Singapore is always in a frenzied search for an other in order to maintain an increasingly illusory sense of self. The only disagreements are only about where the other is located.
By all appearances, xenophobia has never been more rife in Singapore, as exemplified by certain netizens who are able to link every problem to the presence of foreigners with the creativity that Singaporeans have long been maligned of lacking. We know very well that xenophobia has surfaced because of the PAP’s policies that have allowed large numbers of foreigners (or people who until quite recently were non-Singaporeans)—there is neither any point in denying this nor any use in harping on it except in a critique of public policy. The potential for xenophobia, nevertheless, exists even if the PAP had not chanced upon the brilliant idea of bringing in large numbers of foreigners for the creation of addictive economic statistics of such unrivalled pulchritude that benefits the image of Singapore without benefiting the country itself. In other words, it must have been possible for many Singaporeans to manifest xenophobic behavior even before it is manifested. In an alternative reality where the PAP has implemented a closed-door, the same potential for xenophobia is present even if it does not result in any particular behaviors that would prove its presence. In another alternative reality where the potential is non-existent, xenophobia will not be manifested even with the current immigration policies for one could always direct one’s antagonism at the PAP’s policies and not at foreigners or new citizens. From what I see, the PAP ought to be thankful for xenophobia since it has provided the party with a thick buffer of imported scapegoats of premium quality.
To understand the xenophobia that we now see, we have to look to its cousin that is structured by race rather than by nationality. One of the greatest pet topics of the PAP is racial harmony, which is predicated on the recognition of racial differences. The discourse of racial harmony is self-perpetuating. Like the cloud in the sky that remains meaningless until you say that it looks like the face of the devil you have never met, race will only mean something when people are taught to see it. The emphasis on racial harmony provides the teacher who ensures that race is always be in the field of vision to be managed like every other aspect of Singaporean society. The need to put aside differences that are supposed to be coded by race is simultaneously emphasized with the need to view race as a threat. In short, the entire discourse of racial harmony can only make sense if one were in complicity with what is essentially xenophobic. It is just that the centre of alterity is simply shifted from a perceived racial group to the notion of racial disharmony itself. We learn to make friends with those around us because they are potentially dangerous enemies, not because we actually inclined to do so because of certain affinities.
Singaporeans are thus well trained to recognize difference even if it is simply for the purpose of harmony. But things do not always go according to plan. Even though racial disharmony has traditionally been tame/tamed in Singapore, there is always so much to encourage xenophobia that is not coded by race. The superiority of the Singaporean things that we hate is often illustrated by comparison to other countries. We are told, for instance, that if we do not vote for the PAP to lord over us with its nonsense, our women would become maids in other countries (our men will, presumably, not even be able to go overseas because of their national service obligations which must surely be an impetus for gender disharmony, to use PAPspeak). When they encounter such a message, most Singaporeans have the ability to infer that countries with women going overseas to become maids are backward and inferior. (For why else would we not want the same for Singaporean women?) We are also told that we have Asian values, and so the abominable aspects of Western democracy, such as actually having democracy, are unthinkable. The siege mentality that is inculcated by national education and aggressive propaganda on the necessity of military defense—or rather, “total defense” (as though we are under all imaginable sorts of threats)—further sharpen the xenophobic acumen of Singaporeans, as people learn to look at all that is not Singaporean with fear.
The PAP is Singapore’s true leader where xenophobia is concerned, albeit its brand of xenophobia is highly peace-loving. (It is not true that the xenophobic are always out to stir trouble. To make such an assumption is to be guilty of a severe case of meta-xenophobia.) Why else would our Prime Minister be able to perceive the matter of one family wanting to hold a birthday celebration at the same place as another family is holding a funeral as one related to race? Perhaps the world’s most highly paid prime minister truly has exceptional insights into quotidian affairs. Or perhaps I am just too radically displaced from the PAP mindset to imagine how the matter is related to race.
These days, one could possibly derive some pleasure from imagining PAP ministers bawling, knees wobbling, as they appeal to Singaporeans to “integrate” with foreigners and new citizens. Unfortunately, the PAP’s notion of integration itself is xenophobic in its failure to accept difference. It is just that the authorities would prefer Singaporean xenophobes to convert and believe in the god of peaceable xenophobia instead of worshipping the god of war-like xenophobia. The PAP’s notion of equality is to apply its techniques of social engineering on everyone. It is presumptuous enough to define what it means to be Singaporean, making claims about Singaporean values. The PAP wants new citizens to fit into its vision of what Singaporeans are like. Prospective citizens are made to go through programs such as the “National Education Experience Programme” and a “Naturalisation and Integration Journey” where they would be fed the PAP’s version of Singaporean history, its definition of social norms and values. PAP politicians are speaking in agreement about this nonsense. PM Lee himself says: “The new arrivals should embrace the Singapore values and norms, and try to fit in as Singaporeans; Singaporeans can encourage the new ones to integrate and help the new ones to fit in.” If only everyone could work together to make the PAP’s hallucinations a reality! Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean speaks in an uncannily similar way: “Quite naturally, we expect that our new immigrants should adapt to our values and norms, and we get upset if they have not yet done so.” Unfortunately for the PAP, the more immigrants fit into the PAP’s definition of Singaporeaness (in fact, they simply need to be perceived as being so), the more susceptible they are to the vocal group of people who are unable to accept immigrants because the PAP’s schema is anathema to this group of people.
To expect immigrants to become the same, and to expect “old” Singaporeans to help immigrants become the same is to assume that anyone who is different cannot fit in. It is ridiculous because we can never expect new immigrants to become the same as Singaporeans, especially since Singaporeans are not the same to begin with. There is also a chasm between the PAP’s and many Singaporeans’ understanding of what it means to be the same as Singaporeans, making it impossible for new citizens to integrate in a way that satisfies both the PAP and the people. The deepest form of xenophobia in Singapore stems from the assumption that difference will inevitably result in social instability and the state’s impulse to keep emphasizing the difference while attempting to engineer old and new citizens according to the same ridiculous PAP-prescribed mould.
The apparent xenophobia we see in some Singaporeans would likely have remained latent if immigration had really brought about the economic benefits that the PAP thinks it would. Even if the PAP’s dream of integration is fulfilled by some social engineering miracle, the xenophobes that have been worrying the PAP will not be appeased simply because these people are not concerned about whether new citizens have integrated, but about how their own lives have been adversely affected by these newcomers, some of whom are just as xenophobic.
It may at first seem ridiculous that Singapore’s new citizens would be xenophobic. After all, they are the ones who choose to settle down in Singapore and if they do not like it here, they would not have made the decision, would they? We must remember, then, that Singapore’s import of foreigners is exploitative in nature. The PAP has opened Singapore’s doors to foreigners because some of them bring in lots of money, because others provide cheap labor and they supposedly help to keep Singaporeans competitive. (Yes, let us have a competition to see who can be better exploited and more disempowered. Thanks, PAP.) Foreigners are allowed to come because the PAP thinks they would bring about some economic benefit. Those who come to Singapore are likely to be aware of this, and they can only return the favor.
For a start, Singapore could stop trying to cultivate national identity via the production of otherness. But could those currently in power even imagine anything else?
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