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:
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)