Part 1 of 2: Chinese Xenophobia in Singapore Rises

Part 1 of 2: Chinese Xenophobia in Singapore Rises

This two-part post will explain the apparent contradictions that arise from the particular form of xenophobia in Singapore, beginning with a broad look at the Chinese and Singaporean identities.

In his 2012 National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore called for Singaporeans to be more caring towards foreign residents living in Singapore. He also implored Singaporeans to assist the latter in understanding and integrating into the Singaporean culture. This appeal was set against the backdrop of rising anti-Mainland Chinese sentiment, particularly among the Singaporean Chinese community. But what was the cause of such xenophobia in the first place?

From 2000 to 2009, there was an increase of 66 percent – 754,524 to 1.25 million – in the number of foreign residents working and living in Singapore. The government defends the rise given the low fertility rate and need of labour – both skilled and unskilled – to sustain economic growth. These foreign residents hail from various parts of the world, but in particular from Mainland China. In a population of 5.5 million people, this is a significant increase in the number of Mainland Chinese vis-à-vis Singaporean citizens.

While the new residents definitely makes their presence visible, most criticisms of the government’s policy and of the mainland Chinese actually stem from the Singaporean Chinese community. Mainland Chinese and the Singaporean Chinese are ethnically the same, share similar traditions and customs and most Singaporeans Chinese are either second or third generation immigrants. Furthermore, the Mainland Chinese are in fact not directly competing for jobs with the Singaporean Chinese, as there is an excess supply of jobs in the market, particularly in industries where Mainlanders tend to work.

Singaporean identity is often derided as almost non-existent, with many citizens unable to put a finger as to what it is to be a Singaporean. The narrative chosen by the state emphasises Singapore’s colonial past and an immigrant-based economy and society. Xenophobia is particularly acute towards the Mainland Chinese and does not manifest itself vis-à-vis other communities such as the Japanese, British, French, Americans and even the wealthier Indians. Such strong anti-mainland Chinese xenophobia by the Singaporean Chinese community is both puzzling and seemingly out of place.

With more than five centuries worth of history and culture, it is not possible to review all aspects of the Chinese identity. Rather this first of two posts seeks to explore elements that most Mainland Chinese and the diaspora share, hence identifying themselves within a similar Chinese cultural group.

The first aspect of the Chinese identity is racial. To be Chinese is often associated with being yellow-skinned and Han. The second aspect is the ability to communicate with other Chinese in Mandarin. The third involves customs, festivals and traditions such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival among others. The fourth is a shared set of values that tend to include Confucian aspects: filial piety, thrift, hard work, respect for authority, importance of education, a contribution back to the Chinese community and belief in ‘guanxi’, the importance of relationships in conducting business.

While living in different environments and being members of different cultural groups, the Mainland Chinese and the diaspora are still able to relate to one another as part of a broader Chinese cultural group, rather than viewing a member of the diaspora as non-Chinese. The diaspora may be part of a dominant culture that does not relate to his Chinese identity, but they are still often part of a subculture that structures its value system according to the Chinese identity and is hence able to relate to a Mainland Chinese.

Unlike the Chinese identity, the Singaporean identity is, in the words of the first Prime Minister of Singapore, an entity that “[Lee] accidentally created and it resulted in the Singaporean” after it became independent in 1965. Lee described the Singaporean identity as one which has “an acceptance of multiracialism, a tolerance of people of different races, languages, cultures, religions and an equal basis of competition.” Lee’s position closely parallels the narrative of a Singapore that is built on the hard work of immigrants from China, India, and the parts of the Middle East during and after the colonial period espoused by the government. Far from simply sanctioning the immigration of foreigners, the narrative stresses their role in the Singapore success story.

However, when Singaporeans are confronted with the question of what their identity constitutes, they would often be at a loss or simply point to the pride for their food. Men would also at times refer to the need to do national service as part of their culture. With slightly less than 50 years of history and a community of various ethnic groups – Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasians – it has often been argued that Singaporeans lack an identity.

This is however far from the truth. Singaporeans have an identity constructed through a set of norms that the government has inculcated since independence. The attributes of being hardworking, successful, law-abiding, anti-corruption, English-speaking, and free-market embracing have been socialized through the media, education and even the Singaporean family. In addition, Singaporeans increasingly use ‘Singlish’ when communicating colloquially among themselves. The construction of HDBs (government-subsidized housing) with mandatory racial quotas to break down ethnic enclaves also encourages the notion of a Singaporean identity that is not ethnicity based. As the government consistently reminds the population on the need to innovate to maintain the Singapore success story, Singaporeans are socialized as part of the story in its history and future. In so far as they are a part of it, it is also their duty to maintain it, building a link between being Singaporean and the Singapore success story.

That Singaporeans may be at a loss as to what their Singaporean identity entails is perhaps best explained by a young nation that is still in its formative phase. This however does not disguise the fact that socialization of the Singaporean identity has already taken place. Being unable to explicitly express what one’s identity is about does not preclude one from belonging to a particular cultural group. Hence the fact that the Chinese community in Singapore see themselves as Singaporean citizens implies that they are part of a Singaporean culture. A Singaporean culture does exist, despite misgivings by parts of the population. 

The second part will explore how the Singaporean dominant culture is both exclusionary and at odds with the dominant culture of the Mainland Chinese and is maintained through a monopoly of power.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

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