By Seah Chiang Nee
The current wave of migrant workers from China and India has had an unintended side benefit for Singapore: blurring differences between local Chinese and Malays.
The new competition they introduced into the workforce has helped to get these once quarrelling races to put aside old discords and jointly face the common challenge.
In the 60s and 70s, ethnic conflicts were a daily story in Singapore generally over who should get a bigger piece of the economic pie. Every issue seemed to revolve around race.
The impact of globalisation and the mass inflow of foreigners are helping the Chinese and Malays achieve commonality faster than anything else.
It has promoted a common bond — as well as a sense of nationalism — which would have been a lot slower without the 2,000,000 foreigners.
In the latest example, Singapore's Chinese majority rallied to condemn a Chinese migrant worker after he roughed up a Malay citizen and boasted about it online.
Zhou Hou, a 24-year-old delivery worker, bragged in Facebook how he knocked down a Singaporean "because he saw me coming and did not give way" and calling Singaporeans "retards".
It probably showed his cocky dislike for Singaporeans in general, rather than any particular race.
Zhou has since deleted the post (with his photo) and made several apologies to Singaporeans, claiming it was done on the spur of his "frustrations".
Integration has come a long way
With a history of ethnic riots, racial harmony has always been Singapore's priority objective, something that not many new migrants from China and India are aware of.
"Those retards who want to act 'garang' (bravado) step forward. I come here not to be bullied or insulted — from a true noble Chinese with 5,000 years of cultural baptism," Zhou wrote, with a tinge of ethnic superiority.
If he thought he would be supported by the Chinese here he was wrong. Several Singaporeans immediately filed police reports against his remarks. Police are now investigating the case.
Since independence a new generation of Singaporeans — especially Chinese and Malays — has grown up and had gone to schools, lived and served national service together.
The integration has stabilised things but race differences have never completely disappeared.
In the early days, it was normal to see Chinese Singaporeans cheering football teams from China when they played here against Singapore which comprised mostly of Malay players.
Once as a teenager, I watched some 8,000 local Indians rooting for a visiting Indian team against our state side. Singapore was then far from being a nation despite military service and years of National Day Parades.
To the Malays, Chinese and Indians were taking their jobs away — and vice versa. Language, social norms and even food became contentious issues.
But as foreigners flocked to our shores, Malays along with other races gradually became more preoccupied with the "foreign threat" to their jobs and earnings.
How locals view the outsiders
Instead of viewing each other with suspicion as their parents once did, the Chinese and Malays have become more concerned about losing out to the foreigners.
The government had apparently opened the doors to so many mainland Chinese and Indians because it believed that they would be more culturally acceptable to the locals.
The major question was whether the minority Malays would object to the inflow from India and China.
As history turned out, the racial dimension to the immigration did not materialise because the policy was widely opposed by the vast majority of Singaporeans.
When the Malays saw their fellow Singaporeans — particularly Chinese — were staunch critics, they were somewhat reassured that it was not a racial issue, said a polytechnic lecturer.
"A race conflict could have happened had the local Chinese rooted for more immigrants from China and Singaporean Indians wanted more mainland Indians," the academician said. But that never occured.
On the contrary, the angriest condemnations of the influx of Chinese and Indian workers came from the local Chinese and Indians respectively.
It removed a potential racial sting when the minority Malays and Indians found that they were not opposing the policy by themselves.
Support shown for 'brother' Singaporeans
I had noticed over the years that Singaporean Chinese were more vocal in condemning the policy than the Malays. The same applies to the local Indians against the inflow of job-seeking professionals from India.
The Zhou Hou incident, sensitive because it touched on race, has shown how well Singaporeans have integrated.
An online discussion on whether the Chinese here would help a Malay if he was assaulted by a Chinese mainlander produced a largely "yes" answer and the following sample comments.
** "I feel closer to my Malay and Indian Singaporean brothers whom I grew up with, whom I served national service (NS) with, than some mainland Chinese."
** "I am a Singaporean Chinese. Any Chinese foreigner who dares to assault my Malay Singaporean brother will have to answer to my fist. We Singaporean Chinese and Malays did NS together. Chinese or not Chinese, the fact is we are Singaporeans."
** "I am not a racist but I am most certainly a nationalist. In the event of a dispute between a foreigner and a Singaporean, whether he is Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian, I will take the side of the Singaporean 99% of the time."
** "It is heartening to see so many brothers standing up for our local 'Mats' (Malays) against bullying foreigners including from China and India. Life with our local 'Mats' went a long way from kampung days."
At one stage the minorities were fearful that immigration could turn Singapore into a "province of China". Nevertheless, Singaporeans seem to say: "No way — not now, not ever."
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 18 June 2011.