This is part 3 of 4. To read part 2, click here.
It saddens me that racism and xenophobia have been on the rise over the past few years.
But we need some perspective. Xenophobia is on the rise across the world. Consider the UK. From 2001 to 2010, the UK’s net annual migration rate averaged 0.3% of the population.
What happened there? Nationalism, xenophobia, the rise of Nigel Farage. Right now, there is a refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK is the most obstinate of all.
How about Singapore? Well, from 2001 to 2010, our migration rate was more than six times the UK’s.1 Six times!
This is not an apology for racism and xenophobia. We must always fight it. But we need to understand why these feelings emerge.
So, why has xenophobia been on the rise? One has to point the finger at the PAP. The party failed to manage inflows, infrastructure, integration and social equities.
Why did it fail? Many reasons, including politicians’ obsession with GDP growth at all costs.
Never discount the power of incentives. Politicians’ salaries have been tied to GDP growth—and it has been much easier for them to grow GDP by pumping in more inputs such as labour rather than through productivity improvements. (Oh, and of course it helps if the attendant property boom increases one’s net worth.)
Personal incentives, I guess, made it easier for Singaporean politicians to ignore all the negative externalities that growth-at-all-costs entailed.
So I always have a good laugh when my foreigner friends in Singapore cheer on the PAP while scolding Singaporeans for not being open. You can observe migrant integration challenges elsewhere. With the PAP’s policies, what did you expect might happen here?
But the truth is that the PAP has a long record of mismanaging populations policies. In the 1970s it told us to Stop at Two. In the 1980s it told graduates to procreate. In the 1990s it told us all to procreate. By 2000, it said that only mass immigration can save Singapore.
Antiquated ethnic worldview
The PAP’s ethnic policies are also problematic. Why must we continue to be labelled as Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others?
What a ridiculous situation we are in. Half of the people in this country are shoehorned into these fixed stereotypes of race, of language, forced to live according to quotas in housing estates.
The other half of the people here, including all the foreigners and many in private homes—they can do whatever they want. Speak whatever dialect. Live wherever they want.
Two halves. One side forced to accept the government-sanctioned identity. The other side free to be whoever they want. Is this what a global city looks like?
Well, the PAP will tell you that its ethnic policies are the base for Singapore’s success. Let me challenge this idea head on by referencing our idol, the one Singaporean revered the world over.
Yes, Tharman. I’m sure you remember the Youtube video of Stephen Sackur interviewing Tharman at St Gallen. My entire Facebook Feed was filled with Singaporeans gushing over Tharman. It certainly filled me with pride.
But let me challenge what Tharman said then about race. He claimed that the primary reason for Singapore’s ethnic harmony is because the PAP forces people of different races to live together.
Really? You mean that before the PAP came along, Chinese, Malays and Indians were fighting each other?
No. For centuries, Chinese, Malays and Indians co-existed harmoniously in Singapore, even though we lived apart. We ate each other’s food, we adopted each other’s dress, language, many people spoke Malay. Singapore is so small, that even if you don’t live together, you will see every race, every religion, every day.
Singapore’s first ever race riot was in 1964.2 Why? Partly because the PAP broke a promise and contested an election in Kuala Lumpur. This upset Malay nationalists. In other words, Singapore’s first ever race riot was partly the PAP’s doing.
To be fair, the 1950s-60s were unpredictable. Post colonialism, identity politics, tribalism, nationalism. And we are all grateful that the PAP wanted to challenge UMNO’s pro-Malay bias. But when Tharman says that ethnic harmony is the PAP’s doing, I think he needs a deeper appreciation of history.
Justifying media controls, Tharman then suggested that Singapore needs to guard against the kind of ethnic tensions seen in the French banlieues.
This is an absolutely absurd comparison. In France you have deep-seated animosity between a former coloniser—the French—and their former subjects—North Africans. How is that similar to the situation between Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore?
Similarly, last year PAP supporters cried, “Oh! Look what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri—conflict between blacks and whites. If we are not careful, Singapore might become like that.”
Really? In the US you have deep-seated animosity between former slave owners and former slaves. How exactly will Singapore become like that?
In a place like the US, we have seen constant racial tensions for centuries. In Singapore, by contrast, the status quo has been peace and harmony among the three races. If anything, the 1960s were a blip. Tharman and the PAP have co-opted our long-standing racial harmony as proof of their methods.
Now we should never be careless about race or religion in Singapore. We have a wonderful ethnic harmony here that must be preserved. But let’s not make ignorant, lazy assumptions about the roots of our harmony.
In fact, the PAP’s misguided worldview has resulted in THE most racist policy in the developed world: the need to maintain our Chinese majority.
I know a lot of new migrants from India, some are good friends. They are the PAP’s biggest fans (the feeling is mutual, if Bukit Batok is any indication).
But I like joking to them: do you know every time the PAP allows an Indian into Singapore, it has to import seven Chinese just to make sure Singapore doesn’t become too Indian?
A Malay friend told me he feels like he’s “living under apartheid”.
The funny thing is the main tensions in Singapore are not between the local Chinese, Malays and Indians, like the PAP has always warned us about. Many tensions are with the new Indian migrants and the new Chinese migrants, who are here in such big numbers because of the PAP.
And the biggest tension is social, between class and income groups.
But the PAP is blind to all this. It still tries to manage society with its 1960s worldview: Chinese, Malay, Indians, Others.
(Both the SDP and the WP, incidentally, call for an overhaul of this ethnic worldview.)
One final thought about population. We shouldn’t slam the migrants who come here. They are fellow humans, just like you and me. Even though the PAP’s immigration policies have been bad, the right response today is not to close our doors.
Yes, we must slow down the inflow. Yes, we must give preferences to citizens, just like every country in the world does. But please, we must never close our doors to migrants. Singapore must always remain open.
Let me finish this section with Tharman. For all his achievements, his could be seen as an ironic, tragic story of failed ambition. Many of us feel he deserves to be prime minister.
Instead, he chugs along, valiantly—and oh so eloquently—defending the very system that discriminates against him, that prevents him from fulfilling his potential.
This is part 3 of 4. To read part 4, click here.
2 Other riots before 1964, notably the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, were anti-colonial or class struggles