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.