By Howard Lee
There is very little that can be said factually about the protest against the Philippine Independence Day Celebration, which drew the ire of a small group of Singaporeans, and subsequently caught the attention of both the Manpower Minister and the Prime Minister.
In brief: The Philippine Independence Day Council Singapore, made up of a group of Filipino volunteers residing here, have organised an event to celebrate their country’s independence, expecting to draw a crowd of 10,000. They sent out some promotional flyers, which were picked up by a few Singaporeans, who took issue with what they perceive to be overt depictions of Filipino nationalism, to the extend of viewing the pictorial depictions in the publicity flyers as imperialistic. The Singaporean group were unhappy enough to call for the event to be held on Embassy premises, PIDCS reacted in fear to the anger, and this eventually led to our Ministers giving warnings about xenophobia.
Another blimp of Singaporeans unhappy with foreigners in our midst, another tense stand-off, and another “lesson learnt” issued by our political leaders. Should that be that way?
Granted, the actions of this small group of Singaporeans were indeed uncalled for. We do have a sizeable population of Filipinos here, and not all of them have been naturalised as citizens. Even among the new citizens, it would not be surprising if they have a yearning for their homeland, and it is not wrong for them to want to be part of that on an occasion that rallies them as one.
What specifically caused the unhappiness is subjective. If you can read an imperialistic tendency in a poster, then you must surely see it, even if I don’t. Their actions, deemed as extreme, is also subjective, as it corresponds to the perceived injustice felt.
What we do need to note, and cannot deny, is the nationalistic tendency of the reaction to the intended celebration. Singaporeans took issue with national icons like the Philippine flag and the Singapore skyline, as much as they took issue with the event being held in the heart of the city.
This particular contest is not just about physical space, and it has very little reason to be. Even in land-scarce Singapore, surely we have to capacity to take on one more celebration. Foreigners giving us less elbow room on our little island is at best only one factor contributing to the unhappiness. Instead, this incidents demonstrates a contest for mental space, as can be seen from the nationalistic slant of the protest.
Indeed, the Prime Minister alluded to this inclination in his Facebook post: “We must show that we are generous of spirit and welcome visitors into our midst, even as we manage the foreign population here.”
It is hard to imagine how an idea, a social construct, can be “managed”. We can only believe that the PM is talking about managing the physical realm that currently houses both Singaporeans and foreigners. From the policy perspective, these are best felt in the latest moves to bolster housing and public transport, and also efforts towards managing employment discrimination.
Unfortunately, managing these physical aspects of our burgeoning foreign population can at best alleviate part of the people’s unhappiness towards foreigners. If our government honestly believes that the people will be less hostile towards foreigners simply because there are more jobs, houses and train rides to go around, then we are indeed misguided.
Our leaders have been too eager to defuse the situation, to allow them an interim peace so that they may find more ways to “manage the foreign population”.It is stop-gag, and does nothing for the real underlying issues.
For every situation where we see Singaporeans speaking up against foreigners in our midst, it is fair to believe that we have yet to cross that hurdle where we can be comfortable about living with foreigners. By living, we are not talking about sharing the same space, but in “living out” our culture, lifestyle and beliefs as a people.
What are these, actually? Oddly, we might not really know.
We see “Singapore” and being Singaporean in a flag, a skyline, a place, the way we speak, the way we dress. But what are the Singapore values that distinguishes us from someone of another nationality? What can we call our own, such that we can stand by our values and be not afraid of another nationality taking it over?
For a while, we might have believed that it was values like meritocracy, fortitude and social responsibility that held us up as a people. In recent years, we have seen that eroding. Meritocracy did not bring social justice. Our hard work did not bring us a better life, only a constant need to struggle exhaustingly against increasing competition. Our social graces meant nothing to the mass inflow of foreigners, who have brought their own cultural practices without adapting to ours.
Might it shock you if I were to say, Singaporeans are the diaspora in their own country?
Those are the real fears of Singaporeans when confronted with a situation of “us versus them” – that the “us” is barely visible, and might simply disappear in the cacophony of a very loud and open “them”. Labelling these fears without addressing them will not hide the fact that Singaporeans are anxious about who they, and this nation they intend for their children to inherit, will become.
The wrong approach, then, would be to dismiss every such incident – and mind you, this will neither be the last nor the most virulent one – as the actions of a minority and brush it off as xenophobia.
Instead, our leaders will benefit more by paying heed to questions about nationalism, or the lack of it. Grasping at icons that represent nationality cannot possibly replace the sense of national identity itself. What we need is a stronger sense of who we are. We search, but if this searching is met by a classification into “xenophobia”, then we would have gotten nowhere.
I believe that Singaporeans have grown tired of this unending game. What we want is an affirmation of values that define us a a people, and an equal affirmation from this government, like those of the past, that these values will be upheld through sound policies.