June 25, 2017

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xenophobia

by Tan Chu Chze

THE year 2016 has been nothing short of crappy. Not that no good things have happened, but plenty of crazy things occupy our consciousness simply because they don’t make sense. And this is made obvious from the way we are choosing our words. Here are four words that have taken over our minds:

 

Post-truth
Oxford’s choice of word of the year are usually interesting ones. Last year’s was an emoticon. This year’s is ‘post-truth‘. The reason they seem like strange and novel choices is because they are also strange and novel words. Oxford Dictionary keeps track of words that people use – online and off – and takes note of words that spike in frequency. ‘Post-truth’ has become significant to our vocabulary that way.

It refers to circumstances where the objective ‘truth’ is no longer as important as subjective feelings. In definition, that sounds a lot like ‘populism’, which is probably the main impetus of the rise in the word ‘post-truth’. Yet, there remains a significant difference between the two words.

‘Post-truth’ appears to take ‘populism‘ to the next level. While ‘populism’ describes people voting irrationally, ‘post-truth’ bluntly posits that people are irrational. It is as if the word is playfully, yet ominously, ushering a new age in human development where logic and reason are suspended. How true is that? We’ll have to wait for 2017 to find out. But, it definitely deserves a place on the list as it seems indicative of a paradigm shift.

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Xenophobia
Also known as the fear, hatred, or dislike of anyone or anything foreign. Unlike Oxford Dictionary, Dictionary.com selected this word based on user searches, meaning a heckuva lot of people looked up ‘xenophobia‘ on their site. People seemed most interested in the word around June this year, following Brexit.

What this means is that people generally wanted to understand or clarify the meaning of ‘xenophobia’. The word itself isn’t new or particularly rare in public use, but the fact that it was searched so many times shows that people were becoming more conscious of it. Perhaps other people are using it more in everyday speech, or are hearing it in the news more often… but what is certain is that we want to know its meaning.

‘Xenophobia’ finds its place on this list because it gives name to the demon that possesses our society. It has spawned other monsters, such as populism and terrorism and let loose the biggest monster of all, chaos.

 

Surreal
Merriam-Webster’s offering takes a similar approach to Dictionary.com – it selected ‘surreal‘ for an unusually high number of searches on its site. The searches had three significant surges this year. They were during the Brussels terror attacks in March, the Turkish coup and Nice attacks in July, and finally the US presidential elections in November.

While these events are undoubtedly real, they felt surreal, which is the feeling of intense irrational reality of a dream. If that is the case, 2016 is nothing short of a nightmare the world is waiting to wake up from.

Of course, not all surreal moments are reflective of bad ones. Joseph Schooling’s gold at the Olympics is a clear (good) dream come true. At least for Singapore lah huh. However, other moments like the seemingly unrelenting list of celebrity deaths easily overshadow that joy. If anything, the interest in the word ‘surreal’ shows that this year has been especially difficult to make sense of, even after finding the meaning of the word.

Here’s our take on the word applied to Singapore.

 

Trump
If one could personify everything that is post-truth, xenophobic and surreal, it would have to be – unquestionably – Trump. His name encapsulates the irony that pervades 2016: literally meaning “to win”, but really representing a loss. Donald Trump continues to defy common sense, being a businessman to take US presidency while having the unpopular vote. Completely unpresidented unprecedented.

And for being vacuous and polarising yet absolutely and unpalatably irresistible, Trump was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. He is so hard to ignore, and on that virtue alone ‘trump’ finds a place on this list whether we like it or not.

 

Featured image “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.”Helen Keller by Flickr user Kate Ter Haar. (CC BY 2.0) 

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MRT Morning Rush Hour

by Daniel Yap 

MY WIFE, a Permanent Resident, attended a course recently where the instructor was a disgruntled Singaporean with a chip on his shoulder about foreigners (and life in Singapore in general). He spent large chunks of teaching time stereotyping other nationalities, complaining about them, and pointing out how foreigners (and the G) have ruined life in this island nation.

“PRCs are the worst workers. They don’t care. They have no standards. Everyone hates PRCs.”

“You can never trust the Myanmarese.”

“Those workers from Bangladesh – you can’t train them. They can’t learn. These Bangladeshis come and take these courses and get a certificate, and then they go home and open up a company and become rich men!”

“White people all come here and want to be served. This is a rich man’s playground for them. They just come here and enjoy life. Very hard to please. Oh, not you, of course, you’re more like one of us.”

Now we should bear in mind the latest Population in Brief published by the National Population and Talent Division which showed that transnational marriages at their lowest rate ever (but still high) in a decade – 37 per cent. Over the last 10 years, the number has hovered around 40 per cent: that means that of the more than 250,000 marriages in the last decade that involved at least one citizen, at least 100,000 were to foreigners.

Proportion of marriages between a Singaporean and a foreigner (from NPTD's Population in Brief 2015)
Proportion of marriages between a Singaporean and a foreigner (from NPTD’s Population in Brief 2015)

That also makes it closer and closer to a 40 per cent chance that when someone insults or discriminates against foreigners, they have just simultaneously denigrated a Singaporean’s immediate family member. The rest of us aren’t very distant from these relationships either. I am sure everyone has a friend or a distant relative who married a foreigner, or who is a foreigner. Chances are that an anti-foreigner stand would alienate the large majority of Singaporeans. Candidates at the latest General Election who were known to personally harbour anti-foreigner sentiments performed worse than those who chose to focus on foreign worker policies. Even as far back as 1998, the proportion of transnational marriages was 33 per cent.

The strange thing about the response of the Singaporeans attending that course with my wife was that nearly all of them either commiserated with the instructor, or kept silent about the tirade. Bear in mind that this was during class. When she asked her coursemates about the foreigner hate, they would say that they were against it, but wilted in the face of the instructor’s authority and vociferousness. That is a typical Singaporean reaction – not to initiate conflict, even if it is for the right reasons. We look for heroes everywhere but within ourselves. That was why #MRThero Muhammad Hanafie was exceptional because he did what a trainload of people couldn’t bring themselves to do.

What gives people the idea that it is okay to be prejudiced against foreigners in a stereotypical way? Did we get hurt by one or two or three foreigners and then decided to dehumanise all of them? Do we imagine that just because we speak about whole nations and races, individual foreigners and their Singaporean kin will not feel insulted? Do we use the ridiculous disclaimer of “all foreigners are thus, present company excepted” to justify our hate? Or do we hang out so much with narrow-minded people that we build up a blindness to the venom and immaturity of our words?

This minority undercurrent of foreigner-hate is as insidious as racist jokes and stereotypes. They are the wedge that drives our society apart, they are the weakest link in our peaceful community, they are people whose eyes need to be opened to the people around them. I wish I had the chance to talk to him and ask him very pointedly and repeatedly if he understood the implications of his rants.

Because the more one says it, the more one moves towards exclusion. It is, in our society, an alienating line, even for fellow Singaporeans. And those of us who stay silent in the presence of hate are slowly damning these haters to the fringes – perhaps a fitting punishment for the unthinking, but I would rather have them consider their words and attitudes carefully, and think about who those words affect.

If we need to criticise foreigners behaving badly, let us do so without stereotyping, because such behaviour only ends up angering fellow Singaporeans, and more and more so as the years go by.

 

Featured image by Cheong Yaoming.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
An armored police car.

An imaginary conversation between Xena and Xeno

Xeno: Eh, can these Pinoys stop it already? Want to hold independence celebration at Taka? They think this is where? Manila?

Xena: Chill. We are all members of the same universe. They liberated themselves and now they are chained here. How to celebrate in Manila? Let them chill out lah. Anyway, it’s in June. School holidays. Why you want to go Taka anyway? Sure crowded with small semi-sentient beings.

Xeno: Oi! Not enough that they’ve invaded our houses, our hospitals and our restaurants…They want to take over my favourite shopping mall? This is war!

Xena: Eh, they already take over many buildings on weekends. Have you been to City Plaza? Anyway what do you want to do? Lead a squadron to take them out? They are harmless, defenceless prisoners, I mean, people… You know, once they get police permits and if Taka says okay, you will be breaking the laws by shooting them……Then it’s Changi penal colony for you man…

Xeno:  I don’t care! They are part of a conspiracy, aided by the powers that be, to exterminate natives so that they can use our resources. It’s a slow takeover. We can’t let them happen. We need to don our greens, flash our pink cards, show our red passports…Time to make a stand!

Xena: Well, there’s always Hong Lim Park, that small planet where you can say what you like and wave the flag. But you’d better get a permit. Go see how many followers you have…some people think 26,000 will turn up. Go try! Say you’re exercising freedom of speech!

Xeno: But I don’t believe in diplomatic means anymore. People are upset. They see the Pinoy flyer and they go…eh, isn’t that the Singapore skyline? The Pinoys made a big mistake. They’ve showed their hand…Now we know what they are really up to….

Xena: Aiyah. They did it before. In Hong Lim and in Suntec City. We didn’t have a problem…Just call their leaders and tell them to stand down. Or go to the Philippines embassy or something.

Xeno: Exactly what I have been saying! Do it on their own property! Doing it in Taka is a provocation to the rest of us who can’t afford to shop there! We’re unhappy. We’re being squeezed out of our jobs. We don’t even recognise our own country anymore. Everytime I close my eyes and hear all those alien tongues, I think I’m on another planet.

Xena: Wait a minute…Didn’t you escort our own fleet for celebrations in London and Sydney? We did that in public parks right?

Xeno: That’s different. That’s a public park. Not a shopping mall. Geddit? And there are not so many Singapuddlians in London or Sydney. But there are so many Pinoys here. The gathering is a pretext for the start of a riot when they will all fan out over Singapore as police hold their positions. No shots fired. Well! I will fire first shot!

Xena: Ahhh. I thought some people think we’re too hard on the foreign beings? Work them too hard? No space to sleep? Nowhere to hang out?

Xeno: But it must be on OUR terms. WE will decide when and where and what they can do. Just like we decide at home for the helper. I think I’m not going to give my maid Sunday off that day. Whose silly idea was that?

Xena: So you want to send a hit squad that day to Taka? Must remember that natives will be around and might get caught in friendly fire…

Xeno: Hmm…we will use water pistols then…

Xena: What? Like Songkran festival which got called off because it’s wasting water?

Xeno: Goodness! So hard to start a war…

Xena: Never mind Xeno…Come. Let’s arm wrestle. I’ll let you beat me this time.

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A protestor with his placard at the first "say no to 6.9 million" protest at Hong Lim Park.

I am writing to convey my great disappointment over ST’s reporting of the online protests against the holding of the Philippines Independence Day celebrations.

In your first report, you said:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately. Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.
The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

This is inaccurate. The 26,000 “likes’’ are for the page itself, which was set up a few years ago and has a wide variety of posts including those not associated with foreigners. The post calling for the protest amounted to some 300-plus “likes’’.

This mis-reporting has caused consternation as it implied that 26,000 citizens or so support the protests – which is not true. For a subject that is potentially explosive, I believe it behoved ST to be extra vigilant in the accuracy of the information it publishes.

There was no correction nor clarification, which would be important for readers who read only your august newspaper. Nor was there an attempt to set the record straight in your next article on the protest organisers receiving threats. Or in subsequent articles and in your editorial.

In your Sunday Times article, Filipino group heartened by support, you chose again not to correct the misimpression. You quoted selectively from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook post, focusing only on his point that xenophobia should not be tolerated.

You ignored this point: “That there are xenophobes wasn’t the surprising part since there are these sad elements in any society. It was the reported 26,000 ‘likes’ for the page … that raised my brows. As it turned out, the reporting was inaccurate.”

Likewise, you quoted selectively from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page on this issue, neglecting to incorporate this line: “Fortunately, it was the work of a few trolls.’’

It would seem that ST has gone to great lengths to sweep its mistake under the carpet, an ignominious thing to do for a newspaper which prides itself on accuracy. For ST-only readers, the 26,000 figure is what will stick in their minds, tarring the online community as a bunch of rabid xenophobes. Foreigners who read ST only would also come away with the impression that Singapore is on the verging of losing its sanity over the immigration issue.

In her column on April 19, your writer Ms Chua Mui Hoong used the online protests as a launch pad to discuss whether such online views are representative of Singapore society at large. She too made no mention of ST’s mistake of exaggerating the protest numbers although she did say this: From all acounts, that anger seems to be an over-reaction from a segment of Singaporeans against a perfectly pleasant, legitimate event. Many others spoke up against such anti-foreigner sentiments.

She also said: Unlike blogs in English which delight in ripping off mainstream media’s reports, Chinese language bloggers used mainstream media reports as sources of information, not as fodder for criticism.

I would like to point out that this is precisely why ST should be careful with its news reports – because the mainstream media is used as a source of information. This means that when it is inaccurate, it must brace itself for criticism, acknowledge its failings and not dismiss the comments of those, whom as Ms Chua put it, “delight in ripping off’’ its reports.

Ms Chua concluded: So it’s never a good idea to generalise from a group of angry netizens to Singapore society at large.

I agree. And it would help if ST was more careful in its reporting and upfront about its mistakes instead of adding to the misperception.

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A protestor with his placard at the first "say no to 6.9 million" protest at Hong Lim Park.

We all know that there are racists and xenophobes in Singapore, as there are in any society. The sane among us know not to add fuel to their fire. We do not encourage their sentiments – because we do not share them. Sometimes we ignore them because there is no way to change how they feel. And, of course, no one would acknowledge to being racist or xenophobic.

So when does racism and xenophobia become news?

I ask this because I was aghast to read the article, Filipino group gets online flak over event, published in The Straits Times today.

It said: Organisers of a plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day here had to remove a Facebook post about the event, after it drew a storm of vitriol and protests from netizens.
The online response came as a shock, they said, though they still intend to proceed with the celebration on June 8 at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, pending approval of permits from the authorities.

A lot of things get “online flak’’, so when is “flak’’ so heavy that it deserves further magnification in The Straits Times? Well, it seems that the removal of a FB post about the event by the hapless organisers was enough to merit a piece of real estate in ST. It was prime estate as well, on page A8, not in the bowels of its Home section.

Note: The organisers weren’t compelled to stop the June event. They are still proceeding with it as soon as they get the licences. If they were bullied into stopping altogether, methinks it would be worth some newsprint space.
So perhaps the online flak itself is enough to merit a story?

The article continued:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately.
Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.

The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

It was the 26,000 “likes’’ that prompted me to check the particular page. I couldn’t believe that 26,000 would say no to the community holding an event here. We have that many xenophobes? If so, it is something worth reporting because there is something seriously wrong with Singapore society.
It turned out that the FB page has been set up way back when the White Paper on Population was still a hot issue. The page has all sorts of posts, including on the death of a wrestling star, the haze and the predictable pillorying of G leaders. It wasn’t a page that was dedicated to the event.

The post which called for the protest drew 300-plus likes – a more “respectable’’ number. In fact, it is a number which should not even bother any journalist. It is inconsequential in the scheme of “likes’’ in the internet space. So why does it even deserve newsprint space in the august ST?

Now, I am firmly against the protest. I think the arguments against the Filipinos holding its own day at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road are narrow-minded.

The protesters said on the FB page that they are against three things:
a. We are against them using the Singapore skyline in their logo for their Philippine Independence Day logo & posters, Facebook page, websites, etc.

Why? They live and work here presumably, and we are the host country. Perhaps some people think it looks as though the Filipinos have taken over the country? And Singapore is the Philippines? Why such insecurity? I happen to think it’s a nice gesture to the host country. It should be the Filipinos back home who are aghast that their own national symbols aren’t used. Not us.

b. We are against them in using the terms “Two Nations” and “Inter-dependence” in their Philippine Independence Day celebration posters. Singapore only observe and celebrate our own National Day on the 9th of August and we DO NOT and WILL NOT have a joint-celebration of “Inter-dependence” with another sovereign state. Their event is insinuating a very serious and misleading assumption; which we Singaporeans have never endorsed.

Hmm….is there a communication problem here? Something lost in translation? Isn’t it good that the community recognises the inter-dependence of nations? I don’t think the Filipinos are calling for a joint celebration! Rather, more an invitation to Singaporeans to join them in their celebrations.

Its organiser was reported as saying in ST: “We are not saying that we are trying to take over. Our drive is to be part of the community and try to open up to other nationalities. Interdependence doesn’t mean Singaporeans depend on us, but that we all help each other.”

I agree. It seems to me that the protesters have misled themselves

c. We are against them in celebrating their country’s Independence on Singapore soil. We urge them, however, to do so in their own Embassy compound.

For crying out loud…By the way, the community has held similar celebrations in the past, in Hong Lim Park and Suntec City. Is Orchard Road so sacred? And what does it say about the country’s own celebration of Singapore Day around the world; we took a public garden in Sydney and more recently, spent $4m or so in London. So Singapore should stop its own celebrations on foreign soil and confine the activities only in the embassy compound? If the other countries reacted like these “protesters’’ did, then perhaps we should.

The so-called protest leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But then again, it’s a SMALL group, not some 26,000 or so as ST seemed to have implied.

Which brings me back to the question: What is the duty of care that MSM should exercise when publishing or broadcasting what goes on on the Internet? There will always be vitriol, even in pre-Internet days. But to have the MSM further magnify this (based on 300, not 26,000 likes) is downright bad reporting and bad judgment. If it was a question of numbers only – that is, so many thousands of people protesting – then it should take a look at the anti-STOMP petition and publish a story. The same rules must apply, even to itself.

What I cannot abide is how the article has given the impression to its much touted 1million readers or so that the entire Internet community is a bunch of rabid, raving xenophobes. I wouldn’t put it past some politician to refer to this as an example of the terrible nature of the community.

Now I certainly hope the authorities aren’t going to get cold feet and deny the licences to the organisers because of this and cite “security and law and order considerations ’’. I hope the Filipinos go ahead and organise the celebration. Just make sure you don’t riot or consume too much alcohol or litter or pee in the plaza.

This Singaporean wishes you a good Independence Day.

 

This article was first published at berthahenson.wordpress.com.