by Ravi Philemon
In the last General Election, I helped National Solidarity Party’s candidate for Mountbatten single member constituency, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss in her campaign. In introducing herself to the voters, Ms Chong-Aruldoss had said, “Our playgrounds and common spaces are now filled with faces we could not recognise and languages we are unfamiliar with. The stragglers have been left behind in the dust of those that had galloped forward”.
This message of Mrs Chong-Aruldoss, resonated with many citizens. Some however, took offence to it, alleging that she’s stoking xenophobia particularly directed at a voiceless minority, the migrant community.
Mrs Chong-Aruldoss had then responded to such criticisms that her comments were reflective of how many Singaporeans felt, and that their sentiments were more directed at the People’s Action Party Government which had opened the floodgates of immigration, without ensuring that there is proper infrastructure in place to accommodate them, or if they are integrated properly with the Singaporean society.
Fast forward to the year 2014, and how much has changed since the last General Election?
When Singapore got its independence in the year 1965, the population of Singapore stood at 1.9 million. Ten years later, in the year 1975, the population was 2.2 million. We had grown by 300,000 in a span of 10 years.
In 1985, the population rose to 2.7 million – rising by about 500,000 from the last decade. Within the next 10 years, in the year 1995, our country’s population increased by 800,000. It stood at 3.5 million.
It should be noted that before Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in the year 1990, between the years of 1986 – 1990, the population grew by 300,000. The partial immigration liberalisation policy under Mr Goh’s leadership from 1990, saw the population growing by another 500,000 in the next 5 years.
And between the years of 1996 – 2005 a further 800,000 were added. Our population stood at 4.3 million in the year 2005.
In 2004, there was another change of leadership in the Government. Mr Lee Hsien Loong took over as the Prime Minister of the country. Under Mr Lee’s leadership, the population grew to levels unprecedented before. In 9 short years, from 2004 to 2013 our population grew by 1.1 million.
We now have 5.4 million people living on our island of 716 square-kilometre, of which only 3.3 million are citizens.
In a country which is severely constrained by space, where almost 40 percent of the population are foreigners and where efforts at integration are not effective, is it any wonder if strong anti-foreigner sentiments arise from time to time? Especially when citizens face unfair competition for jobs where foreigners hire and promote their own kind at the expense of equally qualified locals; when Singaporeans are confronted with service staff who cannot speak in the language that they understand; and when locals have to witness socially undesirable actions by foreigners on almost a daily basis?
Mrs Chong-Aruldoss is not the only one who has voiced concerns about discomfort felt by Singaporeans due to the large number of foreigners in our midst.
Chairman of Workers’ Party, Ms Sylvia Lim, speaking at the by-election rally in January last year said, “Sometimes when I am crossing at traffic lights, I close my eyes and listen to people talking around me and can imagine myself living in a different country”.
I lived in the USA for a few years. Strangely, I did not feel too out of place when I lived in that foreign land. But when I came back to Singapore in the year 2008, it felt like I had come back to a totally different country. I had recounted previously about how I had tried to order a drink of soya-bean milk at the coffee-shop, but was not able to despite speaking in English and even Hokkien because the person taking the order could only understand Mandarin.
But were such difficulties only applicable to the minorities in Singapore?
Mrs Chong-Aruldoss recounted on her Facebook two years ago about how a service staff at a large supermarket could not help her because he did not know the languages she did, and how the duty manager she approached (even if he spoke English well), was also a foreigner.
Besides all these inconveniences and frustrations felt at public spaces and amenities by Singaporeans, a sizeable number of locals are also stressed by employers who practice unfair discrimination.
Many may not have forgotten Mr Roginald Santos Oloresisimo, a Filipino chef at Swiss restaurant, La Fondue who posted several discriminatory job advertisements on various job sites, requesting a “Filipino female” for a manager’s position and for a Filipino chef to join an “all Filipino team” at the restaurant.
Even if the management of La Fondue later apologised for the staff’s behaviour saying that the employee acted on his own volition without consulting or received any approval from the management, and that the restaurant’s hiring policy was in line with the Ministry of Manpower’s regulations, the damage had already been done. Such incidents have reinforced the perception that many Singaporeans already have – that in working environments where there are a fairly large number of foreigners in positions of authority from a certain country, locals sometimes get bypassed in favour of these foreigners.
Even if the Government – since the last General Election where the voters spoke using their votes that such unfair discrimination of Singaporeans are unacceptable – has highlighted and taken steps to better moderate the demand for foreign labour by raising levies, qualifying salaries and qualifications for work permits, many policies from national service requirements to maternity leave still make employers favour foreigners over locals.
And Singaporeans are not spared the stresses caused by this massive influx of foreigners when they get off work or school either, but have to face the socially unacceptable behaviours of some of them in the trains, eateries, recreational places and neighbourhood.
In the year 2011 my son caught a neighbour allowing her son to defecate in public when there was a public toilet available just a few metres away in the coffee-shop at the same block. We reported the incident to our town council, who in turn referred the matter to NEA, who promised action.
A cursory search in Google says that almost 3 years later, such socially unacceptable behaviours by some foreigners still seem to be prevalent.
For example, in February this year, a video was circulated of a woman who had allowed her baby to urinate in a food court at Resorts World Sentosa.
With having to put up with all these on almost a daily basis, it is certainly understandable if some Singaporeans have adopted a siege-mentality that the way of life that they have been used to is under threat. That is why some of them reacted the way they did on the issue of the Philippine Independence Day in Singapore.
The report of phone calls to the organisers of the celebration certainly seems over the top if true. But besides the newspaper report saying that it happened, there is no other proof that they were harassed on the phone, neither was any police report made. As for the nasty messages on the organiser’s social media platforms – it is something almost any organiser of any event has to deal with, especially in a country with one of the highest Internet penetration rate.
There certainly seems to be a certain level of miscommunication between the organisers and the protesters, which no amount of labelling and chiding can help. What is needed is for both sides to sit down and talk, to better understand each side’s position better, and to explore how to move forward in a manner that will be a win-win for both.
It is natural for people to feel threatened by a horde. But instead of re-assuring citizens and facilitating dialogues for better understanding among locals and foreigners, how do our leaders react when tensions between the two groups flare-up from time to time? They tell us not to over-react, reminding us often that many of us are descendents of foreigners.
They forget however that when many of our forefathers arrived in this country many years ago, they didn’t arrive in the hundreds-of-thousands as they have been in the past years and also there was more physical space, which means that both groups could be more accommodating and less antagonistic towards each other.
With the sheer number of foreigners brought into our midst in such substantial numbers in recent years, perhaps it is redundant to even talk about proper infrastructure or integration. The real question should be: how do we stop the massive inflow of foreigners into our tiny island-country?
At a dialogue organised by Online/Offline in the year 2012, filmmaker Martyn See had this to say about the rising anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore:
“There is something we can do about anti-foreigner sentiments, which is a sentiment that is caused by wrong government policies. So what do we need to do? We don’t have to get angry at the foreigner, we get angry at the policies. It’s like someone has turned on the tap outside your house, and the water is seeping through into your room. And you are getting angry at the water, mopping up the floor every day, when all you have to do is go outside and turn-off the freaking tap.”