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Thursday, 21 February 2013

A reply to "We are no longer a nation of immigrants"

My friend Ravi Philemon wrote this blog post( ) presumably in response to my previous post.

I understand much of what he is feeling. New immigrants also have to be diligently assimilated - I think rigorous citizenship classes is a start. Right now, new citizens do not need to undergo intensive history and cultural classes; it is also my belief that they do not have to memorise the pledge nor the national anthem. These are basics. New citizens also have to make an effort to break down barriers - just as our forefathers did. But barriers are two ways - old citizens should also help new ones assimilate.

What I disagree with is the notion that the assimilation of our forefathers was wholly organic. Prior to 1965, various races still stayed in ethnic enclaves - a remnant of British colonial policy. Raffles in 1822 issued an edict that designated zones for different racial groups. As late as 1950, the HDB's predecessor body the Singapore Improvement Trust commissioned a survey which revealed that not only were the racial groups still living in enclaves, even the Chinese community segregated themselves into dialect groups. (Hodder, 1953).

 It was the PAP Government's public housing policy, a deliberate policy to encourage racial mixing that changed all that. The introduction of Mandarin as the common language of the Chinese people (an Northern Han Chinese language alien to most of the South Chinese descendants in Singapore) also helped the Chinese community coalesce into a more homogeneous group.

Therefore, I agree with Mr. Rajaratnam that being a Singaporean is about conviction and choice. Firstly, conviction in the values in the Singapore pledge, values that did not grow organically but was the result of a vision of the modern Singapore state's founding fathers, that all people should live together in a just and equal society, regardless of race, language or religion. And a deliberate choice to pursue national policies to make this happen.

If new immigrants can similarly subscribe to the same convictions and make the same choices, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

6.9 Million People and An Emotional Hump

The protests against the White Paper on Population at Hong Lim Park have been making headlines around the world. In the meantime, in between exhortations by Ministers and pro-Establishment commentators to get above the emotional angst and emotive rhetoric, one is witnessing an anger startling not in its intensity, but by the way it cuts across all demographics of society.

The truth is that even at the apex of its political strength, there was always a 25% anti-PAP core that would not vote PAP even if they fielded Mahatma Gandhi. Even during the discontent that caused the PAP to lose Aljunied GRC in 2011, there was also a different 25% who would vote PAP even if they fielded Mickey Mouse. This time it is different – the anger is widespread, even amongst some staunch PAP grassroots leaders. The question is: Is this really just an emotive issue that the PAP can ride out? Or are there genuine reasons for people to be angry?

The truth is that there is plenty to be upset about.

Firstly, on so many levels, one has to question the need to rush the White Paper through Parliament. To begin with, the timing was incomprehensible – what kind of political acumen leads a party to think that it is good idea to further piss off a population after it has suffered a stunning defeat at a by-election?  Even if the White Paper was slated to be debated during that period prior to the resignation of Michael Palmer, it is not good reason, nor good political timing to continue according to schedule as if Punggol had not happened. Any political party has to know that pushing through an unpopular policy requires huge political capital, and the PAP’s political capital is arguably at an all-time low, even if it still retains a vast majority in Parliament.

In addition, it is extremely odd that in the midst of a National Conversation, a policy that will impact the lives of generations of Singaporeans is off the agenda. Surely a more prolonged public discussion of scenarios and alternatives would have had a chance of creating more buy-in? Surely after years of falling TFR, another few months would not have made a difference to any disaster scenario? It seems that after years of political hegemony, the PAP has forgotten that policies have to be sold when people have power at the ballot box. Technocratic fait-accomplis are the luxury of genuine one-party states and contrary to skeptics, as recent elections have shown, Singapore is still a democracy.

Secondly, the fear of overcrowding cannot be dismissed as an emotional hump. Nobody likes to live like sardines packed in a can. The fear of being squeezed into ever smaller spaces is a real one.

What is irrational is the fear of the figure 6.9 million. This figure by itself is completely meaningless, as are the alternative figures thrown out by other people opposing the White Paper.

Whether the population is 3 million, or 5 million, or 6.9 million, the question of whether Singapore will be overcrowded will depend on whether enough infrastructure is built. Will 6.9 million be overcrowded? The honest answer, if we think about it, is that it depends. 6.9 million living in today’s infrastructure will of course mean overcrowding. But IF the Government is able to execute its land use plan THEN perhaps it does not have to be overcrowded.

And that is the crux of the issue. The people should be worried about 6.9 million people not because that number is the sign of the Devil, but when a Government has not been able to adequately handle a population increase from 3 million to 5 million, what faith do the people have that it can do so from 5 to 6.9? 

It is thus imperative for the Government to first solve the current issues that have arisen from the previous population increase – overcrowding, high prices, competition for jobs – and regain the people’s trust. This is because when one is selling a vision for the future, you are asking people to take a leap of faith. Nobody can realistically imagine 6.9 million people living in a futuristic city made possible with advanced city planning techniques. The people have to trust the Government can deliver and in order to gain this trust, it has to show it can solve the current issues. 

There is however one emotive issue that I feel Singaporeans have to get over – the fear of being a minority and the preservation of a Singaporean Core.

I have no idea what that means.

Singaporean is by definition a nationality, not an ethnicity nor a race. 

It makes some sense for the Japanese to fear immigration as they want to preserve their ethnic homogeneity. Recently, when Hong Kong’s leaders made similar remarks that Hong Kong’s ethnic homogeneity of Cantonese people will be threatened by more Mainland Chinese immigration, it made sense too, even if one argues they are all ethnic Chinese.

But Singaporean? What is that?

It is neither race nor ethnicity, neither a language group nor even a religious community. Singapore is Singapore precisely because of its diversity, not because of homogeneity. 

We seem to have forgotten the Singapore Story. It is a story of an island of immigrants forged from many races, many religions, many cultures. It is a story of a nation that welcomed different people who wanted to make a better life to find a new home. It is a story of a country whose descendants of these original people still celebrate various festivals, where Mosque meets Temple, where Christians live alongside Hindus, and even if most of us speak English or Singlish, we still preserve our ‘native’ tongues.

Therefore when politicians and commentators lament that we are surrounded by foreign faces and unfamiliar tongues, they strike at the heart of our own identity. We are a nation built by foreign faces – the faces of our forefathers. When modern Singaporeans look in the mirror, it is still the faces of their forefathers that stare back at them, and this is certainly not a homogeneous face.   What is Singlish if not a pidgin language that evolved from many unfamiliar tongues? What is the Singaporean accent if not English overlayed with Chinese, Malay and Indian intonations? What is Singaporean if not a ‘rojak’ nationality forged from various people from foreign shores?

If we deny this we deny ourselves. 

In preserving the Singaporean Core, we first have to define it. Like its critics, the White Paper failed to do so, which rendered the amendment itself emotive and ultimately meaningless.

So then - what is a Singaporean? What is this Singaporean Core we want to preserve?

In the end, like others, I feel nobody defined it more eloquently than one of our founding fathers and the author of the Singapore Pledge, S. Rajaratnam. 

He said, "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

That is the Singapore Story. If we want to preserve something, let it be that.