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‘Address seething anger against foreigners’

COMMENT

Member of Parliament for Tampines group representation constituency Baey Yam Keng recently had to apologise for his comments with regards to Chinese scholar Sun Xu's remarks that "there are more dogs than humans in Singapore."

Sun studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

His remarks set off a storm of protests among Singaporeans, especially online. Baey added to the controversy when he said in a New Paper report that Singaporeans also "need to reflect" on their own behaviour.

The paper reported: "Mr Baey weighed in on the issue during an interview with The New Paper published last Wednesday. He said people should not jump to the conclusion that all foreign students are like Mr Sun and that Singaporeans also 'need to reflect' and ask whether 'we (have behaved) the way they described'."

It was like throwing a matchstick into a tinderbox, and Singaporeans turned their anger to Baey. The MP later issued an apology, in Parliament, for his remarks. "I do not think that we can just treat all the negative sentiments towards foreigners as noise," he said.

Ng Bin Hong, in a letter to the Today newspaper on 5 March, expressed disappointment at Baey's apology.

"Mr Baey, in urging us to examine if our society is walking in a healthy direction, was one of the few voices acknowledging the social problem we face today," Ng said. "His comments did not undermine Singaporeans but, rather, cautioned against discrimination and bigoted behaviour. It is unfortunate that he ultimately apologised because of irrational, populist sentiments."

One would suspect that few Singaporeans would agree with Ng, especially given the prevailing sentiments on the issue of foreigners in our midst.

Acknowledge sentiments towards foreigners

What the government should realise, however, is that such sentiments towards foreigners are real. More importantly, these should be addressed more thoroughly and effectively. And to be fair, the government has tried to do so — with changes to employment policies (cutting the number of foreign workers), and in education, housing, healthcare policies too, for example. But these seem to have cut no ice with Singaporeans.

The dislike for foreigners remains.

Ng related an incident in a bus which he was on. The bus was apparently driven by a foreign worker. "[A] man started to shout in the driver's face that he was not wanted here and that he should return home," Ng said. "It was vicious and a safety hazard, as the bus captain was driving and trying to calm the man concurrently, which agitated him more."

While one should not condone such behaviour by the man, it shows that seething anger is building up on the ground. And this should be of deep concern to all of us, especially the government.

So far, however, there do not seem to be any real initiatives to recognise or acknowledge (in a meaningful way), these sentiments, or to address them effectively. Besides simple urgings from ministers for Singaporeans to not turn such incidents into xenophobic attacks on foreigners in general — as Law Minister K Shanmugam did in August last year following the "curry neighbours" incident — the authorities could do more.

We should recognise that the issue has seeped so deep that any rational or logical explanation or verbal urgings from those who keep defending the policies are no longer effective.

Openly discuss the issue

What Singapore needs now is perhaps a national discussion on the matter — one which lays out squarely the government's short-term and long-term concerns and intentions with regards to foreign workers, talents and immigrants, on the one hand; and Singaporeans' worries on the other; and how these can be honestly and openly discussed and addressed.

So far, what we have is a polarisation of views — neither side seeming to budge. This does not bode well for our nation, and indeed for the foreigners in our midst as well. The government continues to repeat its views and to stand firm on its policies, save for some tweaks here and there. The people continue to be utterly frustrated and to express its views online, the only avenue for them to air and vent their frustrations.

Recent changes to allow permanent residents to purchase public flats, the opacity over the number of scholarships given to foreigners, the setting up of a S$10 million Community Integration Fund to "help citizens bond with new citizens and immigrants", the jostling for places in primary schools and in public transport, the perceived increase in cost of living including in healthcare, which some Singaporeans have blamed on the presence of foreigners, that PRs are buying up our private properties for astronomical sums of money, etc, have all contributed to the rising tide of discontent on the issue of foreign presence in Singapore.

Sooner or later, something must give.

It would be a sad day, and a dangerous one indeed, if frustrations with the foreign worker/talent/immigration policies turn into deep-seated xenophobia.

Ng's encounter in the bus is just the latest symptom of an underlying malaise.

While the government is not wrong in having certain concerns if Singapore reduced significantly the number of foreigners or foreign workers, which was most recently reflected in small and medium enterprises' (SMEs) unhappiness over the government's tighter regulations, it must be more forthcoming in answering Singaporeans' questions about the issue and lay the ghosts to rest, as it were.

The truth is that to address these concerns, we need a sustained discussion, facilitated by all media channels. It should involve all parties — the government, opposition politicians, researchers, experts, interested parties and more importantly, members of the public. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised, after the general election in 2011, that his government will try and do better in its communications with the public over policies.

There is no better policy to start with than this one — the foreign worker/immigration policy — because it is quite clear that, on the ground, sentiments have reached a certain point where all it might take is another incident for it to boil over.

If this happens, we will be kicking ourselves for burying our heads in the sand and for being deaf to the cries of anger.

But that would then be too late.

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.