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Pt II:Why Chinese nationals and S'poreans don't always get along

Peidong Yang writes a follow up to his first piece on why Singaporeans and Chinese nationals don't always get along. He talks about kiasu-ism and what inevitably happens when two kiasu cultures clash.

Posted on Apr 11, 2013 3:33 PM Updated: Apr 18, 2013 11:06 PM

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article, musing on several possible reasons why Chinese nationals and Singaporeans don’t always get along in the city-state. Here, I would like to offer a few more thoughts on the same question. Specifically, in this article, I try to address two questions: What might be behind the perceived rudeness or ‘country bumpkin’ image of some Chinese immigrants in Singapore? And can the tension between the Chinese and Singaporeans be explained as a kind of ‘sibling rivalry’ as some people seem to suggest?

In dealing with such a topic, some degree of generalisation is unavoidable. I am aware of the pitfalls of essentialism and Orientalism, but that does not mean we cannot speak of certain socio-culturally shaped behaviours and subjectivities. Statements like “the Chinese are such and such…” or “the Singaporeans are such and such…” are inherently problematic, but have to be used from time to time if one is to talk about these issues at all.

So I crave the readers’ indulgence in bearing with me, while recognising—and recognising that I do recognise too—that social facts are always complicated and nuanced. Again, in my following discussion, I shall be primarily concerned with the Chinese Singaporeans when I refer to ‘Singaporeans’. This, I hope, will not be taken as not acknowledging the complexity of the Singaporean society; instead, it’s because my limited experiences and insights do not allow me to speak on things which I do not know well.

Just a‘PRC rude bumpkin’ or is there something deeper to it…?

At the level of daily contact and interaction, many Singaporeans complain of some Chinese nationals’ coarseness, lack of etiquette, and rude behaviour; others are upset by the perceived aggressiveness or greediness.

While for many keyboard warriors, these stereotypical perceptions of the Chinese have become the basis for their quasi-racist bashings, I notice that Singaporean commentators/scholars often refrain from even touching on these perceptions, presumably because of a fear that the mere mention of them would put them in line with those who are maliciously fixated on negatively stereotyping the "other". Thus, we lose an opportunity to look for a socio-cultural interpretation of these perceptions.

First of all, as I suggested in my previous article, a lot of this has to do with class. In the case of the less privileged Chinese nationals in Singapore such as guest workers, the disdain felt towards them is essentially class-based: The (relatively-speaking) affluent Singaporeans find their behaviour "uncultivated" and "desperate", but sometimes forget that they may indeed be desperate to change their life fortunes through venturing abroad as immigrant labour. This is why disdain is rarely felt towards foreigners from developed countries, many of whom also carry the privileged racial marker (i.e. whiteness). Privileged foreigners in Singapore also tend to be relatively hidden from the public view, as they seldom use public transport or public housing; less contact reduces the chance of developing negative perceptions.

But class is not all, because I think there is a more general sense among many Singaporeans that the Chinese (not necessarily just the less privileged ones but more broadly) don’t like to follow rules, and seem overly aggressive in obtaining or protecting their own interests. Trying to bargain when bargaining is not accepted, not willing to "lose out" in the slightest, disregard of the public interest in order to suit private interests, etc. are perhaps some of the examples that cause Singaporeans to regard Chinese as "uncivilised" or even "disgusting". 

The reason for such perceived behaviour of the Chinese - insofar as there is some basis in such observations - is socio-historical as well as politico-economic. The 20th Century has been one of extreme turbulence and upheavals for China and its people: from the republic revolution to foreign invasion to civil war to communist revolution to the Cultural Revolution and finally to the post-socialist reform. In the course of this tortuous and turbulent century, the Chinese people have fought foreigners, but have more often fought amongst themselves. Chinese of different localities, ethnicities and ideological beliefs have fought against each other; and, worst of all, in the Cultural Revolution, sometimes family members and close friends and colleagues had had to fight each other in the name of ‘Revolution’. These fights are not just in the metaphorical sense of the word; sometimes they were real blood and tooth fights.

If this "century of fighting" has left some marks on the contemporary Chinese psyche, that aspect of the psyche may involve a belief in fighting in order to survive and achieve goals, instead of placing one’s hope or trust in a system or government. One either has to fight and win, or lose out big time. The PRC’s founder Mao Zedong himself was a stern believer in life as constant revolution and constant fighting.

Note, this is of course not to say that in China, everybody treats everybody else like enemies; if anything, compared to societies with more liberal individualistic values (including Singapore), the Chinese place even more emphasis on interpersonal cordiality, face (mianzi), and guanxi. But at the level of society at large, the abstract and impersonal trust is in deficit: Everybody else is potentially an enemy that one has to either fight or convert into one’s own ally in order to fight somebody else.

At the level of grand politics, we may turn to China’s relatively assertive stance in international relations to get a clue about this belief in conflict and "might is right". At the level of popular culture, we only need to look at the recent Chinese TV drama series Empresses in the Palace (Hougong Zhenhuan Zhuan) and its staggering popularity in China to have a glimpse into this conflict-based life philosophy and practical world-view among many Chinese.

In the post-Mao Chinese society, this ‘philosophy of fighting’ continues to shape the broad contours of social interaction and public culture, albeit in a period of ideological pragmatism and increasing economic prosperity and liberty. Fighting for oneself is still essential, firstly because many Chinese don’t believe rules or laws can sufficiently protect them, secondly because they believe that everybody else is also fighting so one must not be weak. But this time, the ultimate goal of fighting comprises primarily material interests.

Dishonest sellers and manufacturers of daily consumer goods and their immoral business behaviour convince many ordinary Chinese that they need to fight for their own food safety and other consumer rights; government actions that don’t always pay sufficient regard to human rights or other lawful interests convince many ordinary Chinese citizens that they must be able to fight so that they are not ‘run over’. This is quite literally the case in the enforced demolishment of properties (chai qian) that has been controversial in many places all over China in this age of massive modernisation; some private property owners would lie down in the road so the bulldozer cannot proceed to demolish their house.

It is very important to note that the topography of the ‘fighting mentality’ among the Chinese is highly complex: the privileged might find it unnecessary to fight, while the underprivileged have to fight fiercely because life is stacked against them; different people also have different ways of ‘fighting’ - for aspiring students, studying ferociously could be their kind of ‘fight’.

And fighting, of course, works — at least sometimes. Since rules and laws seem ultimately man-made and bendable, a lot then depends on one’s own fighting and aggressiveness. So, we hear of the Chinese visitor some time ago who arrived in Singapore without proper immigration papers, but who resisted deportation by "making a scene" at the airport. "Making a scene" in some life situations in China is the expected thing to do, because not doing it means weakness and foolishness.

Arriving in Singapore with the notion that Singapore is a society governed by rules and laws (fazhi shehui, as opposed to China, which is seen as governed by people, renzhi), some Chinese may find their readiness to fight obsolete - this is usually the case with the more privileged and highly-skilled ones; while the less privileged ones may believe that in a more regulated society like Singapore, ‘fighting’ would work even more effectively. Thus, we have the Chinese construction workers who climbed onto cranes as a protest and the SMRT bus drivers who went on a strike.

I need to stress here, as people probably already know, that the rules in Singapore outlawing certain forms of industrial actions have their own historical backgrounds and philosophical reasoning; but this is a separate topic altogether which I shall not deal with. I do not want to pass judgment over the Chinese workers’ strikes as right or wrong, but merely seek to explain, from a cultural point of view, their actions to those Singaporeans who were/are apparently disturbed or offended by their actions.

When the "air-conditioned" (borrowing a phrase from scholar Cherian George) Singaporeans, who have mostly relied on an efficient government and a well-regulated social system for their well-being, encounter the immigrant Chinese who, in sharp contrast, have survived big and small things in life through a readiness to fight, it is perhaps small wonder that some Singaporeans feel threatened or even feel themselves outmaneuvered/marginalised; neither of these scenarios, in my opinion, is likely to be objectively true, now or in the future.

This cultural specificity pertaining to the Chinese may also, to some extent, explain why Singaporeans seem less threatened or bothered by immigrants from some other developing nation backgrounds. This is of course not the only reason; points in my last article, and my next point here, offer some other explanations.

‘Sibling rivalry’? ‘Coz they are both selfish’?

In some of the casual reader replies following my previous article, an understanding of the second major point I want to make here seems already present in some Singaporeans’ minds. Therefore, I do not so much see my job here as proposing some kind of fancy theory than as elucidating a kind of ‘folk reasoning’ that seems already embedded in some society members’ practical consciousness.

Two short comments that especially caught my eyes following my last article were "sibling rivalry" and ‘coz they are both selfish’, both of which were offered by readers, apparently in reply to the question that forms my articles’ headline. As these two replies hint, there are indeed ways in which we may regard the tension between the Chinese and Singaporeans as stemming from a kind of rivalry and/or jealousy between two parties who sometimes resemble each other a bit too much.

Speaking generally, both the Chinese and the Singaporeans have been constituted as subjects embodying very intensive materialistic desires, although the respective trajectories leading to such desirousness are different. It is commonly agreed that Singapore is a very success-oriented/obsessed society, and Singaporeans often mock themselves for being too kiasu. The problem is, however, that the Chinese come across as even more kiasu, if my previous section on the ‘fighting mentality’ makes some sense. What many Singaporeans are annoyed about the Chinese is precisely the latter’s (perceived) excessive or "disgusting" level of kiasu-ness.

When two kiasu peoples come face-to-face, competition and tension occur by definition. While Singaporeans often look down on the coarse and underprivileged Chinese guest workers and lowly immigrants, they may also become a tad uncomfortable with those who are doing too well. In the school campus, this may be the ‘PRC scholars’ who seem to grab all the scholarships and ‘A’s; otherwise, for example, the Ferrari driven by Ma Chi cannot be said to have played no role in the society’s reaction to his case.

But more interestingly, in the encounter between two kiasu subjects, there may arise a form of denial and willful misrecognition, which seems to be at the core of the tension and mutual prejudice between the Chinese and Singaporeans in today’s situation. While the Singaporeans are previously quite relaxed with using a bit of kiasu-related self-deprecation - that is to say they are previously willing to half-jokingly call themselves kiasu - when now, confronted by an exaggerated and ‘over-the-top’ version of kiasu-ness, which they see as embodied by the ‘PRCs’, they instead feel horrified, and react by wanting to keep as clear from this horrible figure as possible. The embarrassment or guilt about being kiasu that is felt consciously or unconsciously by Singaporeans make them tend to focus on exactly the kiasu aspects of the Chinese immigrants, so that, by showing there is someone even more grotesquely kiasu, the previous embarrassment or guilt may be relieved or absolved. (In psychoanalysis, this is a process called "projective identification", made famous by Melanie Klein.)

Thus, one of the things that young Chinese Singaporeans seem most keen to avoid when traveling abroad is being mistaken for mainland Chinese. The need to disassociate from ‘PRC-ness’ is so urgent, precisely because the danger of being mistaken always seems so imminent. (By the way, this anxiety over being mistaken does not apply to just the Singaporeans, but often equally applies to Chinese who consider themselves more cosmopolitan, better educated or otherwise superior to the ‘PRC country bumpkins’.)

Some while ago, I observed a Singaporean girl talking about her traveling experience in Europe, and she recalled her experience of being mistaken as ‘from China’ with both amusement and emphatic irritation. Interestingly, this diametrically contrasts with former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s evocative account about a very similar experience when he was young, which he recounted in his memoir My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey. In Mr Lee’s case, he regarded being labeled ‘from China’ as an epiphany moment about his cultural-ethnically Chinese identity.

While the contrast between the perspectives of Mr Lee and an ordinary Singaporean girl of today is telling of the journey Singapore has traveled, perhaps it remains the case that the anxiety or danger of being misrecognised as ‘Chinese’ lies at the heart of Singapore’s insecurity and struggle with identity. And this is one more reason why Singaporeans and the Chinese don’t always get along.

If not to agree, at least to understand…

In this article and the previous one, I have offered my two cents worth of thoughts on the possible reasons why the Chinese and Chinese Singaporeans don’t always get along in Singapore.

On the one hand, I hasten to add that they are just my own opinions and interpretations of things, and may not always be accurate, let alone comprehensive; I do not expect everybody to agree, but I beseech that when they disagree they do so with reason but not vitriol. Yet, on the other hand, I also sense that these very things that I have said in fact also already exist, no matter how vaguely, in the minds and thoughts of the many people in and outside Singapore who care about issues of identity and immigration. What I have done here is no more than to articulate these thoughts.

Amidst the present tension, we often talk about the need to understand the ‘other’; but it seems to me an unavoidable step towards understanding the ‘other’ is to also understand the ‘self’. If both sides to a divide can make their share of effort to understand not only the ‘other’ but also the ‘self’, perhaps some empathy will follow.

Peidong YANG is a final year doctoral student in the social science division at Oxford University, UK. He is finishing a dissertation on ‘foreign talents’ in Singapore, with specific reference to the experiences of Chinese students receiving Singapore government scholarships.

Read the first commentary, Why Chinese nationals and Singaporeans don't always get along HERE.

Tags: xenophobia