Is Singapore turning into a xenophobic society?

Has Singapore turned into a xenophobic society?

Not quite yet, but we’re well on our way – that is, if the government and citizens do not begin to address the ever-increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in our small nation soon.

This was the consensus reached by most panelists, consisting of several prominent bloggers, at a recent forum on xenophobia.

“To me, I don’t think xenophobia itself is a problem in Singapore; the problem is that we might be heading in that direction,” said one of the panelists, Andrew Loh, editor of sociopolitical website

Echoed Ravi Philemon, former editor of The Online Citizen, “My fear is that unless we start talking about these issues and unless we have a real dialogue, there’s a real danger that we may go in that direction.”

In the two-hour discussion for Online/ Offline: Digital Citizens on Xenophobia, Loh was quick to clarify that the event was “not an anti-xenophobia movement” but an honest discussion about the anti-foreigner sentiments that have been bubbling in Singapore in recent years.

Held last Sunday, 24 June, the closed-door forum was essentially the first of a series of chat shows on national issues – an initiative by Low, Philemon, political blogger Alex Au and social issues filmmaker Martyn See. Zaqy Mohamad, Member of Parliament (MP) for Choa Chu Kang GRC, was invited to be the event’s special guest.

The discussion kicked off with an attempt to define xenophobia. A few versions offered by the panelists included an "irrational dislike” and "unreasonable hatred of foreigners", which led See to suggest that there could be “room for reasonable hatred”.

“What is happening now, some of these comments that you see online, may seem irrational but they’re actually based on very rational fears – losing your job and not being able to find a flat for instance,” explained Loh.

See then cited four possible legitimate reasons for this “reasonable hatred” – the government’s perceived favourable treatment of foreigners, Singaporeans’ fear of losing out to them, an upset of familiarity and the encroachment of private space.

These causes, when accumulated, sustained and then allowed to repeat, become a problem, he added.

MP Zaqy, who was speaking at the forum in his personal capacity, acknowledged the “genuine fear” over the influx of foreigners but questioned then if it justified xenophobia.

Explaining that the government cannot shut its doors to foreigners because the nation’s survival depends very much on them, he also reiterated that there have been policy changes, particularly with regards to the tightening of foreign workers, which had upset SMEs.

Added Zaqy, “There is that balance that’s now a bit off but this is something we need to bring back to normalcy.”

During the forum, the panelists also discussed the root causes of xenophobia – which some attributed to government policies, the resultant “us versus them” mentality, and a breach of social threshold.

Among other issues raised, they also questioned why there is a significantly higher proportion of PRCs (nationals of the People’s Republic of China), and whether a constant increase in population is the only means to economic growth.

To curb the growing anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore, the panelists suggested conducting a national dialogue on population and labour force and also called for a more transparent and open government.

Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore after the forum, Zaqy acknowledged that the government needs to put more effort into “communicating, engaging and keeping everyone updated on the newest developments”.

“I sensed some pent-up frustrations with government policies and so forth. No government is perfect but having said that, it’s also an easy target to put the whole blame on instead of addressing the issue,” he said.

“Immigration or population changes are happening worldwide and not just in Singapore. There are and will always be constraints the government faces but it’s a question of what we do to mitigate.”

Added Zaqy, “It took us many years to integrate the various races to where we are today, it’s going to take a bit more time to assimilate others.”