Needless name-calling by the Straits Times

I felt irritated when I read this editorial in the Straits Times yesterday (16 July 2009).

Geylang, Chinese and the irrationality of fear

NOT every Singaporean, it is clear from letters to The Straits Times Forum Page recently, welcomes the increased usage of Mandarin in Singapore, in particular in enclaves such as Geylang. Amy Loh underscored the collective mood among many Singaporeans when she wrote that all new shop signs in Geylang were presented in Chinese – and Chinese only. Her question: Is this something to be encouraged in Singapore, a country which has four official languages? This ‘disturbing trend’, she added, could push Singapore along the route of Western countries, where there is growing resentment towards enclaves taken over by foreign residents.

Ms Loh’s comments – and those of other letter writers – reflect a feeling among many Singaporeans that seldom speaks its name: a fear of foreigners, known otherwise as xenophobia. This is not surprising, given the huge influx that had taken place over the last few years as a result of the economic boom, before the financial tsunami brought it down to earth. There is a palpable fear among Singaporeans that foreigners will take their jobs, school places and, in some cases, even their spouses.

But xenophobia is defined more extensively as an irrational fear of strangers that is largely unwarranted. One only has to look at the world’s most economically vibrant cities – London, Sydney and New York – to see the benefits accruing from recruiting foreigners. Singapore, more so than these far more richly-endowed cities, needs a steady influx of foreign talent to keep its edge as a dynamic global city with a high-performing economy. This is the only way to create better jobs for Singaporeans now and in the future. It’s how the world’s foremost cities have grown, and Singapore is no exception.

This is not to say that Geylang should remain monolingual, even though it remains so due to purely commercial reasons. Geylang represents a global reality writ small: the rise of China necessitating the increased use of Mandarin even as the globalised world makes the use of English more widespread. That said, Chinese nationals in Geylang and elsewhere in Singapore have an incentive – if they want to integrate more fully in Singapore society – to acquire basic English fluency. In time, this will come about naturally because English is the working language here. They will find, as did earlier Chinese immigrants before them, that there is advantage in doing so in Singapore’s multi-racial environment. Singaporeans need greater patience to let this come about in the fullness of time.

If the ST wanted to defend the government’s foreign talent policy, it should just have done so without resorting to gratuitous name calling. What Ms Amy Loh wrote does not reflect xenophobia. Just because someone questions the government’s immigration policy does not make them xenophobic. I hate it when labels like these (another example being “homophobia”) are slapped on people for no good reason other than their views differ from yours.

Ms Loh made very good sense in her letter. Her main arguments were (1) the Speak Mandarin Campaign may have given mainland Chinese immigrants the misimpression that they can remain monolingual in Mandarin only and still do just fine in Singapore; and (2) that it is unacceptable that some shop signs in Geylang are in Chinese only.

What has this got to do with a fear of foreigners?

By writing this editorial, and speaking of “the rise of China necessitating the increased use of Mandarin”, have they spared a thought for Singapore’s Malays, Indians and Eurasians, who do not speak Chinese? I think this sadly reflects a level of cultural insensitivity that is not what I expect of a national broadsheet.

Here is Ms Loh’s letter in full:

Straits Times, 11 July 2009:

No motivation for Mandarin speakers to learn English

PERHAPS the ‘us and them’ schism (‘Crossing the ‘us versus them’ barrier’, July 2) between what the writer described as residents and non-residents has been propagated by what many see as our leaders’ expectations that Singaporeans should make a greater effort to integrate with foreign residents.

Take language, for example. Our leaders’ emphasis on the need to speak Mandarin could be perceived as a clear signal to encourage those of mainland China origin, one of the largest groups here, to choose to continue in their monolingual state.

Too bad for non-Mandarin-speaking or non-Chinese Singapore residents – let them integrate. Where is the motivation for foreign residents from China to learn English or another official language?

Geylang used to be a mixed multilingual area. Now, almost all new shop signs are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave, a comfortable outpost of China for new residents from that country flooding the district. Is this something to be encouraged in multilingual Singapore, supposedly proud of our four official languages?

We ignore the early beginnings of a disturbing trend to our detriment, running the risk of what has happened in Western countries, with festering resentment against whole neighbourhoods taken over by foreign residents and altered beyond recognition.

Let us not have mixed messages from our leaders and those in authority – integration efforts must be mutual.

Mr Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim’s letter last Saturday (‘Not a mindset issue’) urges that barriers to Malays’ progress be identified and removed. I suspect one reason for the decline in the percentage of Malay PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians), particularly in the services sector in 2005, may be the lack of Mandarin language skill.

Is Singapore regressing from being a country known for the English fluency of its multilingual population to one where Mandarin is becoming the de facto national language?

Amy Loh (Ms)


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

11 thoughts on “Needless name-calling by the Straits Times”

  1. Wait wait… we also have Singapore Chinese that don’t speak Mandarin. What about them? It is not just the minority races we are talking about.

    If immigrants want to come in, the least they can do is speak our language. Not force us to speak theirs.

  2. Yes true, there are lots of Chinese Singaporeans of Peranakan origin who don’t speak any Mandarin. It’s often worse for them cos these China staff (and often local Chinese) assume they can speak Mandarin but they can’t. They complain that they feel like a stranger in their own country.

  3. “This ‘disturbing trend’, she added, could push Singapore along the route of Western countries, where there is growing resentment towards enclaves taken over by foreign residents.”

    Such ‘enclaves’ are bolstered by similar circumstances in the rest of the country which precious few local chinese have been concerned about given that it does not affect their interests – i.e mother tongue policy, speak mandarin campaign, mandarin as a requirement for employment in many arenas, under-representation or misrepresentation of non-chinese in the media, equating the idea of ‘majority’ with ‘race’, etc.

  4. It just goes to show – how much of a little red dot we are.

    we need China to survive, and China will make its presence felt in our economies and lives and cultures, as much as British, American, European, Middle Eastern and Indian nations have over the centuries.

    in my opinion, there should be some compromise. While we dont like it, we also need to be dynamic and face the facts – it is going to happen. Embrace it.

    What Gerald has put out – the SAP schools is the one that i question. why is this solely for the Chinese? if its a language thingy, then why not empower good Malay and Indian students too? why just the best of the chinese students get SAP schools? is this not an elitist policy that borders on racial lines? Why cant we prepare Malay and Indian students to one day be business leaders dealing with China? Are the minorities any less equipped?

  5. aygee and all – Malay and Indian students can’t get into Chinese SAP schools because they are forced to take Malay or Tamil as their 2nd (or 1st) language, because of MOE’s Mother Tongue policy.

    Would Malays and Tamils agree to their children not being forced to take a certain language? I know many Chinese will chafe at the idea of not forcing Chinese students to study Chinese.

    Personally I’m for the relaxation or even elimination of the Mother Tongue policy. But the 2nd language choices should be limited to only Chinese, Malay and Tamil (our official languages), not French or Japanese, etc.

  6. If its one’s “mother tongue”, naturally, one would be able to speak it, right? thats the spoken language at home.

    I also say there should be a relaxation of the second language policy. We can look to Germany and Finland for their second language policies in schools. or even US.

    I have many overseas born chinese and korean friends who grew up not knowing their mother tongue. But their parents sent them for lessons so that they will keep hold of their heritage, and spoke it at home. The point here being – its up to parents to choose what they want for their child.

    In university, seeing the need to have mandarin, studied it themselves.

    So they come out of school having good spoken English, good cantonese/hakka (because thats what they speak at home), and Mandarin (thats what they studied in Uni, a choice of their own).

    Also, a relaxation of the second language policy would also remove the great race divide. its the next step of building Singaporean nationalism. that we are singaporeans, not malays indians or chinese.

  7. You are right Gerald. I don’t see any xenophobia in Ms Amy Loh’s letter. She is not expressing concern about the influx of foreigners. She is not advocating that foreign talent be kept at bay. She is merely voicing a disturbing trend of non-integretion which, in the long run, is harmful to society.

    I don’t think that is xenophobia or a result of it. It is basically a case of the letter writer suggesting that there should be integretion.

  8. i think its very subtle, i almost call her master. “Geylang used to be a mixed multilingual area. Now, almost all new shop signs are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave, a comfortable outpost of China for new residents from that country flooding the district. Is this something to be encouraged in multilingual Singapore, supposedly proud of our four official languages?”

    What does this paragraph say? its states the following:
    1. Geylang is now turning into a Chinese Conclave.
    2. Her using a rather derrogatory “THAT” to imply China
    3. Opposing support for the using of mandarin signs to make the foreigners feel comfortable.

    At least, that’s the way i read it.

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