Citizen X

What makes a person a citizen? What makes a person one of us?

Reading Tan Shao Ken’s letter to The New Paper yesterday, I was struck by these questions. The following is a reproduction of part of his letter:

Yes, these table tennis players had to give up their China nationality to become Singapore citizens and hold our red passport.

But they were not only born in China, they were brought up there as well. They came to our shores only after failing to become first-choice players there.

Singapore took them in and trained them to be champions. But the fact remains that they were China’s second-string players before that. Doesn’t that make them look like China’s B team?

It is difficult to look at them as Singapore’s A team, in the same way one may look at local sports stars like Quah Ting Wen, Remy Ong and Ang Peng Siong, people who truly belong here.

I don’t read the sports pages of the newspapers or consider sports a central part of my life. A cursory search on Google reveals like Quah Ting Wen, Remy Ong and Ang Peng Siong were local-born athletes who have represented Singapore at international sporting events, winning accolades and setting records in their respective fields. The table tennis players in question are Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei, who won the World Team Table Tennis Championships, winning accolades and setting records — the latter by defeating the Chinese team for the first time in 19 years. These sportswomen were born in China, and became Singapore citizens under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Quah, Ong and Ang were born in Singapore. Feng, Wang and Sun were not. By the vicissitudes of fate, the former three were born in Singapore, and the latter three in China. As far as science can tell, none of these athletes chose to be born in the time and place of their birth. They did, however, have a choice in deciding where to settle down. Feng, Wang and Sun chose to come to Singapore, for reasons of their own, leaving behind the land of their birth.

Who and what a person was is not who and what a person is now. Matters of national origin here are peripheral. These sportswomen, at the time of the competition, were Singaporean citizens representing Singapore, and the award was dedicated to Singapore. Harping on national origins here is akin to saying that the late S. Rajaratnam is not a true Singaporean because he was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Malaysia — never mind his contributions as one of Singapore’s founding fathers and his five decades of public service.

National origin is beyond a person’s control. Nationality is not. A person cannot choose to be born in a certain country, but can choose to migrate elsewhere. When a country accepts an immigrant, that immigrant becomes a citizen, and is issued with the requisite legal documents that defines and proves citizenship. To treat a person as less than a citizen, on the basis of her national origin, is to denigrate her choice, to disrespect her free will. It is akin to ridiculing someone for choosing apples instead of oranges, writing ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’, speaking English instead of Singlish, spending a vacation in Singapore instead of Shanghai, or studying in a local university instead of a foreign one.

Acceptance is perception. It is a perception that a person belongs to a larger community. Acceptance begins when members of the in-group welcome the newcomer and continue to treat that person as part of the group. After that, the newcomer sees himself as part of the group. This, I believe, is the origin and purpose of hospitality customs: you treat someone outside of your group as your friend, and he becomes your friend and part of your group. Acceptance is a recognition that a person can be part of a larger whole. Refusing to accept a person is a rejection.

Sometimes rejection is necessary. An egotistical troublemaker bent on puffing up his ego and controlling others is the last person you’ll want in a group. A country cannot afford to allow a terrorist into its borders. Rejection reinforces emotional and physical security. At the same time by rejecting that person, the group loses that potential. By rejecting an athlete, the country loses the skills that person can bring.

Prejudice is the series of conditions that trigger rejection instead of acceptance. Prejudice is a perceived notion that someone who possesses some or all of these conditions should be rejected. Someone who is queer, straight, black, white, Chinese, Malay, atheist, Christian, and so on and so forth. Prejudice is also artificial: these are artificial standards that reduce a person’s dignity in another’s eyes. Especially if these standards target things beyond a person’s control, like national origin in this case.

Prejudice treats a person as less than a human. It also backfires on the person with prejudices. People go where they are welcome, stay where they are accepted, and leave where they are rejected. People who are rejected from a group take their skills and talents with them, depriving the group of these resources. It also deprives the group of resources belonging to people with similar backgrounds. And other social groups, noticing the group’s prejudice, may decide to punish that group. Think of legal action against racists, demonstrations against anti-homosexual organisations, and sanctions against dictatorial regimes.

Prejudice is a jail a person locks himself into. It is a set of blinders a person wears to selectively reject certain people. I think the only possible explanation I can find is insecurity. Such people have a preconceived set of notions, also known as prejudices, and have invested their identity in them. By removing these prejudices, they sense that they will have to redefine their identities. So they continue to hold on to their prejudices, add layer after layer of rationalisation and justifications, in order to hang on to their ideas of self when faced with someone else.

Interaction with other humans is a hallmark of civilisation. It is a recognition that cooperation tends to yield better results than conflict, that other people apart from yourself have the right to be treated as fellow humans, that someone who is different from you has the right to be himself and not you. Prejudice, by denying the other and the different, hinders human interaction, and by extension progress towards peace and prosperity. Prejudice allows for Chinese to be treated like third-class citizens in Suharto’s Indonesia, for Wiccans to be persecuted in Christian-majority America, for Muslims to be denied the right to their faith in Europe, for preventing people from being useful and productive members of society. Society cannot afford that. There is no place for prejudice in the world.

All the above, by the way, very neatly avoids the fact that three Singaporeans won the championship. If local-born Singaporeans cannot measure up to foreign-born Singaporeans, not enough to enter the national team, the real question should not be why do we call the latter Singaporeans, but why the former is not good enough. More accurately, why local-born Singaporean table tennis players were not good enough to make it to the national team for that particular championship. But I’m not going to ask that question. I don’t really care about a person’s national origin, and I have little inkling of sports and training for sports. All I do care about here are the two questions I’ve asked above.

What makes a person a citizen? Today, just legal papers that show that a person is a citizen of a country. What makes a person one of us? Perception. Our perception. Our tainted perception.