The problem of definitions, government policy, and racism

This is a response to the horribly disgusting post here that has gone viral, about the “Filipino infestation in Singapore”. It’s a horrible post. Don’t read it. It’s racist. It’s horrible.

In my line of work, I often have to deal with the problems of definitions. My favourite resource for this problem is the English teacher’s (and student’s) best friend — the dictionary (OED and M-W are really nice to use). This may seem like an academic problem only, but the fact is that when people think about real-life problems in unclear ways, things go horribly wrong. I think it is a lack of clear thinking that has resulted in a significant chunk of Singaporeans becoming racist.

In Singapore, there is widespread dissatisfaction with government policies that used to allow liberal immigration (it’s slightly less liberal now). People complained that foreigners were competing for their jobs. In the editing industry, this is a real phenomenon. Some of the best editors I know are foreigners, and tremendously nice people to work with too. On a larger level, it is true that they have taken jobs from locals — but this is no reason to hate these foreigners. The foreign editors I know are mostly decent people, in the exact same way as the local editors. Yes, some editors I’ve met would qualify as “not so cool” types, but they come from the ranks of the locals and the foreigners.

Even though government policy made it harder for me to find a job when I graduated (ask me about it, it’s a fun story), it also allowed me to make some very good friends in the process. (HI JO!! =D) There is no reason whatsoever to be angry at the foreigners who are here, because they are the same as the rest of us — they are looking for the best ways to live their lives. They make mistakes just like the rest of us, because they are human like the rest of us.

There is no excuse to be racist. I am flabbergasted whenever I see a blogpost complaining about government policy and calling foreigners names. SEPARATE THE TWO, PLEASE. It should be clear to everyone that government policy and human beings are extremely different things.

I think it’s fine to demand policies that put locals at an advantage when it comes to jobs, housing, medical care, and so on. But mistreating foreigners just because they are not ‘local’ (what does it mean to be local, anyway?) is an act of cruelty. A civilized society would not deny aliens their livelihood or their safety.

Now someone please spread the word that Singaporeans are, by and large, nice people. Preferably in a gentler tone than I have adopted here 😛

(A response to..) Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

This post is a response to the article in the link — Dont keep calm! And dont carry on! – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Mr Seah cares about students, and if you care about students, you have to care about politics as well, because what happens in the political realm impacts students too. If, for example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes into power, then it will probably enact policies that they have described here (which, in my opinion, would be good for students but bad for the tuition industry).

So, it was with great admiration that I read the article “Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!“. It is such a well-written article, and anyone who even dreams of doing well for their General Paper (GP) should be able to understand and critique this article. It contains a cogent analysis of the ideology embedded within the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and is a call to action — except that the author (Michael Marder) does not spell out for us what that action should be.

I agree with the bulk of the article, and it seems worth the effort to write about the implications of my agreement for my own actions — in terms of my teaching and existence — in the Singaporean context.

The premise of the article — that we exist with a “highly destructive status quo” — is one that I accept. As another author has observed:

“The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth.”

The inequality that I observe in this world is simply unacceptable, in a moral sense. It is inexplicable that the world’s billionaires continue to hold on to their wealth so tightly when one in three people in the world live in poverty. Marder observes that “the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool”, and it really is no surprise when we have statistics like that to look at.

As a GP tutor, I expect my students to have enough general knowledge to score well in their essays, and this makes up part of the general knowledge that they should have. Once a student is aware of such statistics, there is no way s/he will be able to ignore it without some effort. In the same way that a person will find it difficult to be happy in a room of sobbing people, most people will find it unacceptable to hoard wealth when the problem of poverty is so widespread.

This is not to say that I don’t encourage my students to be successful — I always point to the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show how a billionaire can make a massive difference in the world, more than what a humble tutor (me) can achieve. Success isn’t bad — it is unrestrained greed that destroys the world.

In addition to greed, there is also the problem of apathy, brought about by what Marder calls the “ideological constructions of normalcy”. A student of mine has pointed out that this includes the dystopic phenomenon of people being entertained to death with their smartphones, both of us having observed people on trains and buses nowadays being glued to their smartphones in what seems to be an orgy of mindless consumption.

As a teacher of young minds, I always try to encourage mindful consumption, rather than mindless consumption. This is incidentally good for a student’s grades as well — if a student spends hours reading thought-provoking material rather than spending hours playing games or watching inane videos, it will surely have a positive impact on his academic performance.

My teaching is my way of not keeping calm, of not carrying on as if the world was alright. I don’t claim to have a tremendous impact on the world, but I am doing what I can to try to change things. As I explain to my students, we can help by supporting tax reform (an idea that many political and business leaders support), and by volunteering to help whoever we can in our country.

Yes, I want my students to be successful and to do well. But I also want them to remember that keeping calm and carrying on isn’t the best thing to do all the time.