It’s the Nationality, Stupid!

by singaporearmchaircritic

A speeding Ferrari beat the red light at a junction and crashed into a cab. The fatal accident claimed three lives, including that of the perpetrator, and two casualties. In a highly-urbanized city like Singapore where there are 110 private cars per 1,000 population and close to 8,000 road accidents per year, this could be just a regular accident that hardly raised an eyebrow. But not only did it raise an eyebrow; the accident sparked furore among Singaporeans, especially netizens. While there was a fast and furious outpour of anger at the Ferrari driver, a Chinese national residing in Singapore, there were others equally quick to brand critics as “xenophobic,” lamenting that “xenophobia” has reared its ugly head in Singapore. But let me explain why I think my fellow countrymen are not xenophobes, although this incident has everything to do with nationality.

In today’s world which witnesses the rise of xenophobia as a reaction to the increasing mobility of human capital across borders, cautioning against the emergence of intense and irrational fear or dislike of foreigners is necessary. Violence towards foreigners should be unreservedly denounced, as should any attempt to fan anti-foreigner sentiments. The problem is, between those who endorse an overtly liberal immigration policy and those for an overtly conservative one, there are many that favor neither. When you tar all with the same brush by labeling all opposing voices as xenophobic, the political-correctness of such a stance instantly demonizes detractors, as if anyone who does not welcome immigrants with open arms is a xenophobe.

What disturbs me is that this sort of dichotomy frames debates to the advantage of the proponent at the outset. It pits the xenophobes (irrational, intolerant, conservative) against the righteous (rational, tolerant, liberal). In Singapore where freedom of speech is curtailed and criticizing any groups based on ethnicity, religion and nationality is a taboo, this is detrimental because it vilifies opposition to increased migration, effectively kills constructive debates and diverts attention from the root of the problem – our government’s open door policy that needs drastic adjustment.

In 2011, Singapore’s population is 5.18 million, out of which 3.26 million are citizens and 1.92 million are foreigners and new migrants. In 2010 alone, about 48,000 migrants were granted permanent residency and citizenship. According to a UN report, our immigrants’ share of population in 2005 is 35%, which is higher than that of the U.S. (13%), U.K. (9.7%), and Switzerland (22.3%).

The tremendous influx of foreigners has strained our public infrastructure system and inflated the cost of living, especially property prices. It has also aggravated our rich-poor gap, which is wider than that of the U.S. In Singapore, the poorest 10% of the population’s share in income is 1.9% while that of the richest 10% is 32.8%. The number of millionaires here is also one of the fastest growing in the world, if not the fastest. This is all the more sobering in the context of our one-party dominant state, which has no independent trade unions and where the ruling party has staunchly refused to legislate a wage floor to protect low-wage workers.

The torrent of angry reaction to the Ferrari crash is understandable not only because of increasing polarization and seething social tension due to the sudden influx of migrants over the last few years, but also because it came hot on the heels of a string of outrageous traffic accidents involving Chinese nationals driving recklessly in Singapore – a bus driver running down an elderly woman crossing the road at green light; another hijacking a cab and crashing into a cleaner outside the airport terminal. These very jaw-dropping, flagrant violations of road safety regulations, topped with Chinese nationals deriding Singaporeans on the Internet and on television, added fuel to the fire. The pervasively bad press on China does not help too. Although 74% of Singaporeans are also ethnic Chinese whose ancestors settled in this island state a few decades ago, the difference between us and them has been accentuated with closer interaction. Proximity has not bred fondness.

Yes, the Ferrari crash has incensed many Singaporeans but while some have taken to vituperations against foreigners on the Internet, ordinary Singaporeans are still very forbearing, levelheaded, and averse to violence. We do not see violent attacks or outbursts directed at foreigners in the streets. This is why remarks such as “it is wrong to overreact because the Ferrari driver is a foreigner” are misplaced and only serve to whitewash both lawless foreigners and our ill-conceived immigration policy. As a Singaporean, when my safety in my homeland is repeatedly being compromised because of foreigners who do not give a damn for our law, why can’t I feel indignant? Even the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, after the Ferrari crash, felt compelled to issue an open letter urging Chinese citizens living in Singapore to “respect life, value the safety of themselves and others, abide by its laws and regulations, and live responsibly and gracefully.”

Singaporeans are far from being xenophobic. Nor are we bigots. But yes, we are concerned, and rightly so, over the seeming clash of cultures, values and norms between us and some foreigners. This is a time to take stock of the situation and reflect on the root of the problem – our too liberal immigration policy, and too little integration of migrants. The wisdom of letting in too many migrants, especially too many of one nationality at one time, is questionable. Studies have shown that migrants tend to settle in ethnic communities and enclaves, which may be a constraint to integration in the medium term. It only takes a little logic to reason that when a community draws strength in numbers, members may find scant motivation to assimilate into the host country.

More fundamentally, the government has to rethink the merits of promoting instant population and GDP growth through immigration in this tiny state roughly 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C. With a population density exceeding 7,000 per square kilometer, the further yearly inflow of 25,000 migrants advocated in a recent government policy paper is unpalatable to many Singaporeans who are already feeling a deepening sense of displacement in our homeland. There are many reasons to regret the relentless influx of migrants in this highly overcrowded city. A home that no longer feels like home may seem trifling and sentimental to a government that has always prioritized economic pursuits and prided itself on being pragmatic. But a government that has lost sight of what binds a nation will have more to lose in terms of a political price to pay. What’s worse, the cost of the collateral damage will be borne by all Singaporeans.