COMMENT: The Great Singaporean Grievance

Kirsten Han
Final White Paper protest at Hong Lim Park attracts 1,000 people. (Yahoo! photo)
Final White Paper protest at Hong Lim Park attracts 1,000 people. (Yahoo! photo)

“Jobs and Uni Places for FT, NS for Singaporean.”

The slogan was emblazoned on the T-shirt worn by Alex Tan from The Real Singapore – a website known for its anti-establishment, anti-foreigner vitriol – when he spoke at the third and final protest against the Population White Paper over the weekend. It was a succinct summary of much of the rhetoric spouted at the protest: the government loves foreigners more than they do Singaporeans.

It’s a common refrain, seen in blogs and social media platforms. The PAP government is raping the nation, discriminating against Singaporeans in favour of the dreaded "FT", squeezing honest citizens out of their own home country. You see "FT" everywhere you go now, and Singapore doesn’t feel like home anymore. This, of course, is evidence that the PAP government is embarking on a plan to replace “true-blue Singaporeans” with foreigners.

There are many issues with the PAP government. Much of the criticism directed at them related to issues of civil liberties, human rights and democracy is valid and important. As long as they remain convinced of the belief that only they know what’s best, Singaporeans will continue to be frustrated by the lack of opportunity to have a real voice in their country’s politics. And they would be right to be frustrated.

But the narrative of the victimised Singaporean is melodramatic, exclusionary and harmful. The idea that Singaporeans are victims of a nation-wide plan to replace “natives” with foreigners is ludicrous. Firstly, why would the government be trying so hard to implement policies and launch campaigns to encourage Singaporeans to have children if they didn’t want more Singaporeans? And secondly, what is a “true-blue Singaporean”, and why is it so desperately crucial for Singaporean citizens to be true and blue?

The participants of the last Population White Paper protest will be quick to assure the public that they are not xenophobic. They insist that they are against the policies rather than the foreigners.

It’s a song they’ve been singing time and again, not realising that their rhetoric is exclusionary and xenophobic. A slogan like “Jobs and Uni Places for FT, NS for Singaporean” draws on the binary between locals and foreigners, encouraging people to see only through the prism of "Us versus Them". Although the root of their anger might be government policy, such rhetoric makes foreigners the target of animosity whether it is the speaker’s original intention or not.

To make things worse, this narrative is not even accurate. While the government could certainly do more in terms of social welfare, the reality is that Singapore’s unemployment rate of around 2.1 per cent is low. The situation is miles away from what’s happening in Europe right now, where unemployment is at eye-watering levels and fresh graduates have little to look forward to.

The idea that Singaporeans are being squeezed out of local universities is also overblown. According to a 2011 report, international students form about 20 per cent of the cohort. While Singapore’s universities are very competitive – as it is in good universities all around the world – 20 per cent is hardly overwhelming.

We have no shortage of problems that need sorting out in Singapore. Frustrations over National Service need to be addressed, and alternatives found. The struggles of the "working poor" cannot be ignored. Concerns over freedom of expression and other civil liberties need to be given attention.

The "victimised Singaporean" framing does nothing to push these issues forward for intelligent debate. It does not encourage Singaporeans to think about how things can be improved while acknowledging what we have. It does not led to useful discussion over policy. It simply draws battle lines in the sand, painting nuanced situations as black and white: you’re either with us or against us. You’re either a “true blue Singaporean” and a patriot or a PAP lapdog. You either vote PAP out or you’re a traitor.

Such anger and antagonism is hardly going to attract more people to the cause.

I have no doubt that the people who spout this line love their home. I have no doubt that they have real worries and anxiety. I have no doubt that many of their concerns are valid. But if they really love Singapore and want the best for it, the best course of action would be to quit the melodramatic posturing and engage in real dialogue.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker, currently a Masters student at Cardiff University. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.