At the time of writing (~9PM, 29 June 2016), the article below had already been sent for printing at Today for publication tomorrow (30 June 2016). Unfortunately, the editor(s) took out one small line (boldened below) and sent it out to print (~8.30PM) without checking with me first. After I expressed my dismay, the associate editor called me on the phone to explain why they did so — they thought it was a minor point, didn’t think it fit with the rest of the article, and they were also too busy with the articles covering the terrorist attacks at the Istanbul Airport.
Unfortunately, the deleted phrase was, in my opinion, important. It was a criticism about the Singaporean government’s handling of the Little India riots, which does have to do with integration, the topic addressed in that very same paragraph. I explained to the associate editor that in future, I hope to be consulted on all edits, however minor it may seem to them, since we have different views on what constitutes a minor point. He apologised and I thanked him.
I am writing all of this for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want my article to be seen as a mindless pro-government article — I had enumerated a few positive policies that the government had adopted in order to ‘soften’ the impact of my one small critique. I thought I was being balanced. Yes, I do think that we have a healthier political culture, and a more accountable political system than many parts of the world. However, this does not mean that our government does not make mistakes, and I do think it is important to point out those mistakes. If one can do so on a mainstream platform, even better.
Second, I am writing this because I have some reflections on five years of freelancing for a mainstream paper -Today newspaper. For the past five years, I have chosen to engage with this mainstream paper (not just because it paid, which is always good for a graduate student) because I wanted to reach out to as wide a section of Singaporeans as possible, as many of the issues I write about concern popular misconceptions about Islam, terrorism and the Middle East.
My main aim was to change mindsets about these issues, my main audience was the average Singaporean. I learned a lot through negotiations with the various editors I’ve worked with, and have had to make many compromises before. I’ve had to see my name put to articles with awful image choices, even worse captions, and compromised formulations I was not 100% about. (I know it’s worse for ST writers… a friend who worked for ST during GE 2011 had shared with me how horrible it was for editors to take out her lines without telling her, especially since a lot of the issues she covered were sensitive and concerned a habitually maligned class of people.)
The experience of negotiating with editors also taught me more about what the establishment views as a threat, and pushed me also to take more responsibility for my words, which I do think is a good thing. The West waxes lyrical about “freedom of speech” — what about “responsibility of speech”? There were many times that I found myself pushed by the editors to consider the implications of my words; and I do find that good practice.
However, tonight’s experience saddened me more than the previous times. It wasn’t so much that they took the phrase out without asking me (not exactly the first time), but it was because it seemed to me that they genuinely didn’t see how it fit in the article or how it linked to the issue at hand. Perhaps I am naive to think that one can remain within a system without internalizing the values and rules it wishes you to police yourself with. Anyway, enough emo talk. I’ve recently gotten so annoyed with the Facebook monopoly (see: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/may/12/facebook-free-basics-india-zuckerberg) but right now, it’s the only platform I have to get this out. Forgive me.
The article in full:
Brexit, Trump and Singapore GE 2011
In May 2012, one year after a General Election that was said to have ushered in a ‘new normal’, a Chinese expatriate crashed his red Ferrari into a taxi and a motorcycle, killing himself and claiming the lives of a Singaporean taxi-driver and his Japanese passenger.
About a week later, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “Ferrari Crash Foments Antiforeigner Feelings in Singapore”. In it, the author noted increasing levels of xenophobia in the country, and cited local academics who expressed the need to deal urgently with such divisive antiforeigner sentiment.
Even though one of the victims was also a foreigner, Singaporeans’ outrage at the perpetrator of the accident, an expatriate, was portrayed as xenophobic.
Recent political developments in the US and UK have likewise been too easily tarred with the xenophobic brush. The overwhelming show of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries in the US, and the recent triumph of ‘Leave’ voters in the Brexit referendum, have both been cast by many as the prevailing of racist, nationalist, or nativist sentiments.
The contradiction of Latinos, Blacks and other minorities in the US supporting Trump had, in the initial period, been passed over in much of the mainstream media that preferred to vilify the Republican nominee in simplistic and sensationalist ways, rather than to comprehend the traction of Trump’s controversial campaign and to analyze the social and economic conditions of his supporters. Similarly, prior to the Brexit referendum, ‘Leave’ voters were caricatured in the mainstream press as bigots, racists and ‘less educated’ people who would, bafflingly, vote against their own economic interests.
Since the shock of the Brexit vote, however, more soul-searching and reflective op-eds that attempt to understand the worldviews and motivations of ‘Leave’ voters have emerged, illuminating the problem as being more fundamentally about the unequal distribution of the benefits of globalization and capitalism, the irresponsibility and duplicity of British politicians notwithstanding. While Singapore’s General Election of 2011 predates the Brexit vote, the US Presidential primaries, and much of the populist wave sweeping many countries now, there are similarities among the issues that concerned Singaporean voters in 2011, and that currently concern voters in the UK and US. This is despite the distinct characteristics particular to the respective contexts of the US, UK and Singapore, not to mention the vastly different political cultures, institutions and circumstances.
Looking at these similarities comparatively may yield insights about our own society – I refer to similarities that concern citizens’ economic anxieties towards the unequal gains from global capitalization. In the US these fears are concentrated among masses of working class Americans who lost jobs to outsourcing; reports have shown that both Trump and Sanders have had much traction among these people. Judging from voting patterns in the Brexit referendum, similar fears are concentrated in working-class, rural areas of the UK. In both cases, xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been the dominant language that has given voice to such complex anxieties – a language that has been articulated in mainstream media caricatures of this demography, a language that has been adopted by opportunistic politicians seeking to shore up political support.
In the small, economically open, city-state of Singapore, a similar dynamic of popular resentment against outsiders occurred around the General Elections of 2011 but manifested in different ways. For example, it is not clear that residents of Aljunied Group Representation Constituency came from a distinctly identifiable economic class. Yet many of the conversations, both online and offline, used a similar language of resentment against immigrants, whether stemming from increased competition in the job market, or frustration with the overcrowding of transportation systems.
After the shock of 2011, the political leadership seemed to have understood the real issues disturbing Singaporeans beneath the frustrated language of anti-immigration. It renewed focus on the well-being of the “Singaporean core”, rushed to complete infrastructural projects and to open new MRT lines, and expended efforts at public consultation and national-level public engagement, epitomized by Our Singapore Conversation. While treating the social and economic problems at the root, political leaders and academics also engaged the symptoms of anti-immigrant frustration rhetorically, preaching the virtues of an inclusive and harmonious society while rolling out initiatives for integration – the controversial official response to the Little India riots of 2013 notwithstanding. Ultimately, the results of the General Elections of 2015 appear to show that, at the very least, the most acute of grievances shared by a large part of the electorate in 2011 had been addressed.
Pondering over current events in the UK, US and the world reveals what occurred in Singapore in 2011 to be part of a larger pattern of globalization and capitalism that brings about inevitable tensions between the demands of capital and big businesses on one hand, and labour and local welfare on the other. While the former portrays its cause as one of breaking down of barriers and peddles such concepts as ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘multiculturalism’, it also likes to vilify the latter as nativists and xenophobic. Many self-styled liberals and left-leaning youths of comfortable economic backgrounds fail to see through such ‘cosmopolitan’ rhetoric to the real class conflict, resulting often times in cross-talk with frustrated working-class voters who don’t speak in the same register or use the same political vocabulary.
Ruminating over current events in the UK and US also yields another insight – that precisely because Singapore is so small yet so economically open, various unforeseen consequences resulting from global business developments and trends may surface in our society before other places, thus requiring the political leadership to preempt such eventualities. To take another example, in response to increasing Airbnb-related disruptions to residential areas, global cities like San Francisco, Paris as well as countries like Iceland have only started to strengthen and reexamine the issue of short-term rental regulations in the past year. In contrast, discussions on this same issue had already taken place in Singapore back in 2013. At the time, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Housing Development Board strictly upheld the six-month minimum for short-term rental leases. The fact that Singapore is both an international city and a residential ‘hinterland’ mandates extra sensitivity to global business forces that may disrupt our heartland.
In other words, there is added pressure on the Singaporean political leadership to anticipate potential fallouts from a changing global business landscape – thanks to a rapidly evolving tech scene – to have the gumption both to stand up to global corporate pressures to protect the Singaporean core, as well as to avoid facile appeasements of populist pressures – the emphasis here is on “facile”, because truly understanding the nature of popular grievances requires one to look beyond the clumsy language of their frustration.
Koh Choon Hwee is an NUS graduate in Philosophy and South Asian Studies, with a Masters in History from the American University of Beirut. She is currently pursuing a PhD in History (Middle East) in the US.