What lies beneath the online vitriol?

For many Singaporeans, our country is much less recognisable than it was just a decade or so ago. Some feel like strangers in our own land. A friend who works as a professional in a large multinational firm confided that he is the only Singaporean in his department. He lamented that he felt passed over for promotions as he sensed that his department head, who is a foreigner, tended to promote his fellow nationals over locals.

This was an article that I contributed to The Straits Times. It was published in the “Insight” section of the paper on Saturday, 1 September 2012.

———-

“DON’T say that! It’s very rude! How would you like other people to call you that?”

That was the scolding I got from my mother when I was just six years old. I had just returned from playing with my friends from the neighbourhood—one of whom was an older Indian boy—and I thought it would be funny to hum a rhyme about him that I had learned from another kid in our group.

This was one of the many lessons my parents taught me about not harbouring prejudiced attitudes and stereotypes about people of other races, nationalities or socio-economic backgrounds. I am glad they not only instilled in me these values, but lived them out in their own words and deeds.

My consciousness against prejudice was honed and heightened during the time I lived in California as an undergraduate. This is in part due to the greater level of public discourse on issues of discrimination and prejudice there. Being a minority and a foreigner there, I was also keenly aware of any behaviour by locals towards me that might hint of prejudice.

That was 12 years ago when social media was non-existent, so I did not have the same insights into the dark recesses of people’s minds that are available now on the Internet. Try googling the phrase “I hate Asians” and you will get over a hundred thousand web pages of uncomplimentary remarks about Asians. Online diatribes against other races or nationalities are therefore not unique to Singapore.

Fortunately, most of the vitriol against foreigners in Singapore appears to be confined largely to the online space. We do not read about hate crime being perpetrated against foreigners here. Foreign diplomats I spoke to recently said they had not received any reports from their nationals about xenophobic attacks. I have many close foreigner friends who are aware of the anti-foreigner sentiments online but have not complained about any physical aggression against them on account of their nationality.

All this is not an attempt to justify any of the baseless insults against foreigners seen on some websites. Making prejudiced remarks against foreigners is objectionable and un-Singaporean, and should stop.

However, before joining the chorus of condemnation against allegedly “xenophobic netizens”, we need to ask what caused this sudden change in attitude towards foreigners. Haven’t Singaporeans traditionally always been welcoming of foreigners and diversity? Did Singaporeans suddenly become xenophobic overnight?

Anyone who examines the online comments about foreigners would realise that much of the anger is actually not directed at the foreigners, but at the Government for its liberal immigration policies.

The online diatribes could be a reflection of many Singaporeans’ frustration about the huge influx of foreigners over the past 10 years. Singapore’s population has ballooned by over 1 million during the past decade . Singaporeans now make up only 63 per cent of the population and 58 per cent of the workforce . The immigration boom has put a severe strain on our nation’s infrastructure, especially public transport, housing and healthcare. Singaporeans are facing increased competition not just for space on buses and for HDB flats, but also for jobs and promotions.

For many Singaporeans, our country is much less recognisable than it was just a decade or so ago. Some feel like strangers in our own land. A friend who works as a professional in a large multinational firm confided that he is the only Singaporean in his department. He lamented that he felt passed over for promotions as he sensed that his department head, who is a foreigner, tended to promote his fellow nationals over locals.

While many other factors may have been at play, this perceived “reverse discrimination” felt by many Singaporeans cannot simply be ignored.

This push back by Singaporeans against the foreign influx has manifested itself in other less offensive ways. The recent furore over the “insult” of Singaporean cuisine by Dîner en Blanc and last year’s “curry incident” reflect a level of cultural nationalism rarely seen in the past.

Singaporeans had hitherto been accustomed to being “educated” by the Government on how to love our country, how to stand up for Singapore, and how to stand together as Singaporeans.

Now we are standing up for ourselves without prompting. We are ready to take the initiative and organise ourselves to demonstrate our pride in our local culture and traditions, without being offensive or insulting. This is a positive development for Singapore.

Therefore, when interpreting online criticisms of foreigners, we need to first identify the genesis of the collective frustrations of many Singaporeans. The target of many netizens’ grouses is perhaps not at the level of the individual, but at the powers-that-be who have opened the gates to admit those individuals in the first place.

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.

16 thoughts on “What lies beneath the online vitriol?”

  1. actually, a large number of online comments on S’pore politics are made by non-S’pore citizens (e.g., foreigners who live in S’pore or outside S’pore).

  2. Labeling Singaporeans xenophobic is the usual way of the PAP to brush away all faults and push the blame to Singaporeans when they make mistakes.

    Just like how they label all critics as oppositions even though most that speak out are not even politicians.

    Just like how they created an aging Singapore because of their “BOY OR GIRL, TWO IS ENOUGH” campaign but blame it on Singaporeans’ low birth rate.

    Most Singaporeans are not xenophobic. Don’t be surprised that some of the online vitriol towards foreigners are posted by people who want to make Singaporeans look xenophobic so to create the impression that the angers towards influx of foreigners were Singaporeans’ faults.

    Do not fall into the PAP’s trap. They open the floodgates to millions of foreigners with no regards to the well-beings of Singaporeans and now they push the blames to Singaporeans.

  3. It’s just like opening floodgates. The one who controls the gates should take responsibility over any flooding that occurs downstream. You can’t blame villagers for being “hydrophobic” when their homes are being washed away because too much water has been released. Villagers who are affected should be adequately compensated. That will dilute the vitriol. Telling them not to be “hydrophobic” will only worsen things.

  4. Hi Gerald,

    Interesting article.

    Would like to say that your friend working in the MNC needs to stop being a victim, and start taking responsibility for himself and take action.

    Passed over for a promotion, then review current skills set and start looking elsewhere. Feel like a foreigner in your homeland, imagine the Singaporeans living and working overseas.

  5. “Singaporeans now make up only 63 per cent of the population and 58 per cent of the workforce”

    Explain 58% of workforce.

    If Singaporeans make up 58%of the workforce, then 42% is supposedly foreigners and PRs.

    Which means, can Singapore not have these 42% and what is the value of this 42%, assuming its absent and how will this absence affect our Economy.

    While your article carries credit, I do not feel you should assume that your friend says so and you assume it to be. Are you also assuming your friend is the best candidate? Or is he the most hardworking? Or is he busy sms-ing while working etc.

    Lets face it, Singaporeans are starting to be no longer hardworking, more demanding, expect to receive more but contribute lesser.

    I have a pool of staff under my wing. 9 out of 13 are Singaporeans and mind you, the ones who gossip the most, idle the most, talk the most rubbish, skive, smoke, sms, surfing websites, checking personal emails etc the most, are my own fellow Singaporeans.

    So, come next promotion, who do I recommend?

    While we can listen to comments from your friend, its always better to look at the other side of the coin.

    And yes, you are right that Singapore is no longer Singapore. You can learn more languages at a coffeeshop that what a school can offer.

    And, I am leaving this comment during my lunch time, which is from 1pm to 2pm.

  6. Casey –

    “can Singapore not have these 42% and what is the value of this 42%, assuming its absent and how will this absence affect our Economy.”

    At this point, our economy is structured to require this 42% to produce its current output of goods and services. Yes, we can manage with fewer foreigners if we increase productivity and get more Singaporeans to enter the workforce, but we cannot (and do not want to) bring it down to 0% (even 30% will be a big stretch). It did not have to be this way if there was a decision 10,15 years ago not to admit so many foreigners. Our businesses would have adapted to the lower supply of labour, and our productivity and wages might be higher now. Of course this is hindsight, but correcting a mistake is always harder than preventing a mistake.

    As for Singaporeans not being hardworking, I don’t know your subordinates so I am in no position to dispute your assessment of them (I hope they are not reading your comment on my blog!). However, I am concerned about the tendency for Singaporeans to stereotype their own compatriots as inferior to foreigners. I wonder if this is borne out of personal experience in all cases, or an internalisation of the rhetoric that we keep hearing in the traditional media.

    This is most unfair to the vast majority of Singaporeans who are working extremely hard to keep up with the cost of living.

  7. 9 or so Sporeans are the most idle, gossip the most, idle the most, talk the most rubbish, skive, smoke, sms, surfing websites, checking personal emails etc. So out of 13, 70% is not performing up to Casey’s standard. The Q is why are u tolerating this as their immediate Wing superior. The way I see it, u as their immediate superior n leader has failed miserably,if u tolerate 70% of your Wing slacking. What have u done to arrest the slacking as their leader or have u have decided to accept this situation..fait accompli. If u want to be “ho lang” in front of them so don’t kpkb behind their back. If your pow-wow has not improve their attitude, time for u to “cho pai lang” then maybe most will up up their ideas..may be u have to see who is the “wee-tow” nchop.

  8. 40% of foreign workers is too much. Unless our government control the arrival of the E-pass, it is difficult to reduce this figure even by a few percentage points. There are many valid reasons for hiring foreigners but there are just as many lame excuses for doing so.

    We have many PMETs graduates in their 40’s and 50’s who are unemployed or under-employed and will not be considered for any job openings in our own country unless we control the E-pass. Any reduction in this area can be quickly filled up by such older PMET graduates.

  9. Our government need to examine all these policies bcos they had admitted they fail to do so because of the ill-managed flood they had produce:
    1) manpower/hiring policy and anti-discrimination law against (Singaporean) and quota rules
    2) PR issues – many are here for PR status because of the many advantages it brings. That is why there are over 20-30 yrs PR.
    3) NS issues – our singaporean sons are put into disadvantages. Country like taiwan and S korea don’t face work discrimination and their GLC/MNCs readily hire and develop them.
    4) Our own Temasek or GLCs should be filled by local talent and given the chance to fill the shoes of leaderships. We are not producing our own in-bred leaders. Unless they convert and send their own son to NS, they leave after they made their bucks.
    5) Our HDB/Pte estate rules are being taken advantage by foreign who here to park their questionable wealth and then earn rents while they live in bigger houses in their own countries.
    6) Our Education policy that churn out more graduates to fill the PMET jobs that is now filled by questionable foreign qualifications in certain country. At least give Singaporeans a better chance then blindly or even discriminating on non-graduate Singaporean. I think our foreign talen policy has gone hey-wire already if you asked me.
    I am really disheartened to live in a country that look down and get chastised by its own govt in words and in deeds/policies simply we have no where else to vent our concerns/anxiety. It shows they have not heard clearly the voice of the nation.

  10. “…
    I read for example an article by Mr Gerald Giam, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament of the Workers’ Party, published in the Straits Times last Saturday. It was disappointing, for I had expected better from Mr Giam.

    According to Mr Giam: “Anyone who examines the online comments about foreigners will realise that much of the anger is actually not directed at the foreigners, but at the Government for its liberal immigration policies.”

    Hang on a minute, Mr Giam.

    As the Prime Minister acknowledged, people have every right to express their view on the Government’s immigration policy. Indeed, the disquiet some feel about the spike in immigrants is understandable. As with all other policies, the Government will make adjustments on this front. The flow of immigrants has been tightened, and I support the shift.

    The Government welcomes further debate on how we might fine-tune our population policies. The ongoing process leading to the proposed White Paper on population is precisely about consultation and discussion.

    But online comments that clearly spew hate and prejudice against individuals or groups are simply that – hate speech. All of us, politician or netizen, need to take a clear stand against hate speech. Abuse of foreigners, or any human being for that matter, is not acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, online or offline. Interpreting such vile comments, as Mr Giam does, as misdirected anger intended originally for the Government is deeply questionable.

    It also strikes me as disingenuous, for Mr Giam’s party only six months ago criticised the Government for tightening the availability of work permits on the grounds it was hurting Small and Medium Enterprises.

    Above all, it raises the question of choice and responsibility. Mr Giam’s article suggests that the online vitriol is ultimately the Government’s fault; what is more, the vitriol is justified, for the foreigners, abetted by the Government, have made our lives miserable. It boils down to “don’t worry, be nasty,” – a suggestion that is no doubt appealing to those seeking an excuse to hate.
    ….” — Sim Ann

    http://www.singapolitics.sg/views/wrongful-pride-and-prejudice

  11. Sim Ann is twisting Gerald Giam’s words, isn’t she? In particular, by claiming that Gerald is suggesting that the vitriol is justified, and that Gerald supports a “don’t worry, be nasty” attitude.

    Allow me to quote GG: “All this is not an attempt to justify any of the baseless insults against foreigners seen on some websites. Making prejudiced remarks against foreigners is objectionable and un-Singaporean, and should stop.”

    Hope this sorts things out well.

    I don’t think many people are surprised anymore at what PAP people are doing. Disgusted, probably. But not surprised at all. This is their modus operandi, isn’t it? Setting up strawmen and demolishing it. (When they’re not busy with other kinds of manipulation, e.g. using selective statistics)

  12. Dear Gerald,

    I think you should read further into Sim Ann’s piece, beyond the superficial insults.

    It should be obvious by now from how the conversation is being framed, that the other side is only interested in discussing the “unintended” side-effects/consequences/negative externalities of immigration and how to control them by toleration/”tightening quotas etc.

    They will not be interested in talking about the causes as some of the people in power and in the conversation are probably responsible to some degree for the liberal and uncoordinated immigration policy.

    Keep pressing them to talk about the causes and the past as they try to move on and control the effects in the future, even if it makes them uncomfortable and as they try to brush away the topic. Cosmopolitan utopian liberals as well as people trained in the admin service tend to like to pretend they are starting from a blank slate without acknowledging their own mistakes in the past.

  13. The online diatribes is a reflection of many Singaporeans’ frustration about the huge influx of foreigners in the last few years. Singapore’s present population has increased tremendously to more than 5 million people is a strained strain on the nation’s infrastructure namely public transport, housing and healthcare. Singaporeans are increasing marginalised for jobs and promotions; all due to so called “cheap labour” and “foreign talents.
    The unhappiness of Singaporean and not xenophobic expression that warranted the Government’s attention.

  14. Would anybody of you agree that with new citizenship being granted to PRs and migrants the ruling party has a better chance of more votes in the coming GE. Could this be the reason for the influx of new citizens.

    I learn that a brand new citizen of still having with him a piece of paper (temporary IC) granted hdb loan to purchase a resale flat. There are Singapore citizen in bad situations that me need the 2nd or 3rd HDB loan are simply brush aside. Where do Singaporeans stand in the Singapore I once use to love. Now I feel so condemned.

  15. Our GOS is very lazy and never do the ground work properly. Always just take words for granted. I hardly see them eating at a foodcourt or take public transport to work. Only times when it was but for a wayang. I wonder do they even bother to live in Singapore.

Comments are closed.