Pure Laine in Singapore [Auteur’s Cut*]

“Singapore, you are not my country.” (Alfian Sa’at, once upon a fierce hour)


Pardon me for so audaciously trying to speak of us, almost like Goh Chok Tong claiming to know how Singaporeans feel about having their lives affected by immigrants. But I do not speak with the implicit condescension of presumed knowledge wearing the mask of empathy. I shall not partake in the violence of sticking incompatible splinters into a collective stump. I can only speak of the unspoken and unspeak that which has been overspoken into common epistemology.


What if Singapore is not even mine to renounce?

It is odd that there is yet to be a Singaporean version of the Got Talent franchise. It would surely outshine all others. China’s Got Talent? India’s Got TalentUkraine’s Got Talent? We have bought them all, and more! The only talents we lack are Singaporeans. (But they can apply to work backstage on a meritocratic basis, subject, still, to competition from their international counterparts.)

Is this funny or is it laughable?

Laughter is not always subversive, but for making such a narrow-minded joke, perhaps it is tempting to sentence me to life imsingaporent for political xenophobic sedition, an act quite aberrant to the beings (rationalized into rationality) in this glorious age of globalization. Indeed, one area of public discourse that leaves a lingering, if consistently kept subtle, bitterness is the debate about the place of the Singaporean when the country is increasing populated by locals who may be foreigners and foreigners who may not be foreign in terms of their government-granted status. Perhaps not quite a debate. And not quite the Singaporean. Not a debate as much as a pool of ever-recurring discursive artifacts with no real arguments being developed, a trembling stasis of rhetoric blinking alluringly. Not quite the Singaporean for who is a/the Singaporean? (And I might as well drop the articles.)

We are perpetually trying to find words for ourselves, only to find our words and ourselves sinking into the mud, betraying words, betrayed by words, doomed to fail, damned to try, again and again.

We may call ourselves Singaporeans and define ourselves against foreigners as a response to the PAP’s foreign talent policy: we, the disadvantaged; they, the privileged. Only we are told not to be xenophobic. We should not have an inflated sense of entitlement when jobs should be given to the best people, not to citizens who are not good enough or are so unreasonably asking for first-world salaries to keep up with the escalating cost of living exacerbated by, again, the policies of the same people who have been engineering our lives according to their (or one man’s) vision.

Nonetheless, we persist. We say, “Bestow National Service only on the international best too instead of conscripting Singaporeans who are chronic fitness test failures. Those Singaporeans are obviously ineligible in the spirit of meritocracy.” But we will be accused of being irrational for NS is exclusive to Singaporeans; it is a privilege to serve to which Singaporean men are obligated. (Singaporean women must be underprivileged, but I believe most would probably rather be so.) We are still dealing with relatively clear borders though, even if they are painted on a canvas of absurdity. Yet, some of us might, in feeble frustration at being maligned, speak, instead, of locals versus others who have come to be known as locals by the authorities—citizens versus permanent residents. Why is it so easy for a foreigner to become officially local via permanent residency and enjoy privileges, some of which we have no access? Nonsense, comes the retort, the government puts Singaporeans first, and even second-generation permanent residents have to serve in the military. How true. And they can even become citizens like us. When that happens, would it mean that even citizens-who-were-once-foreigners can, like us, claim to be disadvantaged, strangled by the tender embrace of the state?

Singapore, in your arms, how do I become myself?

There are those who speak of true blue Singaporeans, but we can never say who qualifies to be one. Must a true blue Singaporean be born in a certain era or have undergone specific experiences? We need a definition of the true blue Singaporean that goes beyond myopic considerations of what is immediate to us.  The true blue Singaporean is not a dying breed. If it were, Singapore would be well on its way to being a utopian space even if it is at our expense. But we will soon die and yet, for a long time after we are gone, there will be those in the margins of Singapore who consider themselves unfairly disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, if we have to speak of the true Singaporean with a focus on disadvantage, there is the challenge of accounting for those who are apparently not disadvantaged. There is a risk of merely coming up with another name for the marginalized as a collective, another misnomer of a label. Given that the figure of the true blue Singaporean is often invoked to show how certain Singaporeans are being threatened, in their own country, by the presence of foreigners or new Singaporeans, many would find it unimaginable citing PAP ministers as examples of true blue Singaporeans. Yet, it is equally difficult to claim that PAP ministers are not true blue Singaporeans as though we are selecting members for a club exclusive to disadvantaged individuals. Perhaps we are ultimately just some people, not true blue anything.

And yet, I try. In paralysis, I try. Whoever else there are out there, we struggle, always, to wriggle out under the feet of unreasonable, rhetorical retorts. Perhaps we ought to be more inclusive before we speak. Offer foreigners the true blue Singapore citizenship. In a political space where the conventional understanding of citizenship has been contaminated and made absurd, it only makes marginal sense to even speak of foreigners. Like us, foreigners (and the distinction merely serves a linguistic purpose here) are expected to sacrifice selfhood for Singapore does not want the best foreigners. They want foreigners who help the continuation of Singapore as Singapore. Singapore wants them because they make Singapore more diverse and vibrant. Singapore is confident that “new immigrants to Singapore can become Singaporeans in outlook and loyalty within a generation” (SM Goh). In short, Singapore’s logic goes that foreigners can become exactly like Singaporeans and contribute to Singapore’s diversity. Let me contribute to Singapore’s diversity then. I am anything but Singaporean.

Like us, foreigners might want to move on to another country. Like us, they may even buy into nonsensical ideologies persuading them to trade what matters most for humanity for some securities to which they ought to be entitled at no cost. Foreigners can probably be taught to pay good money for air to breathe. Like us, they are merely functions of the utilitarian practices—we are all wanted because we help produce economic statistics in different ways; they are wanted because they make Singapore more vibrant, we are wanted because we can serve NS and loyally vote for the PAP. (A change of status allows them to vote too, so it really does not make a difference).

Singapore, I am not your citizen.

Foreigners come here, we are already here. Perhaps there is a difference after all. For the rest of the world, there’s Singapore to go to as foreign talent. For us, there is no the-rest-of-the-world to treat us the way Singapore treats its foreign talents.

There is a difference, even if it is not between locals and foreigners. We may state the difference, but we often fail to coherently articulate who we are comparing. Our terms of comparison cannot be locals, citizens, permanent residents, expatriates, and foreigners. Subjects of the government’s policies, perhaps. Privileged, disadvantaged. There are privileged foreigners, victimized locals, privileged locals, victimized foreigners and a multitude of different permutations. Yet, if this sounds close to lucidity, we realize also that privilege is relative. Is the son favored by his father only because he contributes more to the family business privileged compared to his siblings? It is impossible to claim that one sibling is in a worse position than another. You can only observe the constant, the father that doles out privilege—the authority that bestows triumph and triggers jealousy.

Have we been banished by the rest of the world to this landfill as sacrifices to the ravenous soil, awaiting the end of decay, the total conquest of subsumption that sets us free?

Singapore, I don’t want to be your citizen.

“Get out if you cannot stand it!”

I would gladly oblige, if I could. I should not continue being an impediment in a singapore’s road to self-actualization, should I? But do I look like I grow wings? Even Gregor Samsa could not get out of his house.

Even if I do get out, would I not be blamed for not foolishly staying to bear the slings and arrows of an outrageous authoritarian regime?

Here I am, being raped and I am told that I ought to stay and attempt fighting the rapist who can effortlessly overpower me (or continue being raped—in silence—not strong enough to fight) instead of trying to run away from the rapist because only losers run away. Ridiculous. But turn it into political rhetoric and it almost works—and certainly makes perfect sense to some of us. Yes, rapists sometimes provide us with a roof over our heads and might even throw some money in our faces to keep us quiet. Never bite the hand that feeds you even if it violates you.

Perhaps being trapped in a mute spot of public discourse, desperately calling out to the deaf is a trait of a true blue Singaporean.

Singapore. I am no citizen.

The General Elections will come soon, as always. They come as quickly as our youth and our lives are depleted. Sirens of our memory decay. Even their echoes vanish. Silent wretchedness lingers, longingly, imploring us not to allow fear to push us, expectant with hope, to a miscarriage. If we cannot crawl out of the landfill, we should at least give reshaping the landscape a shot. Is this not the spirit of survival that we are told to take pride in? No one is obliged to give opposition candidates a chance. But we need to give ourselves one.


*A different version (perhaps an interpretation?) of this post, edited by KJ, appears in The Online Citizen as “Deconstructing the Singaporean – foreigner and local alike”.

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