Blogger Ravi Philemon has done what the prime minister should have done – to reach out to both sides of the divide in the controversy over the holding of an Independence Day celebratory event at Ngee Ann City on 8 June. [See here: “Dialogue between organisers and protesters of Philippine“.] When the event was first announced by the Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), all hell seemed to break loose then. Criticisms came fast and furious, especially online from protesters who felt the Filipinos should not hold their celebrations at such a public venue. These criticisms however were then followed by equally strong reactions from those opposed to the protest itself.
The protesters were soon labelled “trolls”, and those who reportedly and allegedly made threatening phone calls to the organisers were quickly labelled “a disgrace to Singapore” by the Prime Minister himself.
The Acting Manpower Minister preferred to accuse the protesters of “bigotry” and who “peddle hate”.
Some bloggers prefer the “pure and simple” – and convenient – epithets of “xenophobia” and “racism” for the protesters.
Whether one agrees with such labels, one thing is for sure – when it comes to such apparently deep-seated unhappiness, it is never “pure and simple”.
In fact, such “xenophobia” is always more complex and complicated, with levels of reasons or causes buried deeper than the superficial labelling which some have preferred.
One does wonder if the reactions from those who oppose the protesters were not simply one of wanting to take the high moral ground – and nothing much else.
You call them out and then what?
And to be sure, the protesters who resort to the language of “war” do not help the situation – or themselves – either.
It is just an event which venue you disagree with. No need to summon the troops to the battlements.
There is much to learn yet about negotiation, communication and understanding.
Which is why it is wonderful, really, to see Ravi take the lead here – to find a third way, as it were, away from the stubborn and self-righteous but ultimately meaningless positions of the two opposing sides.
There is no point in screaming xenophobia till you’re blue in the face. Or to call your own people “a disgrace”. It only hardens the heart of those your words are targeted at.
One expects more wisdom from a leader of a nation.
Neither do cries to do violence, whether imagined or otherwise, against the organisers help.
Nothing about this is “pure and simple”, contrary to what blogger Kirsten Han wrote about the matter, who described the protest as “xenophobia and racism.”
Instead, one suspects that – if the meeting of both sides takes place, as suggested by Ravi – we will see that it is really about many things but ultimately about fear, at its root. A fear of a loss. A loss of what?
A loss of national identity.
For the individual, a loss or fear that one no longer belongs to this land.
And that is a big question, a big issue, to address, given all that have happened in the last decade or so.
It is that same question which our NSmen and their parents are now asking – what does it mean to be Singaporean? Why should we defend this land, if we no longer feel an affinity to it?
Why indeed would we lay down our lives for our country if foreigners are accorded the same rights as us citizens?
It is not a question of racism, or xenophobia, but of who we are.
And just as importantly, how securely we feel this, this identity with this land and all it stands for.
In 2002, then a newly-minted minister following the general election of 2001, Vivian Balakrishnan raised the same question in his maiden parliamentary speech.
“Two nights ago,” Dr Balakrishnan told the House, “my son… asked me, ‘Daddy, if there’s a war, why should we fight for Singapore?’ “
His son’s question, he said, was really: “What is it about this place, why should I fight for it, what happens if I die?”
It is a question which a country such as Singapore will grapple with for a while yet, as indeed that is what we are seeing in the present times.
The current discussion to give our NSmen more recognition for their contribution to the nation, one suspects, is to somehow assuage feelings over this loss of national identity of who we are, especially during the last 5 years or so.
“We need to sort out the answers among ourselves first,” Dr Balakrishnan said in 2002, “because what do we tell our children if we haven’t sorted this out?”
“If we cannot, with a good conscience, send our children out to fight and to die, then we really have to worry about whether we even have a right to sit here.”
Just as the government continues to try and forge a national identity for its people, amidst great economic and societal changes, our leaders must also be aware that the people of Singapore too are trying to adapt to the changes. And it is not an easy change for some to undergo, as indeed the government itself is grappling with the question of national identity – 12 years after Dr Balakrishnan’s remarks in Parliament.
And in the course of undergoing this momentous change, there will be times when emotions get the better of us, as indeed it did with this episode over the Philippines Independence Day event. And I am not just referring to the protesters against the event.
Our Prime Minister and our Acting Manpower Minister too, in my opinion, allowed their emotions to get the better of them.
But it is at times like this that we need leaders who can see the views from both sides, no matter how much the leaders themselves disagree with the views – and then reach out and soothe the frayed nerves and bleeding hearts.
Nonetheless, even as our leaders have chosen sides, it is good to see that sometimes it is the ordinary Singaporeans, such as Ravi Philemon, who have courage enough to step forward and do what is more productive than assigning labels and useless and childish name-calling.
One hopes the PIDCS will accept Ravi’s offer to mediate, and that both sides can come together and lay down the unnecessary vitriol.
The divide is not unbridgeable.