Well, I did promise to write a follow-up post on ‘The Rise of Xenophobia’, so here it is:
So a girl goes with friends to a pubbing/clubbing district. She gets harrassed by an older man, who, upon being ignored by said girl, begins to touch and act aggressively towards her. When she issues him an ultimatum (threatening to punch him), he attempts to physically intimidate her, and taunts her. She subsequently shoves him away and screams. Her friends scream and try to pull her away.
In the meantime, no one comes to her help. One person whips out his camera phone and films down the whole thing.
She posts about the incident online. There are the usual comments–those who support her and are angry for her about the harrassment, those who blame her and cast aspersions on her person, and some voices of reason in between. Someone reads the comments, gets riled at the misogynists, and posts an opinion on her blog. Flames ensue.
Sounds like your usual debate on sexual harrassment, no?
Well, not quite.
You see, the girl is a foreign exchange student (‘the student’), who’s been here for a term. The ‘aggressor’ is an older Caucasian male (perhaps an expatriate, or even a tourist–his status is not identified). The female ‘blogger’ is a Singaporean.
Is that supposed to change anything?
Wait, there’s more. You see, the student posted up how disappointed she was with Singaporeans (and in particular, Singaporean men) for not coming to her aid. The blogger’s piece was entitled ‘Today, I am ashamed of being Singaporean‘.
Throw in nationality to the mix, and suddenly, everything becomes different.
Suddenly, it is acceptable to bash the girl for expecting help. Suddenly, it becomes acceptable to refuse to help because she isn’t Singaporean. Suddenly, it is not acceptable to call out vile online behaviour because we are supposed to be Singaporeans and Singaporeans must stand up for each other regardless.
I’m not going to comment on the student’s blanket statement because it is offensive to tar all Singaporeans with the same brush. Let’s be honest: it’s not fair to generalize. I most certainly don’t agree with her–many of the Singaporean men I know, my husband included, would help in some way. I’m not going to comment on the misogynistic comments, because I believe that stupidity is something everyone is born with, and some people just choose to cultivate that part of it more than others. I’m not going to comment on the blogger’s opinion, although I have to say that while I am not ashamed to be Singaporean, I am ashamed that those vile creatures are the same nationality as me.
What I would rather comment on is the state of humanity as reflected in the comments, and what this portends for my country.
That some would actually believe that the foreigner status of both the student and the aggressor thus absolves Singaporeans of any responsibility to help. That our men are only obliged to protect our women. That since there are 40% foreigners around, she can’t expect Singaporeans to be around to help her. That since Singaporean males have done their part with NS, they don’t need to do anything for a foreign exchange student.
Is that it, then? What it boils down to? That our humanity only extends to those who we count as ours? Everyone else can go to hell because they’re not Singaporean?
You know how as a kid, you read stories about the past and wonder what it was like to live in those times? Well, it’s times like these that I get this awful, awful feeling that I’ve just gotten the answer to my question:
How exactly did interbellum Germany develop in such a way that Nazism flourished both prior and during World War 2?
I recently had a conversation with my best friend R about the rising trend of xenophobia in Singapore, and how it worried me that people felt they did not need to help foreigners (this was before the news of this broke). He noted that it was because Singaporeans, while not xenophobic in nature (he pointed out that prior to the recent influx in foreign workers, we had been fine with foreigners), had been made increasingly so by the PAP government’s policies. While he personally didn’t agree with the xenophobia, he felt that he could see why people would end up behaving in this way.
First, I disagree with the idea that Singaporeans are not xenophobic in nature, though not completely. The degree to which we have fallen to xenophobia is greater, but this is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps we don’t want to remember anymore, but we have always viewed foreigners with suspicion, and some derision. When it was the Caucasians, we envied them because they flaunted their expat lifestyles in our faces, pubbing and attracting local women. When it was the Thai and Bangladeshi workers, we turned up our noses at them, calling them dirty, smelly, always afraid that they would give in to their baser instincts and molest/rape our women or rob us. When the Filipinas and PRC women came, they were the husband-snatchers; the former, maids who slept with their employers to score a secure future, and the latter, pei du mamas who worked in massage parlours getting into fake marriages and trying to seduce old men out of their CPF retirement money (on a lighter note, I guess it backfired, since the government kept raising the minimum withdrawal sum…). Can anyone remember the epithets of ‘SPG’ and ‘乌鸦’? Or am I the only one? All these happened in the mid to late 90s, and beyond.
The newspaper articles in the paper at your doorstep, the coffee-table books, the exposés in the glossy magazines, the talk shows on your 49″ projection TVs. The complaints about maids crowding around Orchard and Lucky Plaza, the ‘gay’ behaviour of Bangladeshi workers holding hands and walking down Little India. The bum-proof planters by the roadsides. The raising of Ion Orchard.
No, it has always been there. The whispered comments, the nasty remarks. The mothers pulling their daughters away from the dark-skinned construction worker coming down the opposite end of the pavement, and eyeballing them as they passed, before warning their daughters to be careful of being followed by these lustful Thais/Banglas/Klings. The reluctance to hire Filipinas as maids because they were likely to argue back, they slept around, they stole husbands. The Indons, oh god, why are they all so slow, so stupid. The jingoistic Singaporean tourist, who would pass comments on how lousy other countries were compared to Singapore. It goes on.
We laid the groundwork for our xenophobia a long time ago,. We laid it in the media, in our homes, in our thoughts and words. We watched our parents do it, and we drank it all in. Many let the venom, so innocuous at that time, poison the wells of their minds, such that when the concentrated pollution of sites such as TRE, TRT and TRS was poured in, the resultant reaction began to froth and spew forth fumes that when inhaled, altered their view of everything (much like how LSD would work, just minus the purported positive aspects).
Secondly, I take offense at the idea that my personal behaviour should be dictated by what others do to me, especially in an eye-for-an-eye way. That is downright insulting. I am neither bound nor conditioned by anyone or any law of the land to lash out with vitriol and mindless hate just because wrong was done to me. To do so would be tantamount to admitting I am no better than a beast capable of no higher intelligence than instinct.
I remember the construction accident about a year ago where two PRC workers were killed, and the shocking comments of people saying that since they were PRCs, we should not bother to donate to them, that since there are so many PRCs in Singapore, let them help their own, that who cares about two dead PRCs, since there would be many more flocking to replace them. The ultimate jump in logic was made by those who somehow managed to link the Ma Chi incident to this, and use that as a reason to justify not helping.
Trading in one’s humanity in the name of nationalism–that’s what Nazism turned out to be, isn’t it? That somehow, those ‘greedy’, ‘filthy pigs’, the ‘dogs’, ‘rats’, ‘cockroaches’ are less worthy of life than us ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘generous’ Singaporeans.
Almost as though they are some form of untermensch.
And when you are conditioned to consider someone less human than you, then it makes it easier to talk about doing violence to them. Like that silly young man who shoved an old lady off a bus for scolding him for scolding her about pressing the alighting bell so late, in which he somehow blamed foreigners (and specifically mentioned the Ferrari incident, by the way) for making him act in such a loutish behaviour. Like calling for ‘see one PRC. fucking kill one’ campaigns or burning down their houses, stalls, and killing their families (yes, I quoted directly from a comment on the Temasek Times–comments posted exactly 1 year ago). Like gloating over the PRC lady who was knocked down a month ago, saying “1 down, many more to go”, and “hope many more Chinamen die” (quoted directly off HWZ)
And every time some incident occurs, whether it be a PRC, Filipino/Filipina, Caucasian, whatever, suddenly all the vitriol starts spewing forth. Name-calling to the point where it blisters the eyes, telling them to go back to where they came from, making jokes about killing them… wow.
And when others call them out on their behaviour, the anti-foreigner brigade immediately brands them as foreigner-loving, telling us if we don’t like it, we can leave.
Are we allowing these people to claim our country as theirs? Their vision of Singapore as right?
Some will say that I’m over-reacting, that they are just a vocal minority. Might I point out now that most Germans weren’t fervent, spittle-flecked Nazis. But they had just enough resentment for the Jews to do nothing when the crazies came. Too many people still think that evil comes in the form of outright cruelty and atrocity. It is easy to demonise them (think hard: how many biographies of Hitler, or Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein have you read that portray them as regular human beings?).
I caution against that. By denying that we have anything in common with such people, we deny that we, too, are capable of similar acts. We gladly buy into the fiction that it takes someone extraordinarily evil to perpetrate crimes against humanity so that we never have to confront the reality that we all have it within us to do the same. We believe it fervently so that we don’t have to stick our necks out to call out the crazies. We would trade others’ humanity so that we can grasp on to our own.
Wanna bet that if you ask most of those people who post up xenophobic comments if they would support Nazism, they’d be shocked and say ‘no way’?
We want to forget the banality of evil.
And evil starts, and thrives, with conditional humanity.