Are Singaporeans Xenophobic?


It seems that globalisation has resulted the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. We see it in the rise of UKIP in UK, New Dawn in Greece, Donald Trump in the US and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. A recent Op-Ed in the Singapore Policy Journal argued that the local-foreigner divided was threatening to tear Singapore asunder.

In the article, writer Samuel Myat San worries that the foundations of Singapore’s multiracial pledge are beginning to unravel with a more pronounced Singaporean-foreigner divide. He explains that racial harmony was forged through strong, sometimes intrusive, political leadership and a national education system that stressed the ideals of tolerance and respect for different races and creeds. Amidst that backdrop, the invective against foreigners online and incidents like that of the physical abuse of foreign workers by an 18 year old seems to suggest a worrying trend of rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Singapore. This is further fueled by a utilitarian view of foreigners that the government adopts (Singapore’s refusal to accept Rohingya refugees, a case in point), which in turn explains why Singaporeans dislike foreigners. Samuel Myant San worries that, “if it continues, various races in Singapore can also view each other through the lens of utility instead of universal brotherhood.”

I agree with Samuel on two counts. Firstly, that the justification used to reject the Rohingya refugees is poor and that Singapore should accept some families. Secondly, I agree that Singaporeans have the tendency to view others in a utilitarian sense. I disagree, however, that the Singaporean-foreigner divide is tearing Singapore asunder.

The seeming xenophobia in Singapore is a failure not of policy, but of its implementation. The anti-foreigner diatribe is simply pushback from the people for being treated as economic digits.  This is an identity that has ironically helped Singaporeans define themselves independent from race, but one that has also jolted Singaporeans from accepting a utilitarian view of others. (Note: foreign workers here refers to white collar workers and not labourers. Discrimination against labourers who are transient workers involves class and an utilitarian world view)

There are bigots in this country, all countries have them. However, the test of rising xenophobia is whether the message of hate has seeped into the hearts and minds of the average populace. One way is to look at its politics. In the Op-Ed, the author brought up the formation of the Singaporean Firsts party which contested its first general election in 2015. If rising xenophobia was true, the SingFirst party and a number of other fringe parties that inveigled against foreigners (Reform Party, People’s Power Party etc.) would have seen a significant swing of support much like UKIP did in the British elections (where it won a stunning 12.7% of the total vote, up from being a solidly fringe player in UK politics). What we observed instead was a clear distance between these parties performance and the more credible, non-xenophobic opposition (such as Worker’s Party and Singapore Democratic Party). SingFirst won 21.7% of the vote in the constituencies it contested, versus 39.75% for the Worker’s Party.

This 21.7% is extremely low. Looking back to GE 1997, just prior to the push for foreign talent, the anti-PAP vote was 35%. It rose to 39.9% in GE 2011 (the main opposition Workers Party won 46.58% where it contested). In the Presidential Elections of 2011, Tan Jee Say, who can be considered the hard-core anti-PAP candidate obtained 25.04% of the vote. This means that despite the anger that was spewed online, hardcore votes against the PAP have not increased drastically despite the Foreign Talent policy. Instead, SingFirst polled below the national average and WP had a vote swing of 6% that beat the national average of 9%. This can be taken to mean that rising xenophobia is politically toothless and hasn’t gained traction.

Foreign worker influx became a critical issue not because of economic displacement, but because of societal displacement. While the argument put forth in the Op-Ed about economic displacement is not wrong, it is not the whole story. The language and the tone that was used in the decade building up to GE 2011 was one of deference to foreign nationals. The power of control (see Cheong Yip Seng’s book OB Markers) meant that the local media sold the argument. In local parlance, we bought our own koyok (herbal medicine) and believed that foreigners were all talented. This created the impression to foreigners that Singapore needed them because we were useless and to locals that the government does not believe we are good enough. Therein was a logical flaw. Singapore is the country that produced private sector leaders such as JY Pilay for Singapore Airlines, Goh Cheng Liang of Nippon Paint, Kuok Khoon Hong of Wilmar International and Ong Beng Seng of HPL Group. They began their businesses in the 1960s and 70s, and grew them into national treasures. How is it that the better education system that we have today has suddenly made us unable to grow our own timbre? But this is not the point of the essay.

Taking in foreigners is not a problem. But when locals are made to feel second place, discontent is bound to arise. It did not help that news of foreigners hiring their own made its rounds and were proved true, or that whole departments of Singaporeans were sacked with foreigners hired in their place. In addition, some were shown to have bogus degrees and received their jobs not based on merit but on connections. Hence, rather than just economic competition, the feeling was one of societal replacement. Surveys are useful but must always be taken with a pinch of salt because disclosed preferences may not be revealed preferences. In the 2013 Hong Lim Park protests against the population white-paper, the argument against it wasn’t so much economic as it was a replacement of Singaporeans with other people.

Societal displacement came partly because of cultural differences. While the writer is correct that the dignity of a person is not dependent on race, religion or culture, even the most high-minded people will find cultural integration difficult. Integration is a balance between desire and adaptability. I would suggest that the Op-Ed confuses cultural integration with the impression “that one must be the “correct” type of Chinese, Muslim or Indian before being embraced as an equal”. New immigrants into a society need to make the effort to assimilate – this is an undisputed reality. Both the immigrant and the new society need to take steps to meet and talk. A xenophobic Singapore would be one where anyone not of a ‘correct’ colour (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian) would be immediately rejected. This is not something we see, people like Aleksander Duric, Neil Humphreys and countless others who integrate into Singapore are treated as part of society while bigots like Amy Cheong and Anton Casy were hounded out of the country. The ‘cook a pot of curry’ event emerged after an immigrant Chinese family demanded a local Indian family to stop cooking curry in their home because it was smelly. Rather than to educate the immigrant with greater tolerance, the local MP and community leaders tried to seek a compromise.

The implementation of policy in the early 2000s did not seem to consider this cultural difference. For example, the early immigrants to Singapore from China were Southern Chinese, the immigrants from China that came in the 2000s were mostly Northern Chinese. The same goes for India. Indian Singaporeans are mostly of South Indian heritage, the foreign labourers brought in from the subcontinent were mostly from South India or Bangladeshi, while Indian foreign talent were mostly from North Indian. The difficulties culturally in India and China are well known (North-South divide, caste etc). Now transplant that to a different society and the problem of integration becomes more complex. When there is a large enough number of immigrants from one culture, there is little need to integrate. It is not uncommon for many local Singapore students in places like London or Brisbane to stick within a Singapore bubble because there are enough of them. The same thing happens when a sizable foreign population is brought in, the term used for white collar workers is expat bubble (here and here).

So when you have people from different cultures arriving in your country based on the argument that they are better than the locals, but that the local military have to defend them, and your government cannot protect you economically (because this is a global economy), it is not surprising that Singaporeans feel displaced and helpless in their own society. This does not excuse their behaviour, and is merely my attempt at explaining the angst manifested in hurtful slogans. Slogans like “NS for Singaporeans, Jobs for foreigners” or “Scholarships for foreigners, Debts for Singaporeans” should be seen through this lens. Were foreigners the problem? No. The implementation of policy was.

Ironically, this has given Singapore the chance to define its identity. The anger online particularly with Chinese nationals has allowed a nascent discussion on how local minorities feel in Singapore. It has given a podium to the fact of Chinese privilege in Singapore, which local Chinese had not seen but that local minorities have always felt. It has allowed once taboo topics (Malays in the SAF for example) to be finally tackled in the public sphere, with Singaporeans of other races standing up for their “brothers”. Add the fact that interracial marriages (both between locals and with foreigners) are on the rise and we see that Singapore is slowly moving from mere tolerance to understanding. Perhaps when that day comes, we will see a Malay or Indian romantic lead on Channel 5.

The negative lessons in Malaysia, can be a boon for both countries. Young urbane Malaysians are trying to fight for a fairer country while Singaporeans from across the causeway can see what is going on and realise how tenuous racial harmony truly is. Schools do not need to use just the 1964 riots but should direct the minds eye to Low Yat 2015. This movement is still nascent and will take generations, but unlike the Op-Ed, I am optimistic that as Singapore develops its independent history and English becomes more commonly used at home, we will see eventually an embrace of each other as people and not as races that merely tolerate each other.

Viewing people through a utilitarian lens and racial harmony are not the same. The former is a problem regardless of race – people forming relationships of convenience. It might be called networking. Chinese people can view each other in a utilitarian way, as can another race their own. This is not a race issue as much as it is an issue of class and convenience to sort people based on perceived usefulness. A utilitarian will see a rich racial minority and kiss up to them just as they would a rich person from the majority race. Racial harmony can even be achieved on the back of a utilitarian proposition: that peace allows for business and money.

The discomfort with foreign labourer dormitories is not simply a case of xenophobia but of economics and utilitarianism – property value. While there were concerns on security, the overriding concern was property prices. The fear was that having a home next to foreign labourer dormitories or less desirable amenities would decrease property value. This argument reared its head in Serangoon Gardens in 2008, and was the same that appeared when proposals arose to build a nursing/elderly home in Bishan. It was the same reason why there was concern with the growing Vietnamese red light district in Joo Chiat. Conversely, it is the same reason why residents yearn for a train station to be built near their home.

To this end, the Op-Ed is right. This is clearly a utilitarian view of the world. We sometimes forget that people have equal dignity. The 60 year old professor is not more dignified than the 65 year old cleaner. The hunky adonis is not more dignified than the obese man; nor is the the HDB dweller less dignified than the private property owner. Why then do parents bring their children to see the coffin of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but shield their children from coffins at the HDB void deck? This is the same motivation for the appaling living conditions that foreign labourers are subject to, a fact that was only brought to public consciousness after the 2013 Race Course Road Riot. The fact that some bosses deemed it alright to stuff people like cattles is a clear indictment of the utilitarian world view. All cultures have been fighting this battle for eons, it is not a uniquely Singaporean problem.

This is the same reason (as argued in the Op-Ed) why we can have 6.9 million people on this island but are too small for a few thousand refugees. Refugees with little education and skills are less worthwhile and valuable. I would argue that Singapore can take in a controlled number of families and integrate them effectively into the system. This may begin by giving them jobs that pay a fair living wage and proividing children with access to local schools – with hard work and meritocracy, they will be given a fighting chance to thrive.

The Op-Ed argued that the government set a precedent for utilitarianism with its rejection of refugees. This is not true. Singapore has always been pragmatic and utilitarian even toward its own. In debating the Abortion Bill of 1969, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was quoted as saying “one of the crucial yardsticks by which we shall have to judge the results of the new abortion law combined with the voluntary sterilisation law will be whether it tends to raise or lower the total quality of our population. We must encourage those who earn less than $200 per month and cannot afford to nurture and educate many children never to have more than two. Intelligent application of these laws can help reduce the distortion that has already set in. Until the less educated themselves are convinced and realise that they should concentrate their limited resources on one or two to give their children the maximum chance to climb up the educational ladder, their children will always be at the bottom of the economic scale. It is unlikely that the results will be discernible before five years. Nor will the effect be felt before fifteen to twenty years. But we will regret the time lost if we do not now take the first tentative steps towards correcting a trend which can leave our society with a large number of the physically, intellectually and culturally anaemic.” Even later in 2005 the Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “at the end of the day, we are so many digits in the machine. The point is – are these digits stronger than the competitors’ digits?” Singapore has always been governed with a utilitarian perspective. If Singaporeans view others through a utilitarian lens, the rejection of Rohingya refugees is a manifestation not a cause.

We have callous hearts, but callousness, utilitarianism and xenophobia are not always causal and should not be seen as such. Having felt what it is like to be treated as digits, and having now stood up as a society to ask to be treated fairly, I would like for us as individuals to be empowered enough to take moral leadership and treat all people as equal, regardless or race, language, religion, intellect, class, disability, physique…

Can we?

Baby steps, maybe.

Zach Chia is currently a PhD Candidate with the NTU-Karolinska Institutet Joint PhD Program. A neuroscientist by training, Zach takes a healthy interest in socio-political and international issues. He blogs at where he sees Singapore through inquisitive eyes.