A Reflection: Can we talk about xenophobia without talking about racism?

Posted: May 27, 2012 in Commentary
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Xenophobia is a hot issue in Singapore these days. This can be attributed to a number of reasons. The large influx of foreigners as Singapore tries to increase its population rate has disconcerted many locals who find their lives increasingly crowded. I myself am old enough to reminisce a time when the MRT was a joy to take. The competition in everyday life seems fiercer at both ends: the cheaper labour which works in Singapore depresses wages while those wealthier immigrants compete for goods pushing up inflation. Lastly several very high profile cases involving foreigners have raised eyebrows of Singaporeans, the latest being a Ferrari driver who had claimed several lives due to his reckless driving. While it is unfair to stereotype foreigners, these incidents, fuelled by the increasingly claustrophobic conditions and the increasing cost of everyday life further fuel negative sentiments. Of late various figures have stated their concern at this growing xenophobia.  Chan Chun Sing for example has advised Singaporeans not to pigeonhole foreigners.

There is a need to look into the source of these sentiments ( some of which I have suggested in the aforementioned paragraph) but there seems to be a general argument that whatever the cause, that xenophobia is wrong. Both xenophobia and sentiment draw their moral conjunctions against the same root ‘evil’ namely prejudice.  However, often the choice of issues concerning racism and xenophobia has proven quite selective. Let us start with the immigration policy itself.

According to a Straits Times report,
‘The share of Indians in the PR ethnic mix climbed from 14.9 per cent in 2000 to 20.4 per cent this year. In absolute numbers, they more than doubled, from 42,700 to 111,000.

The share of Chinese in the PR ethnic mix dropped from 76.1 per cent to 61.4 per cent, although the total number increased from 218,800 to 332,000.

For PRs of Malay ethnicity, the share dropped from 4.1 per cent to 3 per cent, although actual numbers went up from 11,800 to 16,000.’

Some have made the case for such a racially divided immigration policy as stemming from the need to ‘maintain the stable racial balance’. To me it is quite arbitrary to demarcate the current racial mix as the most morally optimal ratio. If that is the case then it is entirely possible that sometime in the future, Malays being 3% of the population would then be deemed the most optimal ratio. This creates great difficulty in political, social and personal everyday life. Sometimes things as simple as ordering from the local coffeeshop  or buying a house has proven quite impossible.

There are other examples of state pigeonholing.  For example, I have seen Indian workers being stopped at MRT stations. Surrounded by armed guards, it is a discomfiting sight to see a fellow human being subjected to such intimidating treatment. A friend of mine also confirms that he himself was treated as such because the people thought he was an Indian foreign worker. If the state authorities were so concerned about ‘pigeonholing’ people, why not lead by example by addressing these issues? Are only certain forms of xenophobia up for discussion?

Then there is the issue of racism in Singapore itself. To me this is strange, it is ok to talk about xenophobia but not talk about racism in the local context. I often hear stories of Indians and Malays having great difficulty in both job fairs and the work environment, be it in supervisory or subordinate positions. Many of these examples are dismissed as anecdotal- but many examples of xenophobia are anecdotal too. There is a need to talk about and address these issues clearly and openly, just as we talk about xenophobia, concerning not just everyday life experiences but life experiences in institutions such as the education system, the judicial system and the work environment.

My observation is that what many people are unaware of, is how selective their perceptions of xenophobia and racism itself are. There are some who would see the UOB blackface incident as a harmless joke, and yet decry the monkey chants hurled at African football players. There are some who would condemn the ‘pigeonholing’ tendencies of ordinary Singaporeans but be utterly silent on pigeonholing tendencies of the state. Some go on a moral crusade when it comes to discrimination against (certain types of) foreigners, but belittle or are silent on issues concerning local discrimination.  The process of selection actually reveals a lot about the person’s thought processes, biases and inclinations. What is needed is more consistency, greater scope and reflexivity on the issue of racism and xenophobia.

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