You see an image like the one above, and for many people, particularly foreigners living in Singapore, the first instinct would be to yell “xenophobic Sinkies!” You say it’s ugly, you say it’s disgusting, and you start exclaiming this is not the ways of a developed nation.
But go beneath the surface, and you’d learn that the person carrying the placard was just voicing his unhappiness over the prospect of being displaced by an influx of foreigners, conveniently labelled “talent” by his own government, in his own country, in areas from academic pursuits to employment opportunities.
Xenophobia seems to have reared its ugly head again of late on social media following Singaporeans’ celebration of “homegrown” sporting talent Joseph Schooling winning an Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016. Discussions have gone viral, and apparently any suggestion that the government should rethink its policies of importing sporting talents to boost its chances at winning medals at international sports events, and instead spend State resources on homegrown athletes, have drawn the ire of many Singapore-based foreigners and supporters of the policy. Case in point — a PRC-born Singapore national shooter has come out to lambaste “xenophobic Singaporeans” in a rant on her FB page:
Like, wow. Accusing Singaporeans of xenophobia, and then putting down the achievements of a local born national Olympian gold medalist just because Singaporeans are celebrating a true son of the soil for gaining glory at an international event, and savouring in nationalistic pride.
For the uninitiated, Schooling’s gold medal in the 200m butterfly marks a first in Singapore’s sporting history. The only other Olympic medal won by a Singaporean was a silver medal in weightlifting by sports legend Tan Howe Liang at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
So we had a long dry spell when it comes to winning medals at sporting events the scale and size of the Olympics. Which prompted the government and the Sports Council to initiate a programme to import foreign sports talents (aptly named the “Foreign Sports Talent Scheme”) to boost our medal chances using the argument that Singapore lacks talent in such areas. And as a result, we spent millions over the years to talent scout, recruit, train, sponsor, and hope — that we produce an Olympic champion.
And that didn’t come to pass until Schooling’s magnificent win over US swimming legend Michael Phelps on Saturday. The euphoria that followed was — is — amazing, and there was at least some semblance of national pride as we celebrate a “true-blue Singaporean” on the win.
Then came the accusations that nationalistic pride equals xenophobia. Like as though a call for the sporting authorities to focus once again on Singapore-born athletes was a witch-hunt and lynching rally to round up all foreign imports and throwing them out of the country a la Donald Trump fashion, and then building a border wall to stop people coming in.
Look, no one is saying the foreign sports talents are not talented enough, nor are we saying they don’t deserve recognition for donning our state colours. But the fact remains these athletes are mercenaries recruited and hired to do a job — you say they made sacrifices and took risks to represent Singapore; excuse me, but that was what they were hired precisely to do: if they didn’t put in effort and train and compete, then what else do you expect them to do? Sell char kway teow?
And if they were brought in to do a job, when they fail to deliver, if somewhere on their KPI list it says “win Olympic medals”, and if they didn’t deliver, then do we not have the right to say “thank you for your efforts, but your services are no longer required?”
It’s hard, it’s brutal, but it’s also transactional: no hard feelings, it’s only business. Wasn’t that the main reason why many of them come here in the first place? You think they were inspired to pack their bags for Singapore because they were touched by the words of the National Anthem or the statements on the Pledge? Get real, okay? And we’re xenophobic for pointing out that hard truth?
What is Xenophobia?
The last time I checked, a standard dictionary definition of the term xenophobia reads
fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign
Fear? Hatred? We don’t fear foreigners, and neither do we hate them. What we are angry and discontented about are the policies made to bring in an influx of immigrants and transitory migrant workers into this country. What we are unhappy about are the hidden unethical hiring practices of many companies, including foreign MNCs, where local Singaporeans are displaced or discriminated against in favor of other equally (sometimes less) qualified foreign individuals for jobs that could ordinarily be just as competently fulfilled by Singaporeans, hence casting doubt on the value proposition of bringing these foreigners here in the first place.
And everywhere you look, from Singapore to the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the Brexit elections, you realise that the root cause of xenophobic tendencies stems from one thing and one thing only: economic opportunities. When citizens of one country perceive that their economic opportunities are significantly and adversely affected by immigrants, and vice-versa, that’s when supposed-xenophobic behavior kicks in.
Yes, there is a vice-versa scenario where the immigrants who come in search of said economic opportunities start accusing the locals of being ‘xenophobic’ and retaliate in kind, so let’s all not pretend it’s a one-way street: the real reason why people like Zhang Jingna are coming out with their rants is because they have that same fear that the risks they took in uprooting themselves to come to a foreign land, and subsequently any economic opportunities in any form, would be taken away from them should the governments of these countries have a change of heart in immigration policies because the local populace are displeased.
But the truth is: foreigners in Singapore need not fear, because if anything, this government has proven that it does not give in to popularist movements, unlike many governments in the West, and freedom of speech simply does not exist. So we are not going to just reverse the importation of foreign “talent” into Singapore just because a couple of Singaporeans lost their jobs because they became “less competitive” — if anything, there’s a chance that we will see more immigrants given the national statisticians and economists already projected we need X million people to sustain the GDP figures. And the local Singaporeans are not breeding fast enough to catch up.
Welcoming immigrants does not mean we tolerate bigotry.
Right, so whether we like it or not, or even asked for it to happen, there will be more foreigners coming to our shores. We’ve been asked to welcome them, we’ve been as to integrate with them — which is fine, really. The typical Singaporean today is likely to have many friends, acquaintances and co-workers who come from all parts of the world compared to previous generations. It’s not a bad thing; in fact, it’s great if we really could learn from one another — that’s progress and that’s productive value-adding.
On the other hand, just because we voiced our displeasure or started cracking racist jokes in social contexts doesn’t mean we hate our foreign counterparts and want them out. As it stands, we’re already making racist digs at our own native Singaporean friends — orang cina poking fun at gek lengs and mats, and ironically, it’s these jibes that sometimes bonds us closer as a nation of immigrant descendants. Not that racist jokes should be encouraged, but come on, when a Malay guy makes fun of a Chinese for being an awful driver, or when a Chinese guy pokes fun of his Indian friend for not being able to play basketball, it doesn’t mean one racial group is trying to assert superiority over another. So when we start making fun of our ang moh friends at work, relax: we’re not saying you’re not welcome.
The real ugliness of it all is when the new immigrants start commenting about our way of life, and start making it all sound like we owe them a living. I’m talking about entitlement. Just because you were invited (whatever you choose to think) to come to our country and contribute your talents, it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to acting like a bigot and making our policies, cultural norms or way of life sound stupider or inferior to those of your home country.
If we are to talk about true integration, then it has to work both ways: much as local-born Singaporeans are expected to tolerate and accommodate the idiosyncrasies of our foreign friends, the same applies to the latter group too, to try to assimilate to our local cultures. Instead of making faking a “holier than thou” attitude and acting like whatever the locals do don’t amount to much. We didn’t spend the last 51 years on nation building to be insulted, chided, be told what to do, or have our achievements put down by some foreigner who has barely lived on our shores for less than three years. And fuck you very much if you were a hiring manager who made it your life’s work to rid your company of local hires in favor of foreign employees from your home town or village, especially when there is no clear evidence the new foreign hires have better qualifications, experience or skillsets that are “lacking” amongst the locals.
Remember you are guests. As we Singaporeans often say you don’t come into the house of your host and demand to be served, and neither do you start taking a dump all over the place just because you couldn’t find the toilet. So stop thinking it’s your damned right to start criticising about how things are done here, or think that we’re still the “lazy fishing village” that needs rescuing. Again, we didn’t come this far over the span of 51 years to be put down.
Everyone should just take a chill pill.
At the end of the day, it’s all not that bad lah. Take a walk around heartland neighbourhoods these days, and it’s still pretty much a kaleidoscope of colors with people from all races and nationalities coexisting, and no one is going to put on a white hood rallying his/her lynch mob brothers and sisters to drag out any one particular racial group for a good old fashioned bashing.
So we might have a couple of over-zealous fucktards writing all sorts of crap on FB walls, but then again, do we really want to worry about the myopic comments of some armchair troll who, really, is a nobody at the end of the day? I mean, it’s not that those isolated opinions will matter anyway.
Tell you what, why not practice a little tolerance and integration by letting Singaporeans celebrate their local hero if only for a while more — Jo’s headed back to the States for school tomorrow night anyway — what’s 24 hours more compared to the decades of waiting for a Singaporean Olympian hero?
Then we can get on with our lives, status quo. Nothing changes, really.
Roy Phang is a Made-in-Singapore writer, adventurer and entrepreneur. He also blogs @Blackbaron on Medium.com.