Why so ungracious?
What lies beneath online vitriol?
This is one of five commentaries recently published in The Straits Times in a package about Singapore's sudden outbreak of ungraciousness. The five articles were written by: Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan, sociologist Daniel Goh, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, entrepreneur and blogger Adrianna Tan and Straits Times journalist Feng Zengkun.
“Don't say that! It’s very rude! How would you like other people to call you that?”
That was the scolding I got from my mother when I was just six years old. I had just returned from playing with my friends from the neighbourhood – one of whom was an older Indian boy – and I thought it would be funny to hum a rhyme about him that I had learnt from another kid.
This was one of the many lessons my parents taught me about not harbouring prejudiced attitudes and stereotypes about people of other races, nationalities or socio-economic backgrounds. They not only instilled in me these values, but also lived them out in their own words and deeds.
My consciousness against prejudice was honed and heightened during the time I lived in California as an undergraduate. This is in part due to the greater level of public discourse on issues of discrimination and prejudice there. Being a minority and a foreigner there, I was also keenly aware of any behaviour by locals towards me that might hint of prejudice.
That was 12 years ago when social media was non-existent, so I did not have the same insights into the dark recesses of people’s minds that are available now on the Internet. Try googling the phrase “I hate Asians” and you will get over 100,000 Web pages of uncomplimentary remarks about Asians. Online diatribes against other races or nationalities are therefore not unique to Singapore.
Fortunately, most of the vitriol against foreigners in Singapore appears to be confined largely to the online space. We do not read about hate crime being perpetrated against foreigners here. Foreign diplomats I spoke to recently said they had not received any reports from their nationals about xenophobic attacks. I have many close foreigner friends who are aware of the anti-foreigner sentiments online but have not complained about any physical aggression against them on account of their nationality.
All this is not an attempt to justify any of the baseless insults against foreigners seen on some websites. Making prejudiced remarks against foreigners is objectionable and un-Singaporean, and should stop.
However, before joining the chorus of condemnation against allegedly “xenophobic netizens”, we need to ask what caused this sudden change in attitude. Haven’t Singaporeans traditionally been welcoming of foreigners and diversity? Did Singaporeans become xenophobic overnight?
Anyone who examines the online comments about foreigners will realise that much of the anger is actually not directed at the foreigners, but at the Government for its liberal immigration policies.
The online diatribes could be a reflection of many Singaporeans’ frustration about the huge influx of foreigners over the past 10 years. Singapore’s population has ballooned by over 1 million during the past decade. Singaporeans now make up only 63 per cent of the population and 58 per cent of the workforce. The immigration boom has put a severe strain on our nation’s infrastructure, especially public transport, housing and health care. Singaporeans are facing increased competition not just for space on buses and for HDB flats, but also for jobs and promotions.
For many Singaporeans, our country is much less recognisable than it was just a decade or so ago. Some feel like strangers in our own land. A friend who works as a professional in a large multinational firm confided that he is the only Singaporean in his department. He lamented that he felt passed over for promotions as he sensed that his department head, who is a foreigner, tended to promote his fellow nationals over locals.
While many other factors may have been at play, this perceived “reverse discrimination” felt by many Singaporeans cannot simply be ignored.
This push back by Singaporeans against the foreign influx has manifested itself in other less offensive ways. The recent furore over the “insult” of Singaporean cuisine by Diner en Blanc and last year’s “curry incident” reflect a level of cultural nationalism rarely seen in the past.
Singaporeans had hitherto been accustomed to being “educated” by the Government on how to love our country, how to stand up for Singapore, and how to stand together as Singaporeans. Now we are standing up for ourselves without prompting. We are ready to take the initiative and organise ourselves to show our pride in local culture and traditions, without being offensive or insulting. This is a positive development for Singapore.
Therefore, when interpreting online criticisms of foreigners, we need to first identify the genesis of the collective frustrations of many Singaporeans. The target of many netizens’ grouses is perhaps not at the level of the individual, but at the powers-that-be who have opened the gates to admit those individuals in the first place.
NOTE: This is a personal comment
The author is a Non-Constituency MP of the Workers' Party. This article was first published in The Straits Times. (Copyright 2012)
- "We can still revive kampung spirit" by Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan
- "It's time to be gracious to ourselves" by entrepreneur and blogger Adrianna Tan
- "Anti-social behaviour a symptom, not disease" by journalist Feng Zengkun
- "Lessons in tales about life, living together" by sociologist Daniel Goh
Also on Singapolitics: "A small island can have a big heart" - about a post on graciousness by Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong