Time to Grow Up and Get Real

As you probably are already aware, much ado has been made about a group of migrant Filipinos’ plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day on 8 June this year at the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza. The criticism from many Singaporeans has been so widespread and harsh that the Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore, a volunteer group, had to remove an advertisement for the event from its Facebook page. In fact, news of the uproar over the event has spread overseas, as evidenced by this Wall Street Journal article.

Some Singaporeans merely have an issue with the venue, what with Orchard Road being a public place (celebrations of other countries’ independence in Singapore normally take place in private venues, such as embassies). Other Singaporeans are decidedly more nationalistic – the Facebook group Say “No” to an overpopulated Singapore even went so far as to organize a protest against the event, taking issue with Filipinos celebrating their independence (publicly) in Singapore, as well as the use of the Singapore skyline and the terms “inter-dependence” and “two nations” in its publicity materials:

protest-2a_14thApr11pm

This strikes me as overtly nationalistic and somewhat extreme, but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at something even more ludicrous.

This may surprise those of you who know me personally, but I am rather fond of Gilbert Goh. Well, to be more precise, I am quite entertained and amused by his many antics. He’s given me something to write about in the past, and now, he’s struck again.

Sample his latest offering:

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I don’t know about you, but I burst out laughing when I first saw this. Maybe he doesn’t have a dictionary and therefore doesn’t comprehend the real meaning of “war”, or maybe he just loves Singapore so much that the very thought of foreigners celebrating their independence here irks him to no end.

I’m just trying to picture the scenario: when the celebrations are in full swing and the Filipinos raise their country’s flag, are Gilbert and his buddies going to charge in decked out in full army gear to tear it down and attack the foreigners? Will they valiantly defend us against those dangerous Pinoys who will be armed with their deadly confetti and arsenal of assorted party accessories? My, my…such patriotism sure does bring a tear to the eye.

All sarcasm aside, however, it is a tad worrying that Gilbert has loyal followers who think they are doing Singapore and Singaporeans a great service by perpetuating blind nationalism and, by extension, xenophobia. There, I said it. I dropped the dreaded X-bomb. But the truth is staring us in the face, and we would be fools not to acknowledge it.

The growing tension between locals and foreigners is understandable, what with the sudden influx of the latter and the resultant overcrowding of this tiny island. Our transport infrastructure is deteriorating, the cost of living is constantly rising, and we’ve all been thrown together into the pretty little pressure cooker otherwise known as Singapore.

I’m no expert on anthropology, but what little knowledge I have of social psychology tells me that when there are large numbers of people from the same culture or country in the same place, they tend to gravitate towards one another, feeling safer in the familiarity their compatriots provide. They lack the time and opportunity to properly integrate into the culture of their host country, and it comes as no surprise that reports of unbecoming behaviour from them have surfaced in recent years. They are unaware or simply not mindful of what is acceptable and unacceptable in their host country, and so, often inadvertently offend the locals.

When we as Singaporeans encounter such situations, we have a few options:

  • nip it in the bud and call the offender out on his actions, firmly but civilly, so he understands why he was wrong
  • retaliate and get into an altercation (that will most likely find its way onto the abomination known as STOMP)
  • curse at the offender under your breath and make a mental note to be wary of “his kind” from now on – and warn everyone you know

Unfortunately, too many Singaporeans seem to prefer the second and third options to the first. It’s just easier to lash out and write an entire race / culture of people off than to take the time to educate and learn from them. But not doing so will eventually lead to the dilemma Singapore faces today: a misguided sense of patriotism and a myopic “us versus them” mentality.

That is not to say I support Population White Paper, for the simple fact that it would be utterly impractical to add another 1.6 million people to an already overcrowded country. And I most certainly am not applauding our dear PM’s chastising of Singaporeans over the Philippine Independence Day celebration issue. For those who have not seen it, here’s what he had to say:

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 8.38.39 PMAnd here, summing up exactly why I’m not fawning over the PM’s statement, logical as it may seem, is blogger Molly Meek’s response:

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 8.38.57 PM

Apart from him being “appalled” simply because he is afraid of losing face, his lack of a similar response whenever a foreigner publicly and unfairly criticizes Singaporeans leaves much doubt as to where his political priorities lie – is he afraid to offend foreigners who are boosting the local economy? After all, our ministers have been slow to speak out objectively when Singaporeans come under fire from foreigners, yet quick to condemn Singaporeans for “xenophobia” when some of us criticize them. They have also been swift in discriminating against lowly paid migrant workers – the recent Little India riots and ensuing clampdowns on the South Asian foreign labourers in the area are proof of this.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that a good number of Singaporeans – politicians included – lack two very important qualities: objectivity and emotional maturity. If you haven’t already noticed, angry Internet mobs form more quickly than one can say “xenophobia” whenever a foreigner displays poor conduct, or criticizes Singapore and / or Singaporeans – whether or not that criticism is justified. Brandishing their virtual pitchforks and torches, these angry mobs embark on a relentless pursuit of the critic’s career, family, social circle and, very soon, all his compatriots. An excellent example of this is the Anton Casey fiasco. Of course, Gilbert Goh’s aforementioned nonsensical version of patriotism also speaks for itself.

We humans love a good scapegoat. And since we Singaporeans cannot legally stage a proper protest against government policies we deem harmful, who better to direct our dissatisfaction and frustration at than the very foreigners brought in by the PAP? Also, please don’t tell me to go to Hong Lim Park. That’s where Gilbert goes to sell T-shirts via his vilification of all things foreign. Furthermore, it’s not an effective demonstration if the people whose policies we are decrying are not there to listen.

This is exactly why I refer to Gilbert and his ilk as “emotionally stunted”. They can easily choose not to vote for the PAP during elections, they can organize forums and facilitate open discussion amongst locals and foreigners, they can educate locals and foreigners on important matters…but no. Instead, they choose to rant, rave, and foam at the mouth in their critique of the government’s immigration policies, and of foreigners in general. They choose to perpetuate racist and xenophobic stereotypes in an attempt to rally other Singaporeans to their ill-intentioned cause, all while hiding behind a façade of faux patriotism and national pride.

That Singaporeans have gotten used to a hypersensitive environment does not help, either. Issues of race and nationality are almost never discussed, for fear of offending a particular group of people. We have seen the ills of that: a knee-jerk overreaction every time anyone in Singapore, local or foreign, makes ignorant remarks regarding another race or nationality besides his own. Instead of discussing perceptions, stereotypes and other relevant issues which will lead to greater understanding, many Singaporeans simply jump straight to the offensive, calling for the offender’s termination of employment, arrest, and even deportation. One need only consider the case of Amy Cheong for evidence of this.

One would be naïve to think that preconceived notions (both positive and negative), prejudices and misconceptions do not exist within any given country or society. The truth is, the more diverse a nation’s ethnic, racial and religious communities are, the greater the need for open dialogue amongst those communities to bridge gaps and establish mutual understanding. And in any case, a line must be drawn somewhere to minimize all forms of bigotry.

I understand perfectly the propensity to allow tensions between locals and foreigners to cause disharmony, animosity and segregation, which is why it is imperative that both Singaporeans and their foreign cohabitants put in that extra bit of effort to educating each other about their different cultures, customs and practices. It is no doubt easier to buy into stereotypes, and allow isolated incidents to colour one’s opinion of an entire race or nationality, but the result of that is always dismal. A little more open and honest dialogue, a lot less prejudice and a lot more objectivity and emotional maturity make all the difference.

There will never be a perfect society, but I still believe we can do better than this.

UPDATE: I have been informed that the Gilbert Goh Facebook account on which the declaration of war against the Filipinos was posted could be fake. I do not know who might be behind it, but thanks to his previous displays of xenophobia, no one doubted its authenticity.

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