Political Sotongs, Foreigners and Angry Birds

Social media + Xenophobia: Angry Singaporeans


Singapore has never been angrier. In fact, I think we should have a Singaporean version of the Angry Birds app; ah peks, yuppies, schoolkids and other Angry Singaporeans are launched from a giant catapult, trying to destroy the towers that foreigners have built, while stealing our damn eggs (read: jobs) at the same time. Maybe our fierce coffee shop aunties can be exploding Angry Singaporeans.


I jest, but it’s an accurate picture of what’s happening online. More worryingly, it’s a sign of ugly things to come: worsening xenophobia.


To be completely fair to Singaporeans, the rancor wasn’t quite so extreme until the local-foreigner ratio hit dangerous levels. And when I say dangerous, I don’t mean that foreigners are dangerous. I mean that the ratio is dangerous because it has changed so much in a worryingly short time: it’s a threat to our social fabric. Humans are wired to fear the unknown. The unfamiliar is threatening.


How did we get this angry, anyway?


Xenophobia: Denial Is Pointless


Let’s face it: the issue of foreigners in Singapore is a ticking bomb (note: I do not mean this literally), just waiting for the right set of circumstances to set it off. You thought Singaporeans were tolerant and inert? Have you seen what Singaporeans did to Ms. Rachelle Ann Beguia?


In case you missed the exciting action on MP Penny Low’s page, the gist of the Rachelle Beguia incident is that this charming lady allegedly made inflammatory remarks about Singaporeans in the comments on MP Penny Low’s AnthemGate apology. She also commented on the loyalty of Singaporean NSmen, upsetting Singaporeans who are well aware that some of our boys have died in training accidents – in service for their country. Enraged Singaporeans then took the battle out of cyberspace.


The NHCS, her employer, received so many complaints from the public that they made an apology on Ms. Beguia’s  behalf on the NHCS Facebook page. The drama continues, as her husband now claims that he had posted the inflammatory comment using her account, without her knowledge. Why the man has such rancor towards other Singaporeans is anyone’s guess.


If it turns out that the poster truly was her husband, then this would have been an almost perfect social experiment proving without a doubt that xenophobia is alive and kicking here: Broadcast an inflammatory statement from a foreigner, let the outrage and angry letters and emails pile up, and then do the big reveal – “er, actually it was a Singaporean.” The anger turns to puzzlement and mutterings along the line of  “Well, it wasn’t a nice thing to say whether it was a foreigner or local who said it.”


Who are we kidding? Remember  the PRC national who recently made that perplexing and offensive (once a kind soul finally translated it) video, only to flee the country when a police report was made?


Of course the sting is sharper when inflammatory comments come from someone who is not Singaporean. We have our own jokes about the different races and their stereotypes in Singapore that range from harmless to borderline offensive, but we aren’t exactly up in arms when another Singaporean mentions them. Get a foreigner to talk about these stereotypes, and Facebook turns into the social media equivalent of Apocalypse Now. Between police reports and angry letters to employers, I am really glad that I am not a foreigner in Singapore right now.


Okay, So We’re Xenophobic – So What?


Singaporeans are not known for being volatile. In fact, we have a startling resemblance to hobbits: we love food passionately, eat at any and every hour of the day, and we’re not confrontational, unless someone takes the seat that we’ve reserved with a tissue packet.


Other countries have seen violent social unrest with much lower ratios of foreigners to locals than we currently have, while we remain peaceful – except when it comes to social media.


Don’t forget the complaints about the Lions when they won the first leg of the World Cup qualifier match against Malaysia: the team wasn’t “Singaporean enough”, said the Lions’ detractors on Twitter. By the way, out of a total of 36 players that comprised the national squad, including players who were called up specifically for the qualifiers, guess how many weren’t born in Singapore?


Wait for it……


Four. The remaining 27 were all Singaporean-born players.


In the starting line-up for the 2nd leg of the qualifier match against Malaysia, 7 were born in Singapore, and 4 were not. My math is appalling, but my calculator helpfully told me that this means 64% of the starting squad were born in Singapore. Why the muttering about half the team being foreign-born? Last I checked, 7 was not equal to 4. Unless you’re counting Qiu Li as three players, which is not very fair or nice.


Balls aside, the collective anger created by the considerable strain on our social fabric is not healthy.  It is… not us.


One of the things that I love about Singapore is that I can sit in a coffee shop anywhere and share a table with an ah pek enjoying his afternoon kopi, with no rancor, no racist drama, no intolerance. The colour of my skin does not matter, nor does the fact that my ancestors and the ah pek’s ancestors came from different countries. But this isn’t the case any more, not for foreigners. A clear “us vs. them” attitude has emerged, and it is not going away in a hurry.


We have short memories indeed if we think that being xenophobic is acceptable. Morality aside, the vast majority of Singaporeans are the descendants of foreigners who came here because they were more courageous, enterprising, and hardworking than their countrymen who chose to stay put. In other words, our ancestors embraced change. They knew they were taking a giant leap of faith and that they were stepping into uncharted territory (literally and figuratively for some). Why are we so very angry at the foreigners who are here for exactly the same reasons that our ancestors were, not too long ago?


The fact that the actions of some foreigners stir up anger at all of them is disturbing. We should be worried about it, but we’re not. That, in itself, is the clearest sign that xenophobia is not just alive in Singapore, but it is thriving. Why is this bad? Very simple.


When irrational hatred, dislike or even fear of a specific group of people is so pervasive in a country that it seems normal, nothing good can follow.


Hate crimes are one of the more tangible among these unsavoury things.


Do we really want to become that society? The one that thinks it’s okay to hate people for no good reason? The one that expresses outward horror at seeing hate crimes occur, but is secretly glad, because this will hopefully deter more of them from coming to Singapore?


It may sound extreme, but that is where we are headed right now. The line between racism and xenophobia is a thin one: both stem from fear of the unfamiliar. Both are irrational, and both can lead to social unrest and more tangible ugliness, like hate crimes. By the time the tension between foreigners and locals gets to the stage where hate crimes are occurring, it will be too late to undo the damage.


So Why The Angst, Singapore?


“They don’t integrate.”

“They’re too noisy.”

“They stick to themselves at work.”

“The calibre of foreigners that are coming to Singapore is too low.”


When it comes to foreigners and assimilation, or the perceived lack thereof, are we being unreasonable? Or is this a chicken-and-egg situation? Perhaps they prefer to socialize among themselves because they perceive hostility from their Singaporean colleagues, from commuters on the train, or in social media. If I were in another country and it was clear that the locals were hostile, albeit passive-aggressively, I would vastly prefer not to socialize with people that dislike me because my passport says “Republic of Singapore.”


The noise factor – there seems to be no logical excuse for that. This problem is pervasive, and makes overcrowded commutes that are already hellish progress to traumatic. I am surprised that half the nation is not in dire need of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of daily commuting over the past few years.


The problem is, humans have widely varying levels of ability to integrate. Some assimilate well: they observe how others behave, and modify their behaviour accordingly. If they come from a country where social norms don’t encourage loud public conversations, no problems there: instant assimilation.


Unfortunately, some individuals assimilate poorly to new environments. (They are probably the ones that the entire MRT cabin can hear talking on their mobile phone.)


A dispute involving a local Indian family and their PRC neighbours received a lot of attention via social media recently.  While I do think that the PRC family had no right to ask the Indian family not to cook curry in their own home (the Indian family closed their windows and doors while cooking, for goodness’ sake), I wonder if the fault does not instead lie with the CMC personnel who did not nip this in the bud. Instead of passing along an unreasonable request which came after the family cooked with the windows closed, the mediator chose to pass the message on.


Would it not have been wiser to explain to the PRC family that HDB units being what they are, one is bound to smell what one’s neighbour is cooking? Perhaps, to advise the PRC family to be more tolerant?


That decision set a very bad precedent: it said “Intolerance Welcome.” Now, CurryGate has raised further ire among Singaporeans, and contributed that much more to the insidious undercurrent of hatred that is turning us into xenophobes.


Liddat How?


One of the more rational reasons for anti-foreigner sentiment is that the calibre of foreigners arriving on our shores is appalling. Granted, this may be true. I don’t have the data (MOM: share, pretty please?), but you don’t need it to understand that this is not the immigrants’ fault.


If someone told you, right now, that you would be offered a job for three times your current salary in another country, and you have nothing holding you back (partner, family, etc), what would you say?


I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be this:

“Nah, I’ll pass. I might be depriving the locals of jobs.”


If you insist that you really would be saying that, you are either lying, or you are smoking… something you probably should not be smoking.


It’s ridiculous to blame foreigners for wanting a better life. Would you pass up the chance to triple your salary?


Where then, does the blame lie? There has to be someone responsible for this situation, right?


Captain Obvious a.k.a. Goh Chok Tong Says Don’t Complain So Much


In any examination of how Singaporeans became this angry with foreigners, one has to look at who created the situation in the first place. It’s not our fault, right? It’s the government; they made the decisions, they created the policies, they caused something truly alarming: a foreigner-local ratio that very few other nations would accept as peacefully as we have done. (Please note that I am not advocating non-peaceful activity of any sort.)


Here’s a hard truth: actually, it is your fault.


Good news for those who voted PAP! PM Lee asked us to embrace foreigners in his NDP speech. You know what that means, right? No?


For those who voted for the incumbents: It means that the next time you complain about being worried that your job will be taken by foreigners, or that there are fewer Singaporeans than foreigners on the MRT train, or that the CMC was so offensive when they asked the hapless Indian family not to cook curry in their own home, you have only one person to blame, and it’s not anyone in the government.


From now on, the only people who have any right to complain about the ratio of foreigners and any related social tension/ difficulties caused by foreigners (be it real or perceived) are those who actually voted to have more checks and balances in Parliament. Also, the majority of Aljunied. And Chen Show Mao, because he is Rockstar Emeritus Politician of Singapore.


You have yourself to blame, because when faced with the option of having checks and balances, you chose… not to have checks and balances. If that is not epic self-pwnage, I don’t know what is.


When you voted for the incumbents, you told them:

“YES! Here is a blank check for the future of this country. Do whatever you damn well please. Because you have been doing so well with managing labour and immigration policies in the past 5 years, and you totally did not create a situation in which our social fabric is being ripped to shreds as we speak.”


This is what you told them when you voted for them. Now that’s a hard truth.


The whole checks-and-balances thing? It’s not just words, my friend. The point of having a presence in Parliament that does not wear white is to prevent the situation that you are lamenting right now: you feel that your country has been overrun by foreigners.


Oh, and those who did vote for checks and balances: please tell your self-pwning friends not to be sotongs when the next General Elections are due.