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.

Digging Up the Roots of 'Racism'

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