Video footage of a woman from India being verbally assaulted over her apparently incorrect face mask-wearing by a Singaporean has been doing its rounds online. While it may be convenient to dismiss this as an isolated incident, the truth may be far more nuanced than this.
This incident highlights simmering resentment over a multitude of issues that have bubbled over. This isn’t an incident that can be easily put into a box.
Is it purely an issue about race? Clearly not, given that the perpetrator, in this case, was not of the Chinese majority. However, to use this case as a barometer for the levels of racism in Singapore is also not the answer because there is undeniably racism in Singapore (both casual and of a more serious nature).
Is this incident about xenophobia? While xenophobia may be part of the equation, the bringing up of National Service speaks more about perceived unfairness rather than xenophobia for itself. So, while xenophobia should not be condoned, there is merit in looking behind that label to flesh out the underlying concerns.
Here is when a much needed and honest conversation about the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) is needed.
CECA has caused so much anger among Singaporeans because there is a perception that Singaporeans are losing out because of unfair terms in the treaty which lead to a larger flow of immigrants into Singapore when compared with the outflow of Singaporeans to the corresponding country. This in turn creates the perception that resources are being stretched and that there is a lack of jobs.
This is not an issue about India or Indians. This is an issue about a potentially unfair treaty. Yet, because the treaty was signed with India, the issue of race and nationality has raised its ugly head.
Are there racist people who are vocal about CECA? Yes, of course, there are. Do we need to acknowledge racism and deal with it through education and awareness? Yes of course we do.
But, are we allowing the distraction of race and nationality to take our attention away from a treaty that may not be fair for Singapore regardless of which country it is signed with?
Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party had tried to talk about this issue. In so doing, he made sure to say that this wasn’t an issue about immigrants. He took pains to say that his comments about CECA were “focused on the economics of the pact”.
He clarified that to the extent that he had any reservations, it was based on what he felt to be “inequities in the outcomes that result when a large, developing nation signs a free trade deal with a smaller, albeit richer, one.” In other words, CECA would still be an unfair treaty even if it was signed with another country.
Is this incident about coronavirus fears? Yes and no. While the fears are genuine, it has become conflated with many other flashpoints which creates anger and confusion which are unconstructive and pointless.
Singapore can indeed be an intolerant or ignorant society in many ways about race, culture and religion. But until we fully own up to that, that repression becomes vented through issues such as COVID-19. Whether we like it or not, everyone has racial and/or cultural stereotypes and biases. Let’s own up to it and have an honest conversation.
Proxies as collective failure to deal with racism and xenophobia
This is why the insistence on having closed-door discussions on something such as the wearing of the tudung in certain public service jobs by the likes of Masagos Zulkifli is disappointing and damaging. After all, this is an issue that involves all Singaporeans. Aren’t the Muslims around us our fellow Singaporeans too? Why bury the issue when this is a chance for open dialogue?
By suppressing it and making it seem like something that is “secretive” or “forbidden”, authorities are creating the impression that this is an issue that cannot be discussed. This drives the conversation underground, creating a “gossip” quality that will be laden with speculation and falsehoods. This does not serve the progression or evolution of our society to become a more inclusive one.
Then there is the way authorities and those affiliated with authorities have attempted to downplay fears over the transmission of the Indian variant of the coronavirus into Singapore into one about racism or xenophobia. While I have no doubt that among those calling for a ban from those travelling from India will include racist and xenophobic people, to simply make it an issue about race or nationality is inaccurate and incomplete.
The need to tackle racism and xenophobia are real issues. The need to protect the country against a new variant is also a serious issue that must be dealt with. Both are genuine and pressing concerns but they are not the same thing!
Even if some of the people calling for the ban are racist and/or xenophobic does not mean that all the people calling for the ban are xenophobic or racist. By conflating the two issues, we are doing neither justice.
Back in early 2020, Singaporeans were also calling for a ban on visitors coming in from China, which was the epicentre of the virus at that time. Then, the label xenophobia was used although racism was not given that the majority of Singaporeans are also ethnically Chinese. Then as it is now, is the issue just about xenophobia?
The virus is spread through proximity. This means that if a particular country is an epicentre at a given point in time, border closures with that country must be considered. The xenophobia and racism expressed by some must be dealt with but they need to be recognised as separate problems to be tackled as opposed to allowing it to add complexity to the need to contain a global pandemic.
And to what extent are those in power and with influence directing the big conversation that must be had? To what extent are authorities and those with influence able to separate out the layered issues? Where is the leadership here?
Because we as a country, have failed to adequately address the issues of racism and ignorance, issues such as the coronavirus and CECA have become proxies. Our Government has tried to deal with racism by making it persona non grata – we cannot talk about it openly. This does not mean that the problem goes away – it just means it gets redirected onto other issues and here we are today.