Part 2 of 2: Chinese Xenophobia in Singapore Rises

Part 2 of 2: Chinese Xenophobia in Singapore Rises

Part 2 of 2 of GRI’s look into the apparent contradictions in a specific form of rising Chinese xenophobia in Singapore.

As explained in the first post of this two-part series, people who live in different environments may still be able to identify and relate to each other as members of part of a culture. Even if the Chinese community in Singapore perceives itself first to be members of the Singaporean dominant culture, then a Chinese subculture, a more cordial atmosphere between the groups should still be observed. This is particularly so since an element of the Singaporean identity is built on the work and effort of the immigrants, including the Chinese. The facts on the ground do not however correspond to such a hypothesis with the rise in anti-Mainland Chinese xenophobia.

The first reason that may explain such a phenomenon is that the Singaporean dominant culture exists much in opposition to the broader Chinese culture, restricting members of the former from relating to members of the latter given that a different set of value systems are socialized. In terms of language, the Singaporean culture places a premium on the English language, giving it first language status, with a corresponding decline in the capacity to use Mandarin. This makes it difficult for the Mainland Chinese, particularly low skilled workers, to be able to communicate with the Chinese community in Singapore. Given that language is not neutral, but value laden and a component of culture, the inability to communicate effectively on the basis of a same language rejects the status of similar members of the respective cultures.

The problem is exacerbated by the use of colloquial Singlish which immediately separates Singaporean Chinese from those born elsewhere even if they are skilled. The contrast between the law-abiding value on one hand and the value of guanxi (relationships) on the other also serve a similar purpose to that of language, particularly when they tend to be perceived as mutually exclusive. Equally, the Singaporean identity with its focus on an English-based education and administrative system, as well as an emphasis on the rule of law corresponded by a loss in certain traits perceived as archaic such as spitting, has given rise to an impression that is held among many within the Chinese community that they are now more civilized that their counterparts. Being Singaporean and part of the Singaporean dominant culture is viewed as being superior vis-à-vis the Mainland Chinese. This perceived position restricts the Chinese community from relating with the Mainland Chinese if they are members of the Singaporean dominant culture and prevents the growth of an opposing Chinese subculture.

The second reason is that elements of the Singaporean identity and Mainland Chinese are naturally exclusive. A key aspect of the Singaporean identity is the experiences one had during national service. This is only applicable to citizens and permanent residents. Not serving national service implies an inability to relate to experiences that many Singaporeans including the Chinese share.

Of greater relevance to the first and second generation of Singaporeans is their contribution to the success story of Singapore. They were a part of that shared history that cannot be accessed by the Mainland Chinese, distinguishing them from the former. Because the Mainland Chinese have no access to such experiences, they are locked out and excluded from the Singaporean dominant culture.

The Chinese subculture that the Chinese community belongs to is in fact heavily localized, leading to evolutions that differ from the Mainland Chinese culture. As a result of a life in the tropics that is inhabited by other ethnicities, the Chinese subculture has evolved its taste for food significantly from that of the Mainland. Traditions and customs such as the Lunar New Year are celebrated differently from the Mainland. The climate has also led to differences in lifestyle including dress style.

The material environment of economic development and a rise in living standards also allow for changes in the lifestyle, with a lower focus on thrift and a greater willingness to be materialistic. The younger generation increasingly questions authority, as reflected in the rise in political participation and awareness. Mandarin is increasingly spoken with an entirely different accent from the Mainland Chinese. As such, even if the Singaporean dominant culture permits its members to relate to the Mainland Chinese culture, the Chinese subculture is localized and differentiated to an extent that it impedes the recognition that they share in the same culture.

For these reasons, the Chinese community is unable to perceive and relate to the Mainland Chinese as members of shared culture. The Singaporean dominant culture, by virtue of a self-perception as being more developed and civilized, lends itself to more commonalities with the Japanese and immigrants from the West.

Furthermore, the Chinese community is unable to enter the Mainland Chinese culture because the Chinese subculture they belong to is heavily localized. Because the Mainland Chinese are not perceived as part of a shared culture, but rather one that has elements within their value system that are contrary to the Singaporean dominant culture, this facilitates the label of them as aliens to Singapore.

Despite pleas from the government, the anti-Mainland Chinese sentiment seems set to rise. This implies the persistence of the Singaporean dominant culture vis-à-vis the Chinese one. Such a position is maintained through the unequal power relations that exist between both sides.

First, only citizens, who tend to be Singaporean Chinese, are entitled to vote. The Mainland Chinese, without voting power, are unable to forward the value system of their culture. Opposition parties keen on maximizing their votes, as in the recent 2011 elections, included xenophobic rhetoric on their campaign trail. Second, members of the Singaporean dominant culture have an almost exclusive monopoly of the local forums and blogosphere that allows them to dictate public debate. Given that most Mainland Chinese in Singapore tend to be low skilled labour that have no or little access to public debate, this monopoly is further cemented.

The rising anti-Mainland Chinese sentiment has also coincided with an increasing belief that foreign residents are taking away the jobs of Singaporean. This is in fact untrue because the jobs that tend to be taken are ones that Singaporeans tend not to do. Yet this offers an interesting insight into the interaction between the Singaporean and Chinese culture. There are jobs that are less preferred and not part of the value system of the Singaporean dominant culture, hence they are left to other people who would not mind doing it.

The binary oppositional features of the Singaporean dominant culture towards the subculture of the Mainland Chinese can explain the cynicism and vitriolic tendencies of the Singaporean Chinese community. At a Chinese sub-level, the Singaporean Chinese community is still unable to relate to that of the Mainland Chinese, despite being seemingly ethnically similar.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

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