Drawing a line

How much anti-foreigner sentiment do we have to take in Singapore? When will we take a stand against unacceptable, hateful language? Or will we continue to excuse ourselves time after time?

Kirsten Han
Apr 21, 2014 · 8 min read

I thought long and hard about writing this. I wanted to, but hesitated; would it be wise to add more fuel to the fire?

I’ve read many comments and responses since my post on Yahoo! Singapore was published. I am simultaneously an opposition blogger and a PAP lapdog. I am a “Pretender” (it comes with the capital) and I disregard the hardship that my fellow countrymen have been through. My husband is a foreigner.

The last one, at least, is more or less correct (we’re not married yet), although I cannot understand its relevance.

This is, somehow, meant to be an “understandable” reaction.

These comments are easy to take. Even expected. What really bothers me, though, are the other comments. The ones that claim that there is no xenophobia here at all, no racism. That this is an “understandable” reaction from frustrated Singaporeans, and that we should not call them out for their language and behaviour. That they use such language just so that they can have their anxiety heard by the Powers That Be. We should excuse their reaction, and turn the blame on to the PAP and their policies.

If you’re not Malay, Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, you can never be considered a Singaporean.

It is true that life under the PAP system has caused many problems. Their immigration policy has had a massive impact on Singaporean society; something that they should have, but failed to, anticipate. Their stifling of public discourse have maintained a false harmony, silencing experiences and keeping Singaporeans from having important discussions on matters that affect our lives and our country. We are paying the price for the smothering of our political consciousness; in terms of political maturity we have so far to go as a nation. The cost of living is a constant, nagging worry at the back of everyone’s minds, and the salaries we receive each month do little to soothe these worries. Without job security, many Singaporeans suspect that their jobs could be in danger any time, taken by (probably) younger foreigners who are able and willing to work for less. Our once-efficient systems, such as the MRT, don’t seem so efficient or reliable anymore. The over-crowding adds to the stress of living in a city like Singapore, and people are frustrated and anxious for their future.

I can understand these frustrations. There is much that the PAP has to answer for.

But still I called out the racism and xenophobia found among the comments on Facebook, because I felt very strongly that we had to draw a line somewhere, to say, “Whatever your frustrations, this is too far. This is unacceptable.” And I believe that it is not unreasonable to draw that line way before it becomes common in Singapore’s public discourse for foreigners to be referred to as “cockroaches” and “vermin”. We already hear the term “foreign trash” far too often. By the time these terms are adopted by a large number of people, normalised into everyday conversation, it will be too late to turn the tide.

Filipinos are among the hundreds of thousands who work as foreign domestic workers in Singapore, cleaning our homes and caring for our children and elderly. Yet they are impudent ingrates and we don’t need them.

I cannot agree with those who say that while the expression was regrettable, the response was not racism or xenophobia but just frustration caused by the government’s policies. State policy could feed resentment and anger, but it certainly does not have the power to make a person use words like “scum” or “undesirable underlings” against others. State policy cannot force you to be a racist.

We have our own agency, PAP policy notwithstanding. In fact, it is because we have our own agency that so many of us within civil society are fighting so hard for more space, more latitude to have discussions, to advocate for crucial issues and to speak with our own voices rather than that of a trammelled mainstream media. We are fighting for this agency to be recognised. We cannot turn around now and deny the existence of this agency when it means having to take responsibility for bad behaviour.

A suggestion that Singaporean men should put on their combat gear and take on the Filipinos at their celebration.

The harm that such language and behaviour can cause goes beyond that of a Facebook thread. It dehumanises people. It makes them seem less equal, less deserving of respect. It is this mindset and culture within our society that leads to low-wage migrant workers being treated so poorly. It is this mindset that leads to unscrupulous employers abandoning injured or even dying migrant workers; after all, if they are merely “scum of a Third World country”, who cares? It is this mindset that leads to people over-working foreign domestic workers, depriving them of rest and privacy; after all, she’s just an “underling”, right? It is this language, and the acceptance of it as “understandable” or “not that bad”, that feeds a culture where low-wage migrant workers are turned into a commodity in Singapore.

So much effort, so much work has been put into fighting for rights and dignity for these migrant workers. We cannot undermine it now by allowing such hateful and dehumanising speech to become normalised.

There are also accusations of double standards: that the PAP government has chastised ordinary Singaporeans while saying nothing about STOMP and other SPH vehicles. That the PAP government has denied the Worker’s Party and Singapore Democratic Party permits for their events while this Philippines Independence Day celebration is allowed to go ahead. The implication appears to be this: the PAP government oppresses us, while coddling their own and the foreigners. No matter what, the ordinary Singaporean loses.

There are double standards. I don’t doubt it at all. STOMP — and other platforms like it — should be called out for having become repositories of bigotry and hate. I have no problem with that. But the government’s silence on STOMP does not make it acceptable for similar bigotry to appear elsewhere.

It also makes no sense to deny a permit to this Filipino celebration just because alternative parties had their permits unjustly denied. We should be demanding that these double standards are removed and permits given to all legitimate activities, regardless of political affiliation, rather than suggest that the Philippines Independence Day event should be banned for “consistency” and a sudden concern for “law and order”. The solution to freeing ourselves from these double standards is to demand civil liberties for all, rather than expecting others to become as oppressed as we are.

We also cannot be blind to our own double standards. Some are saying that the opposition to Philippines Independence Day is not about racism or xenophobia, but because the celebration of another country’s independence or national day is an insult to the host country.

Yet we did not feel this “insult” when there was a three-day St. Patrick’s Day (seen as Ireland’s national day) festival in Circular Road, near the city centre. A road was closed off for the entire weekend. I believe a bagpipe parade is part of the celebration every year, and anyone who has heard a bagpipe will know that almost nothing is louder and more in-your-face than that wail of squeezed-out air.

We do not feel this “insult” every year when there is a massive party at the Singapore American School — but still open and free to the public — celebrating Fourth of July (the USA’s independence day), complete with fireworks.

We certainly did not feel this “insult” when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Singapore in 2012 as part of the Queen’s Jubilee — a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years of reign. While some will point out this is not an independence day event, I would argue that celebrating a monarch’s reign is just as political. We didn’t feel the insult then. In fact, we named an orchid after them, organised a painful wayang and crowded round to see the royals; the people whose family and country, unlike the Filipinos, actually did colonise us, and whose laws — I’m looking at Section 377A here, although it’s been curiously adopted as “Asian values” — plague us to this day. (Disclaimer: I say this as someone who also joined in the hype and went and met the royals. I cannot excuse myself from accusations of a colonised mind.)

So whose celebrations are we really opposed to? All foreigners? Or just certain ones?

Some slut-shaming, just in case.

A celebration of one’s national holiday does not equate to an attempt to invade, colonise or extend political control over the host country. The Filipinos have said that the event is about “interdependence” not because they want to “steal” Singapore, but because we do depend on one another, every day that we come into contact with one another at work or at home. It is their awareness of being in our country that has led to the suggestion of “two nations, one community”. There is more likely to be dancing and happiness rather than an attempt at a coup at this Philippines Independence Day.

For those who say Singapore Day in London is different because the government spent the money and it was for overseas Singaporeans only, ask yourself: would you be okay with it if the Filipino government spent the money and the event was for Filipinos only? I think not.

So what are we really opposed to?

Filipinos referred to as “shit” and “aliens”.

The fact that the event is open means that this is an opportunity for us to learn about one another’s countries and cultures, rather than hurl vitriolic accusations that — if they had to be hurled at all — would be better targeted at problematic policies rather than the people who are just trying to hold on to something from home while they live and work here.

I wrote my Yahoo! Singapore post not because I am a traitor, as some would call me. I didn’t write it out of an ignorance of the daily, never-ending frustrations of living in Singapore. I know that there are many problems that we need to sort out here, and that many of these problems have to do with the PAP and state policy. Yet we cannot push the blame on to the government and absolve ourselves of responsibility. We cannot pretend that the government is the root of all evil and not reflect on the prejudice that resides in each and every one of our hearts and minds. And we certainly cannot excuse hateful behaviour and dehumanising language just because it is convenient for our politics.

There has to be a line somewhere.

    Kirsten Han

    Written by

    I'm a Singaporean freelance journalist and writer. I'm happiest writing about social justice and human rights issues, wherever they may be in the world.

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