The offline/online forum on xenophobia

Posted: July 25, 2012 in Events
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I have been wanting to blog about the offline/online xenophobia forum for some time, but I felt it best to wait until the vids came out. Overall, the forum covered a lot of ground and apologies if I refer to the arguments made without citing them.

I think it is unfair to stereotype any race or ethnicity. I am against xenophobia as much as I am against any sort of discrimination be it gender, race, class or sexuality. However to leave it as merely a principle is naive. Take for example a society in which a large number of people are reduced to theft because the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. To condemn stealing without looking at the way society is structured is to miss the bigger picture and risk blaming the victims.

So what is the context of xenophobia in Singapore? Several incidents have served as touchstones where supposedly ‘xenophobic’ sentiments have coalesced .Although the ‘rhetoric’ against  xenophobia has emerged only recently, this hides the fact that the existence of xenophobic sentiments have been around for a long time. Countries such as America have been vilified as exerting their own cultural norms or as sinister agents having undue influence in local politics. Aggressive postures and statements have been made against neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.

It also seems to be part of labour policy that only certain nationalities can work in certain sectors. What makes talk on xenophobia even more grating is that institutionalized discrimination as evinced by fact that the lower wages and poor working conditions low wage foreign workers suffer hardly gets a hearing and is a taken for granted normal. This has in turn solidified prejudices, as exemplified when a blogger demanded that Bangladeshis be banned from Orchard Road. Even today we see examples of such workers being profiled or discriminated against in various ways be it being profiled by authorities in MRT stations or being gazed against as noisy troublemakers by ‘concerned’ members of the public.

This stems from the fact that Singapore is a very race conscious society. This is the first set of policies which we must address if we want to have a sincere discussion on xenophobia.  Everything from educational results to housing policies to basic markers of identification is seen in racial terms. Singaporeans are constantly taught to not only look at human difference in terms of race but also ascribe a hierarchical value based on such differences. The rhetoric against xenophobia seems doubly hypocritical in relation to our immigration policy. In comparison to other countries which use a transparent points system for qualifying new migrants, Singapore uses an opaque system whose outcome is visibly racialized. An oft heard justification for the limited number of Malay migrants is the difficulty in attracting Malays to Singapore where they will be a minority, but such a fact has not deterred a large number of Indian(and other non Chinese) migrants to come to Singapore.

There is a second aspect of the context of the discourse on xenophobia and it is that people are angry at the government’s economic policy in general. As Paul Krugman highlighted   of the Singaporean economy- its growth comes not from increased productivity but increasing inputs of capital and labour.  Increasingly, the general plan looks like to get poor unskilled people to work here and rich skilled people to stay. The influx of wealth has an upward effect on prices, especially on property and transport. It also has a downward effect on wages made worse as the poor people who work but do not stay here do not have to worry about property prices. To add to this, there are also the general discomforts felt by the various levels of society such as overcrowding in transportation systems and the accelerated wear and tear of infrastructure not equipped to the surge in population size. More and more spaces of heritage or natural value are increasingly co-opted for the usage for such a development. One way of explaining this is the rhetoric of survival, that without these policies many businesses will fail. But such rhetoric of survivalism holds little water in a country with the highest concentration of millionaires. What is happening is the logical outcome of pursuing economic growth as an end to itself. As such there is an effort to cram the largest possible economic value into whatever available land space. This has caused Singaporeans to be aware of fundamental questions, questions which were in truth urgent decades ago- Economic growth for whom and at what cost?

The answer for this question cannot be directed to the foreigners who have no control over state policy. Part of the problem is that to frame the issue as xenophobia itself seeks to obscure rather than illuminate the parameters of the discussion. There is a need to contextualize the problem of xenophobia back to government policies, specifically the two aspects mentioned. First is the racialization of Singapore society where ethnic cultural lens informs much of how society is viewed. Second is the economic policy of attaining growth as an end in itself. Only by posing back these questions to its fundamental roots and taking ownership as active citizens can the issue be addressed.

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