On racism and xenophobia in Singapore

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“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).

The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.

These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.

As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.

Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.

1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes

In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.

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More problems at Singapore’s mainstream media channels

One of the great ironies of modern Singapore’s media development is that even as politicians, establishment supporters and other conservatives continue to heap scorn on internet sites, the mainstream channels keep making mistakes, sometimes egregious ones. It is as if they are doing their utmost to make a mockery of their fans.

2013 proved a particularly horrible year for Singapore’s mainstream media channels, and they have started off 2014 on the same shot-riddled foot. Pointing out these errors is important not in order to have a laugh–although one can hardly blame Singapore’s beleaguered bloggers for indulging in a bit of schadenfreude.

The bigger reason is that, like so many other sacred cows of the Singapore model, media policies here are based on a seemingly immutable national orthodoxy about the role of elites: Singapore society must rely on a tiny, enlightened group of people, rather than the distributed intelligence of all Singaporeans. This belief manifests itself in everything from a government-knows-best attitude to the presumption that our restricted, elite-led mainstream media model is serving our country well. Continue reading