okay to be afraid of losing our culture. And if we may be brutally honest, the Singapore that we remember- the Singapore that is portrayed in National Day videos (with migrant workers conspicuously absent) is kind of dead and gone. It exists only in our memories.

But that doesn’t make Singapore today any less meaningful. That doesn’t mean we can’t be happy, we can’t have meaningful interactions with one another. We can, and that is a choice that we can choose to make. Government has nothing to do with this. The National Conversation isn’t just something between us and the Government- if we want Singapore to flourish, the National Conversation has to be the conversation we have with each other.

Don’t be so afraid of losing Singapore. Honestly, the Singapore you’re thinking of is already gone. Singapore is reborn at every instant. And we make it what we want it to be.

What do you want?

I was once having a conversation with a couple of friends at a coffeeshop (with foreign friends from PRC who run the show, who are pleasant and make an effort to communicate with us despite the language barrier) and it occurred to us that we’re not doing enough to help the foreigners assimilate into our culture. I’m not talking about our government. I’m talking about us.

We ought to talk to them, interview them, have conversations with them- ask them why they’re here, ask them how they find Singapore, ask them about life back home, about their hopes and dreams for themselves. We know so little about them. We demonize them because we draw this line between us and them- we are Us and they are They. This is a project I’d love to get behind, but I don’t really have the time to do it at this point- but I’m just putting it out there in case anybody thinks about it.

The common fear we have is the diminishing of our social capital. We don’t want to be socially impoverished, nobody does. The knee-jerk solution is to try and drive foreigners away. But that’s a woefully poor stop-gap solution. There are 7 billion foreigners in the world, and our borders are porous. Is this really a sustainable battle to be fighting, even if it were morally justifiable?

The more realistic and practical solution is to get to know our foreign friends better, to make them feel a little more comfortable here. America’s dominance over the world is partially military, but primarily cultural- the fact that we wear blue jeans is a testament to that. We have to legitimately win over foreigners to our side- and have PRCs and NRIs raving about Singapore the same way Neil Humphreys does in his books and articles.

We’re afraid of losing Singapore to foreigners because we don’t really know who we are. When foreigners go to New York, they become New Yorkers. A New Yorker might express annoyance at the presence of tourists and opportunist-type migrants, but he/she would ultimately be secure in the knowledge that New York is kind of eternal. (I might be completely wrong about this. New Yorkers, your comments?)

Anyway my ultimate point is that we can all be a little nicer to one another lah. Don’t so scared. Life will go on. And it is short. No point being mean or hateful to anybody, really.

Does racial harmony justify xenophobia in Singapore?

Is xenophobia justified if it promotes racial harmony?

“I am not a racist but I am most certainly a nationalist. In the event of a dispute between a foreigner and a Singaporean, whether he is Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian, I will take the side of the Singaporean 99% of the time.” – LittleSpeck.com

Wow! In a dispute between a Chinese and an Indian, or in a dispute between a foreigner and a Singaporean, personally, 99% of the time I will take the side of the person who is right. (Well, actually, most of the time I won’t be taking sides, because in almost every dispute there is a misunderstanding, and there’s usually some truth to both sides.) Since when did justice become such a subjective concept in Singapore?

If you saw a mixed group of young Singaporean teenagers, Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian- all ganging up and brutally assaulting a Chinese national after a theft or rape, what would you think about it? How would you feel? It’s a hypothetical scenario, but not unimaginable is it?

Xenophobia is not cool. I was deeply bothered whenever Opposition parties used anti-foreigner rhetoric at their rallies. (I would have still voted for them- again, I don’t trust the PAP, and I don’t trust the Opposition- I am not loyal to any party. The only reason I would still vote Opposition is because I don’t trust any sort of super-dominance, by anybody or anything in any circumstance.)

Xenophobia and racism are symptoms of the same disease- they are both fueled by intolerance, suspicion, unenlightened selfishness- none of which we should be encouraging, in my opinion.

What do we want for Singapore? I’d personally like us to be a more inclusive society- more grace, tolerance, understanding and communication. I don’t understand how it is somehow okay to treat foreigners which such condescension and fear. Our forefathers were foreigners too! What’s the difference?

Foreigners these days, I am told, don’t care about Singapore. They come here to loot and pillage whatever they can and then happily go back home. Sure, but why? How can we expect them to start caring about Singapore when we treat them like scum? It’s our own despicable behaviour that compels foreigners to behave the way they do- which we then use as an excuse to justify our own xenophobia in the first place. It’s a disgusting feedback loop, and we perpetuate it.

I often find it wasteful that random insulting and “seditious” remarks are treated with such fear, apprehension, disgust and offense. Let’s be clear- they are undesirable for sure, and perhaps potentially dangerous. On this we can all agree. It is the standardized response (as I perceive it) that I have a bone to pick with.

We tend to operate under the assumption that anybody who says or does anything unacceptable must be malicious- that the foreigner was insulting Singaporeans because he’s a despicable, spiteful human being that needs to be punished to be taught a lesson. There is to be no mercy, no compassion- it doesn’t matter if he was being ignorant or irresponsible. Getting the authorities involved, sounding the national alarm- these measures are not just childish (“Cher, Cher, he anyhow say me!”)  but potentially detrimental- because it destroys the opportunity to create a mutually beneficial outcome. 


Let’s extend the classroom analogy.

There’s a boy of another race in your class, and the two of you don’t really get along. One day, you bump into each other by accident- and he starts spewing expletives, insulting you, your mother and the rest of your ancestors and cultural practices. What do you do?

Perhaps you could beat him up. Tell all your friends about what he said- it’s a matter of racial pride, after all. But your teacher wouldn’t have any of that- you’ll all get into trouble. It’s not worth it.

So perhaps you do the “right” thing and you complain to your teacher. Getting your teacher to discipline him might preserve the peace. But it is an uneasy peace, strained and suspicious. You forget, eventually, that the initial conflict was a a bit of an accident. Emotions were running high. But if there was any doubt about how you felt about each other then, there isn’t anymore. You’re now both thoroughly convinced of each other’s malice.

Perhaps the two of you may may temporarily forge an alliance when beating up the new kid in class, or the boys from school down the road. But if you are alone together at the bus stop outside school, you bare your teeth and claws- if not for the teacher, if school wouldn’t intervene, you’d surely rip each other to shreds. At least, that’s what he wants, you think.

Deep down you both hate that you have to keep watching your backs. And you never had to. You could have taken him aside in person and talked it out. The problem started when you forgot that he’s human, just like you. Ali, Raju, Xiao Ming, Zhong Guo Ren. All human beings.

In WW2, the Allied Forces and the Soviets worked together to defeat their common enemy, the Nazis. Without resolving their mutual misunderstandings, they would later turn against each other, fueling the arms race of the Cold War which put humanity on the brink of nuclear war.

In X-Men: First Class (spoilers alert!), the Americans and Soviets put aside their differences to attack their common enemy- the mutants. It would turn out to be a terrible idea- their actions, fueled by fear and xenophobia, would be the tipping point that initiated the war that would otherwise never have had to be. The unnecessary perception of enmity is what creates it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t have to be.

Say no to xenophobia, please. We can resolve our own problems, and build meaningful, lasting and mutually-beneficial relationships along the way. A little more grace, a little more compassion, a little more mercy. We don’t have to depend on the government to learn to be better human beings.  ‘Cher got her own problems to deal with, you know? Sekali she ask for another pay raise! 😛

If victory is the notion of no enemy, then the whole world is a friend.The true warrior is not like a person carrying a sword and looking behind his own shadow, in case somebody is lurking there. That is the setting-sun warrior’s point of view, which is an expression of cowardice.

The true warrior always has a weapon, in any case. Many things in your life function as a weapon, a vehicle of communication that cuts through aggression. It could be anything. If you are wearing a moustache, that could be your weapon. It’s not necessary for the warrior to carry an artificial weapon, like a gun. Cowardly people carry guns because they are so cowardly, so afraid. One doesn’t have to be afraid of touching a weapon, such as a gun, or even using it when necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to carry one all the time.

The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and gentleness. Those are your weapons. The genuine warrior becomes truly gentle because there is no enemy at all.”

– Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Smile at Fear