Seeing through Colored Lenses: How Singaporeans View the SMRT Strike

by singaporearmchaircritic

Around end November when Singapore saw its first strike in 26 years by 171 SMRT bus drivers from China, another seemingly innocuous incident, also centering on the beleaguered train service provider, stirred some disquiet among the Singapore community.

An Indian reader and a Malay reader wrote separate letters to the press questioning SMRT’s recent move to announce station names in Mandarin, on top of the usual announcements in English, the lingua franca of multi-ethnic Singapore. SMRT’s explanation that it was acting on “public suggestions” to announce station names in Mandarin riled netizens, including native Chinese who make up 74% of the population.

Surmising that this was a move to accommodate the growing community of non-English speaking Chinese from China, netizens seethed at the slight to Singapore’s racial equality and the alienation of its minority races:

Singapore is turning into a mini China, isn’t it? And as a Singaporean Chinese myself, I would say, please spare me the mandarin announcements! It’s a total turn-off!

…We locals, young and old regardless of race and educational level have learnt and accepted the English announcements, why can’t these newcomers? We are a city-state, not a Chinese state.

Such seemingly anti-Chinese sentiments, a curiosity to those who do not understand how different the two Chinese peoples of China and Singapore are, largely colored Singaporeans’ views on the 2-day SMRT strike, an “illegal” act under the authoritarian state’s draconian laws. For resorting to a strike instead of going through “proper channels” to air their grievances over squalid living conditions and perceived discriminatory labor practices based on nationality, five strikers were charged in court, 29 others swiftly deported, and 50 issued police warnings.

If the strikers were Singaporeans, the usual government critics would certainly hail them as heroes. But because they are Chinese nationals, many locals piqued by the government’s unpopular liberal immigration policy used this opportunity to spew their invective. Racist and malicious responses abound on online forums and alternative news websites. Just to cite a few:

Please don’t jail them. I don’t want my tax money being used to feed them. Cane them and deport them at their cost.

They should all be packed up and sent home. They are an absolute pain in the posterior and the government should realize it before it is TOO LATE. Look to all the other neighboring countries for better behaved drivers!

In the city-state whose cosmopolitanism is proverbial, such acrimony toward foreigners reared its ugly head only in recent years. Over five short years from 2007 to 2012, Singapore’s population grew by more than 700,000 under the government’s open door policy. Now one-third of its 5.3 million population are foreigners; 70% of the 122,600 jobs created in Singapore in 2011 went to foreigners and private residential home prices has risen a staggering 80% in the past seven years. The economic hardships as a consequence of the liberal immigration policy angered many and resulted in the ruling party’s worst-ever performance in the 2011 General Election.

Inadvertently, the anger also bubbled over to new migrants, especially the one million Chinese nationals who are conspicuous because of their large numbers and “strange” accents. In Singapore, English medium education has engendered at least two generations of Chinese who are more comfortable conversing in English (or Singlish) than in Mandarin, and who feel culturally more distant from the mainland Chinese than the Chinese in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Although the majority of Singaporeans are also ethnic Chinese whose ancestors settled in the island state a few decades ago, closer interaction has accentuated the differences between the two Chinese peoples.

In the densely populated city-state where residents have to jostle for resources, proximity quickly bred contempt and spawned negative stereotypes. The ghost of the immoral gold-digging, husband-snatching Chinese woman has been resurrected from a controversial yet popular novel written by a mainland Chinese in Singapore more than ten years ago. China’s newfound status as an economic powerhouse also begets the Dickensian caricature of the swaggering, uncouth, (and probably corrupt) nouveau-riche, and paradoxically, the image of the wretchedly-poor, industrious laborer and that of the loud, heavy-accented country bumpkin.

The impression of mainlanders being unaccommodating and intolerant has also stuck in the minds of Singaporeans after the media carried a report on new Chinese migrants lodging a complaint to the authorities over the curry-cooking habits of their Indian neighbors. Food-loving Singaporeans were naturally outraged and literally cooked up a storm of curry in protest and to denounce what was widely perceived as Chinese bigotry.

Resentment towards increased immigration and Chinese migrants even extended to the group with the least unflattering image, the laborers. When two workers died after the scaffolding used at the construction site of a new subway line gave way, Singaporeans, known for their sense of compassion and generosity to the hapless, responded: “Did anyone call for public donations for the auntie who was knocked down and dragged for meters under the bus driven by a Chinese migrant? Did anyone call for public donations for the taxi uncle who was killed by a reckless Ferrari driver who was also a Chinese migrant? Why is this case so special?”

The above comment harks back to a widely reported incident in which the image of the rich and cocky Chinese millionaire came alive. In May 2012, a speeding Ferrari driven by a mainland Chinese newcomer beat the red light at a junction and crashed into a cab, claiming three lives: those of the perpetrator, a Singaporean cab driver and a Japanese passenger. The horrific accident incensed many Singaporeans who took to vituperations against the Chinese driver on the Internet.

The torrent of angry reaction to the Ferrari crash is understandable not only because of increased rich-poor polarization and simmering social tensions 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 infuriated Singaporeans while Chinese nationals deriding Singaporeans on the Internet and on television added insult to injury. It didn’t help that insensitive Chinese netizens have named the sovereign state  “poxian, literally Po county, much to the annoyance of Chinese Singaporeans.

In the aftermath of the Ferrari crash, the Chinese Embassy in Singapore felt compelled to openly urge 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”. But the damage has been done and soured relationships cannot be salvaged in the short term. When Singapore’s table-tennis team made up of new Chinese migrants won two bronze medals for the nation at the London Olympics, many Singaporeans are at best nonchalant, and at worst disdainful, scoffing at the achievement as the government’s desperate attempt to “buy medals”.

In a government opinion poll of more than 300 “randomly sampled” Singapore citizens, an overwhelming 78% agreed that the striking bus drivers “should be punished to the full extent of the law” if they had breached the law. While it may be tempting to interpret the finding as a corroboration of the pervasive dislike of mainland Chinese, other possibilities cannot be negated too: one, the particular question was loaded and might have skewed the results, and two, the law-abiding, docile character of Singaporeans might have influenced their answers.

Other evidence also indicate that not all Singaporeans are blinded by their resentment towards foreigners. In the same government poll, 76% agreed that while the bus drivers “were wrong” to have held a strike, SMRT should also bear some responsibility for mismanaging the drivers’ grievances. Another poll on Channel News Asia yielded entirely different results from that of the government poll: 64.2% of those polled supported the strike by the bus drivers. And amidst racist comments on the Internet, there is no lack of rational voices backing the Chinese strikers:

I really don’t understand how people can criticise what these Chinese nationals did. Do you realise that one day it could be you receiving the short end of the stick? What will you do when despite your hard work, the company only wants to exploit you, the government tells you ‘tough luck’ and quitting is not an option?

In authoritarian Singapore where pitting oneself against the government has dire consequences, four Singaporean lawyers have bravely stepped forward to represent, on a pro bono basis, the four bus drivers accused of “instigating” the illegal strike. In the spirit of camaraderie, Singaporean colleagues of the accused also raised some SGD50,000 to bail them out.

At the same time however, the mainland Chinese community that has vociferously ranted about Singapore’s treatment of their compatriots in the strike incident – “Send the People’s Navy to finish Singapore off!”(派人民海军去把他灭了!); “Singapore is an anti-China hostile country” (新加坡就是反华的敌对国) – has been strangely silent when it comes to taking action to help the prosecuted Chinese bus drivers. Ironically, the strongest concerted action in support of the strikers happened in Hong Kong, and by a group of the pro-democracy camp. On 5 December, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union (HKFTU) staged a protest at the Singapore Consulate-General demanding the immediate release of the strikers.

To demonize and silence critics of its misplaced immigration policy, the Singapore government and its mouthpiece have repeatedly tarred all critics with the same brush by labeling Singaporeans’ resentment towards foreigners as “xenophobia”. Granted, in today’s globalized world that has witnessed a rise in 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. But the reality in Singapore is this: while some have taken to foreigner-bashing on the Internet, ordinary Singaporeans are still very forbearing, levelheaded, civil and averse to violence. There are no reported cases of belligerent attacks or outbursts directed at foreigners in the streets.

Though it cannot be denied that many Singaporeans do harbor prejudices against mainland Chinese, it may also be said that the feeling is mutual. The backlash against mainlanders and their anti-social behavior in Hong Kong has yet to happen in Singapore but it is perhaps time for some self-reflection: can all anti-Chinese sentiments be attributed to prejudices? And how did such prejudices and misunderstanding arise?

It may also be worthwhile to contemplate why the portrayals of Chinese in Bo Yang’s collection of provocative essays The Ugly Chinaman, written decades ago, still seem so compelling in today’s context. To help dispel the bias against them, it may serve mainlanders well to display greater civility and sensitivity towards cultural differences when in foreign land, abiding by the maxim “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Yes, Singapore Chinese may be the progeny of early migrants from China but please respect that we are different.