‘Unacceptable nearly 40% of population is made up of foreigners’


Since the release of the first part of the video recording on the forum on xenophobia, some have questioned why the bloggers involved did not outright condemn xenophobic expression online and offline. The forum, called "Online|Offline", is an initiative by several bloggers to discuss the hot issues of the day. Xenophobia was the topic chosen for the inaugural forum.

First, there is a misunderstanding that the forum is some sort of "movement" against xenophobia. It was never intended to be. The purpose of the dialogue was to kickstart discussion on the matter, especially online, on the issues related to the topic. Also, the bloggers each have their own views on the matter, and they do not — whether individually or collectively — represent other bloggers or the blogging community as a whole.

But what about the topic itself, which has raised concern among government ministers and members of the public? I do not believe we are at the stage where xenophobia — the irrational fear or hatred for foreigners or things foreign — is a serious matter for the moment. I do, however, believe that we are headed in that direction, if we do nothing to look into it and fix the root cause or causes.

Singaporeans, as filmmaker Martyn See said at the forum, have always welcomed foreigners. Singaporeans, as indeed people anywhere, were not born xenophobic. In our island, especially, which has always been opened to foreign influences, Singaporeans are by and large accepting of foreigners and things foreign. Just look around you — in entertainment, at work, etc. We have and enjoy pleasures from many different and diverse nations and cultures.

That is not to say, however, that there is no unhappiness about the number of foreigners in our midst, or that there is no fear of how this has influenced the way we live, work and play. It has affected our way of life, there are no doubts about it. Just look at the public transport system, the prices of public housing flats, the weekend at the parks, or even your neighbourhood.

There is unhappiness and most of us recognise this.

And this has led to the expression, online and offline, of anger towards members of the expat or foreign community. Some irrational while others more measured. All, however, are an extension of a deeper malaise — which, to put it bluntly, has emerged from a government policy which was ill-conceived.

While the government has explained that the influx of 2 million foreigners onto our shores was an economic necessity — we either take advantage of the opportunities which come our way or we will lose out — questions of the wisdom of allowing such an open-door policy, especially on the consequences for our social cohesion and infrastructural readiness, is now being raised.

The Prime Minister has tweaked some of his government's policies to "put Singaporeans first". And so we see certain policies tilted to weigh more in favour of Singaporeans. While these are welcomed, the more important issue is the presence of the 2 million foreigners which the government has said little about, except to reiterate that we need them for our economic progress. "More investments leads to more jobs which means more foreigners", a Straits Times headline said.

That is all well and good, except that the everyday reality of life here is causing social friction and unhappiness. And these are not limited to Singaporeans alone. The foreigners themselves are increasingly feeling it too. In the end, we may end up with both sides being unhappy and suspicious of each other. We may have economic growth — but we will be a society divided. And that is a tinderbox waiting for a match.

Where do we go from here then?

First, we need to go beyond the labelling of expression of unhappiness as xenophobic or xenophobia. These negative sentiments did not arise because Singaporeans were born with them. They are more pronounced now, in the last few years especially, because of national policies. While we may condemn xenophobic expression, it would be folly to think that that is all that we need to do to rein in xenophobia, or even these negative sentiments.

Second, we do seriously need a national dialogue on our economic strategy, going forward. If the presence of 2 million foreigners is directly linked to our economic growth, as the government has constantly insisted, then we need to decide — as a nation — if this is what we want to continue to do, or if there is another way forward.

Third, we must, despite all the unhappiness, realise the great potential that Singapore has to truly become a great city. The fundamental pre-requisites to be one are already there. We will next need to adopt a more global mindset to accept the presence of foreigners, as our city continues to evolve into something greater.

The crux of the matter then is how do we strike that sweet spot where we have a good balance between the number of foreigners and economic growth. Both are important. The unhappiness is that we have missed that spot and have veered towards an irrational dependence on foreign talent and labour.

To resolve this whole conundrum, we will need for everyone to have a say, and for the government to heed the voices which are coming from the ground.

It is unacceptable that almost 40 per cent of our population is made up of foreigners. No other country on earth, besides Dubai, has such a large proportion of foreigners. Is it then any surprise that this has led to fear of or expression of xenophobia?

Instead of looking at the irrational outbursts of unhappiness in some quarters, we should instead look at the irrational policies which have given rise to them. How else will we root out such sentiments if not to look at the root cause?

And that, in a nutshell, was something which all the bloggers at the forum agreed on.

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.