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 😛

The Little India riots in Singapore reminded me of a good man

I was 14 years of age at the time, a sheltered, sweaty little boy who was just beginning to push the boundaries of exploring the little island of Singapore. I would take random buses with my friends, ending up in deserted-looking bus interchanges and having cokes in unfamiliar neighbourhoods.

One of those sweaty days, I found myself stranded at a bus stop in the Potong Pasir area. My TransitLink card (the predecessor of today’s EZ-link card) was down to zero, and I had no coins for the 45-cent bus fare.  I had a two dollar note, however, and I was prepared to sink that into my bus fare (no change, argh!) when an Indian (or South Asian) foreign worker walked to the bus stop. He obviously came from a construction site nearby, and was still carrying his yellow hardhat.

Without thinking, I approached him to see if he had change for my two dollar note.

He didn’t speak much English, but I managed to convey the sense that I needed coins for my bus fare. Once he understood what I needed,  he put a 50-cent coin into my outstretched hand. My hand remained open, with his coin in my hand — I fully expected him to hand over more coins, so that we could make the coins-for-note exchange. So there I was, standing like an idiot with my hand open. The Indian man with the hardhat pushed my hand closed, and in return I pushed the two dollar note towards him. He refused the note, and I started to feel really, really guilty.

In my head, I was thinking: no way in hell am I gonna let a construction worker give me money for my bus fare! My father has a nice job, he gives me money, while this Indian fella has to work under the sun for his money! No no no no.*

(*The assumption that he was a manual labourer was a racist assumption. He could have been a visiting businessman from India who wanted to get his hands dirty with one of his investments. I’ll never know what he actually was doing there!)

The pair of us continued our awkward tango, with the foreigner getting more and more amused. His bus came after a minute or so, leaving me 50 cents richer. Hardhat in hand, he gave me a cheerful little wave as the bus pulled away.

That gentleman was the beginning of my journey away from racism. (Confession: I used to believe that all Malays were lazy, all Indians were smelly/dirty, and that all Chinese were superior. Don’t blame my parents or teachers, they didn’t consciously teach me those things.) If he was really a manual labourer, 50 cents — from a salary of S$500 or so a month — was not an insignificant amount.


As the fallout from the Little India riot continues, let’s bear this in mind — that racism is never acceptable, and that there are thoroughly good people in the army of foreign workers who are trying to make a living in Singapore. They face difficulties that most of us will never be able to handle. Let’s spare a thought for our foreign workers, yeah?



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