Digging Up the Roots of 'Racism'

Racism. Xenophobia. Nationalism. I’ve seen these words and their relations thrown about the blogosphere recently. The recent outcry against the pending Filipino Independence Day celebrations demonstrates, once again, that there are no end of people who insist on dedicating time and energy to fire slings and arrows at foreigners, racists, nationalists and other thought-enemies of choice. And from there, there are the usual condemnations, counter-condemnations, opinion pieces, letters and the like. I believe there will always be people who will take every opportunity they can to vent their views and impose them on society. All it takes is a single spark, one event that triggers them, and as regular as clockwork they will crawl out of the woodwork and spew their ideology as far and wide as they can. While plenty can be said about them, they are symptoms. This post is about causes, and people like that are just manifestations of an underlying problem.

The kernel of the issue is that there are Singaporeans who believe that there are too many foreigners in Singapore. The reality is coming very close to the mark. As of 2013, there are around 5.4 million people in Singapore. 3.8 million are citizens and Permanent Residents. The remaining 1.6 million are foreigners. For every foreigner, there are just a bit over two citizens. There is growing angst that foreigners will one day outnumber residents in Singapore. The government’s 2012 population White Paper  projects that by 2020, Singapore’s population would be between 5.8 to 6 million, with a resident population of 4 to 4.1 million. By 2030, the government thinks the population would be between 6.5 to 6.9 million, with resident population figures at 4.2 to 4.4 million. Assuming this comes to pass, the ratio would not change much. This does not even consider the inevitable conflicts that would ensure when the culture of new immigrants rub up against established norms. The question of how many foreigners is too much is a sticky one: it is safe to assume that Singapore would have crossed the point when the foreigner-resident ratio reaches 1:1 or higher, but where is the demarcation line, the point of no return? As the number of perceived non-Singaporeans increases, the number of conflicts and flashpoints can only increase. Currently, these conflicts are still manageable; the trick is to keep them that way.

I think the problem is not numbers alone, nor do problems arise solely from the sheer number of foreigners or the foreigner-citizen ratio. I’m starting to sense there may be a formula for conflict.

The formula for conflict


Diversity plus Proximity plus Competition equals Conflict.

Diversity: Multiple social groups. Different tribes, social classes, nationalities, cultures.

Proximity: In close enough contact that the differences between diverse peoples are immediately visible.

Competition: People trying to obtain scarce resources. Historically this was food and water. Now it is jobs, housing, resources, the essentials for daily life.

Conflict: Societal friction and disruption as different peoples, ideas and cultures collide, manifest in individual behaviours, civic actions, up to and including government intervention.

Singapore is a diverse city. Singapore prides itself on its diversity, calling itself a multiracial society, attracting people from all over the world to work and live and play, and either transshipping goods or turning raw materials into high-value products and selling them elsewhere. Singapore is so small, and with social engineering policies still in play, it is very difficult to segregate people into their preferred social groups. Attempts to do so become highly visible. Little India, for example, is well-known as a gathering spot for South Asian workers, while Peninsula Plaza is Singapore’s Little Burma. Competition is rife in land-scarce Singapore, for education, jobs, housing — and this competition is only set to increase as the population grows. As each factor grows, the scope and scale of conflicts will increase.

Singapore is a natural breeding ground for multigroup social conflicts. Diversity is in Singapore’s identity. People live in close proximity, and with such proximity comes competition between social groups. I fully expect to see the racism/xenophobia/nationalism card to be played more and more often in the coming days, especially in online spaces outside the long reach of the law. While these events are bound to provide fertile ground for debate and spleen venting, the pertinent question is: what can be done about it?

No easy answers

There are no easy answers. Assuming the equation holds true, though, the solution is to manage the factors that lead to conflict.

Diversity: This is the most visible aspect of the problem. Singaporeans have complained about everything from Chinese talking too loudly on their phones to Filipinos stealing jobs to drunken Indian workers. People define themselves by the groups they belong to, and by extension the other groups they are not part of. The people who use their membership, perceived or otherwise, in a certain social group (i.e. Singaporean citizens) to bash other groups (foreigners, new immigrants, migrant workers…) are the most visible aspect of this.

Reducing diversity means either turning outsiders into insiders (converting foreigners to Singaporeans) or reducing the number of outsiders. I see several options. Cessation or restriction of immigration. A proper integration program for new migrants, teaching them working English and cultural dos and don’ts. Making National Service mandatory for new eligible migrants and Permanent Residents, and restricting the numbers of PRs and migrants who cannot serve. Emphasising and propagating a shared Singaporean identity as opposed to different racial identities. Immigration quotas. Increased financial disincentives for hiring foreigners.

Proximity: This is the hardest problem. Singapore is land-scarce. With so many foreigners around, running into a foreigner is not just inevitable, it is becoming an everyday fact of life. That said, one can more easily bring people together when they are in close proximity and do not see each other as aliens.

Managing proximity would mean bringing different people together with the objective of creating a larger, unified Singaporean in-group. Having new citizens and PRs serve National Service alongside Singaporeans, isolating them from other people of the same national origin. Holding events that celebrate Singaporean culture. Using media to highlight locals and integrated new citizens. Supporting artistic endeavours by locals about local culture.

Competition: This is the crux of the problem. Much of the angst directed against foreigners lies from the perception that foreigners are competing with Singaporeans. By reducing this competition, perceived or otherwise, Singaporeans would be more reassured that they would have a place in Singapore.

Reducing competition would mean either giving special advantages to Singaporeans, reducing incentives for foreigners to stay in Singapore, or both. Employment quotas, with a ceiling on foreign employees and/or a floor on Singaporean ones. Tax hikes for foreigners, especially high-income ones. Preferential employment, education and housing programs for Singaporeans. Encouraging entrepreneurs and local businesses to hire and buy local wherever possible. Make immigration more restrictive. Encouraging Singaporeans to take up careers and education in fields that usually go to foreigners.

What kind of Singapore do you want?

I don’t necessarily advocate all of them, nor are they the only ones that would work. Each policy option carries its own costs and benefits, all of which fall beyond the scope of this article. It is up to Singaporeans to decide what kind of Singapore they want to create, what policies they can live with, what kind of diversity and conflict they can accept. The key is to actually talk about and implement these problems, instead of getting caught up in the outrage of the day.

I think Singapore is distracted by all the bluster searing across the social space. Some of it may even be justified, but complaining about a problem will not solve it. As Singapore’s population grows, and the number of foreigners trickles ever-higher, the people of Singapore need to sit down and start talking about solutions. Enough words have been spent condemning foreigners, racism, xenophobia and other such ideas and behaviours. Now is the time to dig up the roots of conflict, study them, and implement viable solutions before Singapore has to worry about more than just words.

Stomping STOMP is not the way to go

I don’t like the Straits Times Online Media Print.  STOMP calls itself “Asia’s leading citizen-journalism website with user-generated material fuelling its success”. But it is Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid — without editors, without common sense, without moderators, without quality control. STOMP is infamous for posts condemning foreigners, criticising national servicemen and police who relax in public, publicising street fights, and for failing to check fake news stories and making up fake stories. Citizen journalism may be a decentralised mode of journalism that gives voice to the average citizen — but it is still journalism and journalism demands standards, standards which STOMP consistently fails to meet. STOMP is emblematic of many media failings more so since STOMP’s parent company, the Singapore Press Holdings, is Singapore’s largest print news company — and has very strong ties to the government. Public opinion is turning against STOMP, with a petition calling for STOMP to be shut down. As of time of writing, the petition has over 21500 supporters.

For all its failings, I think STOMP should not be shut down.

Let me get the obvious out of the way: It is extremely unlikely that SPH would actually shut down STOMP. SPH has invested too much time, money, energy and reputation into developing and maintaining STOMP to do that. Singaporean institutions do not have a track record of giving in to public demands and it is very improbable SPH will set a precedent. STOMP has done nothing illegal (to be discussed below), STOMP draws huge numbers of hits every day with its sensationalism, and with those hits come paid advertisements and premium rates. In a world shifting away from print papers, SPH has to find a way to survive, and that means increasing revenues from online sources. I think SPH will continue to hold on to STOMP for as long as STOMP continues to rake in the dough, regardless of negative publicity and petitions.

But let’s assume that SPH might do more than chuck the petition into the bin or issue a perfunctory response. Let’s assume SPH will actually be moved by the petition. I still say closing down STOMP is not the way to go. The answer to offensive speech is more speech. It is true that STOMP has published many offensive articles and comments that can be construed as trolling, and perhaps encourages cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment. However, the Media Development Authority has stated that it would only take action if STOMP has violated the Internet Code of Practice, and as far as I can tell it has not. Nor has STOMP actually broken the law. There is therefore no room for prosecution, or even government action. If there is no proof that STOMP has done anything more than given voice to people who wish nothing more than to vent their spleens and spew nonsense, if there is no proof that STOMP has in fact harmed people, I believe there is no just cause for shutting it down.

What STOMP, its articles, its contributors and its commentators have done is offend many, many people. But hurt feelings are not a cause to shut people down. Feelings are subjective, and therefore cannot be measured. What offends someone may not offend another. This subjectivity means that there can be no benchmark for third-party enforcement. A more appropriate response to offensive speech would instead be more speech. If a reader doesn’t like an article that wantonly condemns all foreigners, she is free to criticise it. If another reader realises that STOMP has once again doctored photos to stir up controversy, he is equally free to point it out. Since I believe STOMP adds no value to my life, I choose to ignore it — and the rest of Singapore is equally free to do so.

While many people — myself included — think STOMP serves no purpose, the fact remains that STOMP is not merely about publishing gossip or trash. STOMP is more than just nonsense. People who follow the club scene might find useful information in articles about local nightclubs. STOMP aggregates some foreign news that might not make it to local newspaper — this morning, STOMP published an article about a man leaving a $1000 tip to a waitress so she could visit Italy.  Some youths may find STOMP’s Youthforia section interesting. Shutting down STOMP deprives people who find benefit from these sections. I study videos of street fights for research, and now and then videos of Singaporean fights pop up on STOMP. STOMP is not entirely useless.

STOMP has offended a great number of people, but it can also be redeemed. What does Singapore need more? A shrinking media environment, or a broader and more dynamic one? Reporters Without Borders placed Singapore 149th in the world for press freedom. While this is a reflection of government practices, how does shutting down STOMP make Singapore’s media more free? Chicago Times editor and publishing Wilbur F. Storey said, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.” Pleasing the government or the people is not in there. This means publishing the news, the facts of the day, and established truths — regardless of the feelings of the people or special interest groups. If a mob can shut down STOMP with a petition, who is to say another mob may not one day decide to shut down other, more reputable, media outlets? Or that one day public opinion will turn against Singapore’s group blogs and another mob will try to shut them down too? A successful petition to shut down STOMP could set a precedent for the tyranny of the mob over the media, mainstream and alternate.

Further, STOMP benefits a specific demographic, one that is not served by other, more famous, sociopolitical news blogs. The clubbers, the youths, the pop culturists, the ones who follow local court cases. By shutting down STOMP, the mob is saying that the interests of these people do not matter. Their interests might be trivial, but they are still a market, so even if STOMP goes down someone else will set up a spiritual successor to STOMP to serve this market. And there is no guarantee that STOMP 2.0 will not simply resort to reaching out to the lowest common denominator the way STOMP does now. Which means it is likely Singapore will see the same problem again.

Singapore needs a more vibrant media environment, not a smaller one. I think the better approach is to get STOMP to reform itself. STOMP’s core problem is quality control. STOMP cares only about sensationalism. Its editors do not check facts. Contributors are free to publish anything, including venomous xenophobic rants, unfounded conjecture and outright lies. The solution, therefore, is greater quality. That means changing STOMP’s scope, moving away from sensationalism and towards a greater respect for facts. Overhauling the editorial team, so that they actually edit articles and take a more active role in moderating comments. Refusing to publish unfounded, unverifiable stories or comments, or content that does not serve the public good — and making up for times when QC fails and unsatisfactory content is produced. If there is to be a petition that I believe it ought to be a petition to transform STOMP.  Not shut it down. But a petition is not enough, of course. It means convincing SPH that STOMP will either be more profitable if overhauled, or less profitable if it carries on — or both. Boycotting STOMP and telling SPH that you will continue to do so until STOMP is no longer Singapore’s mainstream digital gutter tabloid. Writing in to STOMP to demand changes. Supporting or creating alternative sites and explaining why STOMP no longer cuts it. Directly competing with STOMP with a more ethical and fact-based operational model.

It is easy and satisfying to tear something down, even more tempting when the target seems to be justified. But the better — though harder — approach is to build it up and make it the best it can be. It is not enough to demand change; this change must benefit people, with the goal of building a better world. Stomping STOMP does not serve the long-term interest. Improving it does.