COMMENT: Xenophobia and the Jollibee backlash


As Philippines fast food chain Jollibee opened its doors in Singapore Tuesday, one of the first comments on Yahoo! Singapore’s Facebook post was “roaches roaches everywhere !!! (sic)”

Another quickly chimed in with, “My wife and me told our maid we will ship her home if she patronises this place”.

And those were just the PG-13 comments.

Such outward displays of anti-foreigner sentiment may be seen as xenophobia, but in a world where people are quick to label and identify, we need to step back and understand where such words come from.

Do the people that spout xenophobic remarks understand that they are xenophobic? Is intention coupled with delivery?

In the pressure-cooker meritocracy that is Singapore, we are still trying to find where we fit in the fast-paced, brutal and sometimes unforgiving microcosm here. It sounds easy to step out of racial enclaves, but one needs to understand the context of Singapore’s race-based systems in order to understand the struggles ahead.

Chinese, Malay, Indian, others – the CMIO conundrum

In a youth forum by the Workers’ Party (WP) on 3 March, speaker Nizam Ismail, brought out a salient point.

“Race is institutionalised in Singapore. It’s there in your ICs. Government policies talk about race, and that very descriptor in your IC is necessary for the government to implement a lot of their policies. These policies actually accentuate differences and make it easier for stereotyping to happen.”

The Singapore psyche, since the town plan of Sir Stamford Raffles, has been boxed into spaces for races. It is not that Singaporeans are xenophobic.

We, having been identified as a mixture of many and not a compound of one, have been groomed by government policy to think race first. Racialisation’s one-way view is akin to the heart-thumping message of nationalism, and nationalism is too easily labeled as xenophobia.

If Singapore took its entire history to attempt integration, why is it so surprising that its citizens are reacting strongly to the influx of foreigners – outside of the CMIO model – in the past 10 years?

Surely we have forged past our racialised history, you may say.

Think again, I say.

That varies according to your social circles and the openness and tolerance that you stand by. Some still need more time to adjust. It is a painful process that involves recognising barriers brushed aside in decades past. This process is one that cannot be given a deadline, lest such pressure exacerbate the situation.

It’s not about race, it’s about culture

Furthermore, race is a preface to what is contentious about what it brings: culture.

The move to abolish the term “multi-racial” in favour of “multi-cultural” represents a strong shift that cultural integration matters more. Understanding how races think and act before melding cultures together will be key but it must be organic. The government and its opposition will not be the magic wand.

Racialisation notwithstanding, are Singaporeans generally racist? Thankfully not.

The danger, as Shihan Fang, co-founder of New Nation put it, is in "typecasting the vocal minority who are racist, with the view of the majority trying to figure out what this all means”.

There were few and far between, but some bucked the trend during the Jollibee opening.

“I am sorry for the rudeness of my fellow Singaporeans. When you understand the amount of repression that people face here, you will understand why we learn to treat others unfairly, because of how unfairly we are treated," wrote Roy Yi Ling Sexiespider on Yahoo Singapore's Facebook page.

“Still, it's no way to act like a verbal barbarian and still think we are better than others. We need reflection and we need to learn. I am sorry that you have to face the brunt of it, but please give us some time to learn,” he added.

The next time you spot a group of Filipino women laughing loudly at a restaurant, take a deep breath. Approach them. Say ‘hello’. The last time I did that, I found out just how many people they have to feed back home.

The first step is in recognising there are other cultures but the difference between integration and isolation is in learning to reach out and find out more.

When will you see me at Jollibee, I hear you ask?

Soon. I hear the Chickenjoy set tastes good, like all chicken and pasta should.

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