Photo credit: Zimbio / Suhaimi Abdullah /Getty Images AsiaPac
Someone asked me a question on how the anti-foreigner sentiment in Singapore has developed in Singapore on my Facebook and I thought to repost my response here:
I think it is necessary to understand why we carry unfavourable sentiments towards certain nationalities or ethnic populations. If I am to understand these sentiments, as to why some people might start to point out behavioural characteristics of others to take issue with, this could be due to our displeasure with their greater numbers and thus our discomfort at feeling displaced or marginalised in what we see as our home. If this is indeed the case, then it would be wiser to identify the root cause of how the issue of the increase in population came about, and this should be rightfully pinpointed at the government because this is a policy issue.
It is unethical for a government to bring in large numbers of people without care to their welfare and that of the local population and to also ignore the consequent social effects.
Why are the characteristics of certain groups or people discriminated against? I will speak for myself – there are times when you visit other countries and as a Singaporean or as a Chinese person, you get judged for who you are. But why do people do that? They do so because of a lack of understanding of who I am or of certain assumptions about my cultural or national background. At times, these are ideas even we might not have thought about of own cultural or national background. If so, this would mean that for those who discriminate against us as well as for ourselves, we would need to question the relevance of such ideas and seek to understand them or for others to understand as well. As such, I would have appreciated if they could speak to me and understand who I am, instead of use aspects of my cultural or national background as a gauge to judge me.
For Singapore’s situation, similarly some of us might feel displaced in Singapore and thus aggrieved. For some Singaporeans, we are uncomfortable with first, being economically marginalised by the loss of our jobs or wages, and second, then feeling culturally insecure because of the seeming loss of the ‘Singapore identity’. This might result in a rise of negative sentiments towards non-Singaporeans.
But foreigners are not the issue. The issue is that Singaporeans feel that because we are not able to advocate to the government for policies to protect our jobs and wages that we turn towards foreigners instead, turning them into the symbols of our loss and anger. We then start creating ideas about them, the way others would create about us if we were overseas, whether real or perceived.
However, it is the case that foreigners have been coming into Singapore in larger numbers and as such, a certain sense of being replaced and a sense of the loss of “home” is becoming felt among Singaporeans. Also, culturally, Singaporeans are worried at not being able to integrate, from both sides. If so, what are the solutions?
From an economic perspective, it is important to ensure that the jobs of Singaporeans are secured and Singaporeans will not be liable for unemployment, and that their wages are adequate as well. Thus legislation need to be put in place to ensure employment security and for a minimum wage to be put in place. In the longer term, when the economy readjusts itself to ensure the employment and wages of Singaporeans are taken care of, there will be a larger allowance for us to be able to also take care of the labour needs of the other workers in Singapore, as what would happen in a more equal society.
From a social angle, should there be programmes that encourage a cultural understanding and integration with Singapore? Also, the government has to be fair and impartial in its application of the law. As it is today, Singaporeans are aware that the current government’s application of the law is favourable towards richer foreigners (and Singaporeans as well) and this puts Singaporeans on an unfair stead, which has resulted in many Singaporeans feeling as second-class citizens and the resultant anger.
As such, this then becomes a larger question on fairness and equality, in that Singaporeans are feeling insecure that the government that they have voted for have allowed them to be sidelined in their own country. From a larger perspective then, it might be fair to say that the discrimination that certain Singaporeans feel towards foreigners might be due to the economic, social and political inequality and the feeling of insecurity in your own home. Naturally, if one is to feel threatened with their livelihoods and lives in their own home, they would start to react in emotively negative ways towards others they feel are threatening their existence.
However, if so, as I had mentioned, the issue should be pointed back at the government. Foreigners, by themselves, have by and large, not directly mistreated Singaporeans. The same applies for Singaporeans when we go overseas. Our sense of displeasure with their cultural traits could arguably have arose because of our sense of feeling threatened as well. Let’s imagine that we live in a fairer and more equal society where our livelihoods are taken care of, will we become angry at others? Chances are, we are much less likely to do so.
If so, policy measures need to ensure that the citizens of Singapore feel a sense of security and equality. Again, we have to rightfully point this back to the PAP government, which has arguably refused to create a climate of equality in Singapore but which has allowed both Singaporeans and foreigners to feel displaced. If so, a change of government is in order since the current government has refused to address the grievances of Singaporeans.
Of course, different groups of people have as well to introspect and understand how they can improve themselves. Similarly, for Singaporeans who go overseas, we would also need to be cognisant of our behaviour and how we have to be sensitive to the local environments. The same applies to foreigners in Singapore. On a related note, foreigners in Singapore might also start to feel displeasure towards Singaporeans because of the feelings of being discriminated against. In that sense, sensitivity would also mean to understand the sociopolitical backdrop as to how such feelings of anti-foreigner sentiments have come about, as detailed above, and how we can then take part in a conversation to point our focus back in the right direction – towards the government.
To also add – there have been studies which have shown that because Singapore has the highest income inequality among the developed countries, we also have the lowest levels of trust and one of the highest levels of self-enhancement, where people are likely to perceive themselves as better as someone else.
And this is rooted in the inequality in the sense that more people have to fend for themselves economically and thus do not trust that another person will look out for their interests. Also, the system has resulted in people (over-)believing in themselves to get ahead and this has also widen the social divide and thus caused people to perceive themselves as more important than someone else.
As such, the fear towards foreigners is rooted in the economic inequalities as well. As much as Singaporeans need to have the social awareness to learn and grow, the income inequality in Singapore just simply does not allow for this to happen, on a structural level.
It might even be tempting to compare Singapore with the other developed countries and lament the lack of “First World” mindsets. But if one is to understand how the rich-poor gap is the widest and where the large swath of Singaporeans are simply not protected structurally and policy-wise, then one would understand the seemingly stunted social development in Singapore that is affecting Singaporeans or non-Singaporeans alike.
The social degeneration in Singapore is not specific to Singaporeans – it is not a cultural problem. It is a problem rooted in the economic inequalities and in a government which refuses to confront this problem whilst continuing to focus on profit-making and thus allowing themselves to enrich themselves while the majority of Singaporeans languish economically and socially, as what you are seeing now.
In the eventuality, it is important to question our prejudicial feelings and to put them in perspective. For a population which has become disempowered in our attempts to advocate to the government for change and which has fallen on deaf ears, we might be tempted to take it out on another individual, since this is only as much as we feel we can do. However, the back and forth discrimination against one another will only lead to the degeneration of our society and does not bode well for the long term viability of Singapore as a nation nor can such social and economic divide sustain itself.
A wiser approach would be to revisit our attitudes and to then start to feel empowered and refocus on the government, to ensure that either a policy change or a change of government can bring parity, equality and fairness, and justice back to Singapore. In such case where we would be able to achieve better equality in Singapore and such discriminatory attitudes still exist, then we would need to question our own personal motivations and find out where the insecurities are arising from and to address them.