By Howard Lee
It might seem fairly odd to say this, but the amount of digital ink spilt over the Philippine Independence Day event has only grown after our Manpower Minister and Prime Minister expressed their dissatisfaction with the way Singaporeans have reacted.
Indeed, the entire fracas started with little more than a 300-odd “likes” to a posting on the Say “No” to an Overpopulated Singapore Facebook page. From there, it has sparked off at least 1,900 comments (we don’t actually know how many have been deleted) on PM Lee’s Facebook page.
The incident also took on a life of its own, pervading forums that mention foreigner relations and our immigration woes. As much as there were defenders of the event and the organisers, there were also those who voiced out strongly, and in various degrees of resentment and rudeness, against it and the Filipino population in general.
If PM Lee had intended for his Facebook post to calm nerves and restore sensibility, his effort failed miserably. In fact, the opposite was achieved. Singaporeans from all walks of life are talking more about it, and not necessarily in measured and civil tones.
The pertinent question to ask is, why? But before we go into that, it would be good to take a look at the type of reactions that this debate generated.
For sure, there were the “die foreigner, die” variant, just as there were the unflinching support statements for PM Lee’s position. Then there were the moderate in betweens, which TOC has covered sufficiently on a few days ago.
Interestingly enough, there was also a noticeable effort among some to start tagging the term “xenophobic” to comments and people. You even find it in comment streams of remotely related topics, such as an article on a recent book launch on government policies.
If anything, people seem to have latched on to PM Lee’s “them versus us” narrative, and by this I’m not talking about Singaporeans versus foreigners. The PM’s Facebook post, intended or not, had the effect of distinguishing the trolls/xenophobes/rude/disgraceful from, well, pretty much anyone else who was not those, or did not want to be those.
What is wrong with that, you might ask? Isn’t it appropriate that those who do wrong be fingered, named and shamed? Should we not stand firm against negative impulses like xenophobia and rudeness? Sure, if it helps to advance the conversation. But it did not.
If I were to put it graphically, this is what went wrong in PM’s post:
PM Lee’s Facebook post essentially drew a firm line between the two extremes. Moderate views that wish to enter the discussion are drawn into either extreme ends. This can be done willingly – debaters deliberately choose to take up either position – or not of their choosing – other debaters tag their comments to define them as either.
There are, of course, moderate views in between the extremes that try to assert their position, either for or against the extremes, but never quite falling into those categories. However, the spotlight is on the extremes, and it becomes more tempting to use the terms of reference from the extremes to classify these arguments, rather than try to rationalise them into new positions. Incidentally, those who wish to enter the debate would begin to tailor their arguments to the terms used at the extremes.
The results are telling, as can be seen in the anguish and forcefulness used by the debates following PM Lee’s Facebook post. The extreme views are in opposition to one another, which makes reconciliation near impossible. The conflict builds as views from the centre are drawn, willingly or not, into the extremes, and the moderate views are drowned out or lost. “You are with me, or you are against me.”
Such discussions are unhealthy at best, and downright damaging to cohesion and public morale at worst.
If the PM were to have directed the spotlight at the views in between, the results would have been quite different:
To enter the conversation, debaters would now have to move away from the extremes into the centre. It is not to say that the views at the extreme ends of the argument will become forgotten, but the debate is now directed towards the centre, whereby entrants to the debate would have to moderate their terms to those at the centre.
Indeed, views from the fringe are now drawn into the centre for examination, or debaters at the extreme would find it necessary to speak in the terms of the centre, if they wish to enter the conversation.
The centre also contains a wider range of views and possible sub-discussions, which makes debate messier and more complex than the extreme views. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to assume that it is easier to reconcile differences at the centre, rather than try to join the extremes.
Sadly, we do not have proof that the second model worked, utopian as it sounds, because it never happened to begin with. With the privilege and duty bestowed upon opinion leaders, we can only wonder why it was never tried.
But back to the original question – why was there such a major reaction from Singaporeans to PM Lee’s post? The answer can actually be found in the discussion of the debate model used.
The bulk of the responses, as TOC’s earlier article has shown, fall into the centre. These were Singaporeans who were generally not interested in debating how they should behave with foreigners, because they are neither rabidly against or supportive of them, as the extreme positions have proposed.
Instead, Singaporeans were by and large more concerned about things like job displacement, loss of culture and identity, upholding the law, double standards, overcrowding – anything but the extreme positions of xenophobia or the opposite.
PM Lee’s couching of the debate in such extreme and simplistic terms runs counter to what the people are actually feeling. We do not believe that the government has managed the immigration problem well. Neither do we think that “managing it” is only in terms of economic and infrastructure issues like providing more jobs, housing and public transport.
It worried many that the government appears to be bending over backwards to accommodate foreigners, with the potential of welcoming more foreigners to our island state. Citizens feel they are no longer citizens in their own home, and this has a destabilising effect. And now, they see their views ignored in favour of the extremes. Naturally, the response would be one of anguish and resentment.
The bitterness over the Population White Paper seems to have been forgotten, the lessons from it left by the wayside.
All this would not have been lost if PM Lee had decided to shine the spotlight on the views in the centre. Doing so would have been messy, laborious, even disruptive to the entire economic engine and the carefully-scripted “moderate path to growth” we are now embarking on.
But doing so would have won the hearts of the people who put this government in power. Doing so would have put the people at ease, instead of riling them further.