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Confessions of a foreigner March 31, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Politics, Society.
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I know many Singaporeans are not afraid to display their hostility towards foreigners. My days in university have taught me that; snarky comments, nasty nicknames and resentment against “china students” were anything but uncommon. Bur recently, after viewing a video posted by Yawningbread talking about the influx of foreigners becoming a chief concern in the coming elections, and after coming across a petition for employers to employ Singaporeans first, I’m beginning to sense that this antagonism is growing, or at least becoming a lot more visible and socially acceptable.

Or maybe it’s just me. You see, I am a foreigner now, so perhaps I have become more sensitive about these things. As a Singaporean student living in the UK, never in my life have I felt more conscious of how a country’s locals treat its foreigners. It’s not because I’m treated any differently here. It’s because I’m not treated any differently here. Unlike how we used to treat the students from China back in NUS, talking about how they screwed up the grading curve making it impossible for us locals to get As, letting them form their own enclaves and never really welcoming them into our own cliques, no one treats me like a foreigner here. No one complains about me stealing places that local students “deserve”, no one makes a big deal about my race or where I come from, and I can bet that no one actually blames me or other international students for congestion on the trains and buses (which I’m sure is actually worse than the situation back home).

That’s not to say that anti-foreigner sentiments are totally absent. But the key difference is that no one here can get away with blaming social and economic problems on immigrants without looking like a total bigot. Sure, you can criticize foreigners all you want here, but in everyone’s minds, that instantly relegates you to the likes of right-wing parties like the BNP, or salacious hate and fear mongering tabloids, or ignorant racist or homophobic countryfolk. You’d have to be pretty delicate and wise with your words here if you want to argue against foreigners and immigration. That’s a far cry from the brazen xenophobia that I sometimes see in Singapore, where foreigner-blaming is common to university students and busybody aunties alike.

Looking back on it, I feel ashamed of how nasty we were to other students simply based on their nationality. These students from India and China want success as much as any one of us, and they are probably more desperate to improve their lives than most of us privileged Singaporeans. Why should nationality make any difference? If they can qualify to get into our universities, then they have every right to be there. It doesn’t seem fair to me that we are more entitled to jobs or to places in primary schools or universities, simply because we had the privilege of being born in Singapore. Simply because by some stroke of luck, our grandparents decided to leave their villages but theirs didn’t.

Is it really fair to blame foreigners who want to work and study in Singapore? If you had the ability, the opportunity and the means to, would you pass up the opportunity to work or study abroad, thus improving your job prospects, increasing your potential earnings and broadening your horizons? Foreign students and workers are simply making that same logical choice for themselves.

I had a lengthy discussion with my British colleagues on this issue. I asked them what they thought of the growing unemployment problem in the UK and the opening of the “floodgates” to workers from all over the EU. My question was met with no anger, no hostility, and not a tinge of resentment. (I dare you to ask a similar question to a young jobseeker in Singapore and attempt to stop the xenophobic rant that would most surely ensue.) Many of the responses I got were startlingly applicable to Singapore. “It’s not like the locals would want many of the jobs that the immigrants take up, anyway.” “Where would our country be without the contribution of immigrants?” “They just want to be able to enjoy the high standard of living here that we take for granted.” My friend put it most aptly. In the most matter-of-fact manner: “We’re competing with the world now. That’s just the way it is.”

With all this talk of “competing with the world”, it’s easy to let a dog-eat-dog society take over. It’s easy to sink into a world where only the fittest survive, and the weaker members of society fall through the cracks. But this is not inevitable. Even as we welcome the talent and competition that immigration brings, there is no excuse not to have a safety net to ensure that all members of society – locals or foreigners – have a minimum standard of living, and this means minimum wage, affordable healthcare and bargaining power in the form of unions.

I’m pretty sure most Singaporeans really aren’t xenophobic; they’re just concerned about their livelihoods. I just hope they see that the solution lies in better welfare, better transport, and better schools, and not in demonizing foreign workers and students who are really just like us.


This is what freedom of speech looks like March 27, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Life in London, Politics, Singapore, Society.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

I woke up to the sounds of helicopters and whistles and drums in the distance. I had an inkling of what was going on – there were university union members handing out flyers to university staff and students to strike against the pension cuts earlier in the week. I checked the BBC website, and sure enough, there was going to be a protest in London – a huge one. One that would involve more than 200,000 participants angry with the government’s spending cuts to the public sector, causing a loss in jobs. Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw legions of people carrying flags and signs, walking from the tube station towards the embankment, and tour buses upon tour buses dropping off protesters arriving from all over the UK.

I had plans to do grocery shopping, but given the bus delays and road blocks due to the protests, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, my boyfriend and I decided to follow the crowds.

Whilst we walked alongside the protesters, I was struck with a sense of pride and warmth. Sure, many of the policies that they were protesting against had little to do with me, and I’m not even British. But I was just so happy to be living in a country where the average Joe had such strong opinions about not only his own livelihood, but that of his friends, his family, and of fellow Britons, and was not afraid to speak up about it. Even more unbelievable (at least to someone who comes from a country where it is illegal to gather in a group of more than 5 people) was the wondrous fact that the city had blocked off its main roads and redirected its bus services, just so that these protesters could carry out their route along the river Thames to hold a rally in Hyde Park.



Waterloo bridge was closed to traffic to allow protesters to march

We walked across Waterloo Bridge (which was free of traffic because of this event), taking in the almost surreal sights: men, women, teenagers and seniors, holding signs and flyers and cameras, marching across the bridge, amid a backdrop of London’s iconic buildings. On the other side of the river Thames, protesters spanned the entire stretch of the embankment as far as I could see; their colourful flags and balloons making it appear as though they were taking part in a carnival.


Protesters spanned the embankment as far as I could see


I thought the crowds looked beautiful

There was music. And laughter. And painted faces, and costumes, and children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and many other sights I never expected of a political protest. These people weren’t bitter or volatile, neither were they hooligans trying to stir up violence. They are everyday citizens – teachers, nurses, professors, doctors, firemen and students – unhappy with the fact that their government has decided to cut their jobs. These are average people, concerned about what will happen to their schools and universities and hospitals and emergency services after all the job cuts. They just want their voices to be heard and changes to be made.


They were old, young, male, female, parents, grandparents, students. Not the type of extremist troublemakers that the Singapore government tries to train us to associate with politcal demonstrations.

Why is Singapore so afraid of all this? Why are our demonstrations (subject to approval) constrained to a tiny grassy patch at Hong Lim? Why is it illegal to air our unhappiness in public? Why does the government paint all protesters as troublemakers and radicals, when in reality many of these issues are the concerns of the average citizen? How can we be told to be satisfied with the approved routes of feedback – sitting at your computer and typing an angry letter to your MP – when issues like jobs, healthcare, civil liberty and economic injustice are real issues to be passionate about and whose scale can only accurately be expressed visually in the form of a demonstration?

Is Singapore afraid that protests may cause inconveniences or scare away tourists? Well I was definitely inconvenienced today, but that inconvenience is tiny compared to what hundreds or thousands of public sector workers would have to go through if their jobs were cut. And if one Saturday’s disruption is what it takes to show the ministers and MPs just how many lives are going to be adversely affected by their policies, then it’s well worth the disruption.  “Maintaining order” and “minimizing inconveniences” are shabby excuses for trying to restrict free speech.

Today I saw what real freedom of speech looks like, and it was beautiful.

N.B. During the protests, a small group broke off the main route and attempted to cause trouble at Picadilly and Oxford Circus. It is unfortunate that there are always a distinct bunch of youths whose only intent is to be a menace, but fortunately these were only about a couple hundred people out of the 250,000 peaceful protesters. Moreover, the police also exercised much restraint, without using unnecessary force and showing discretion when arresting these troublemakers.

Secular compassion in a time of tragedy March 24, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion, Unbelief.
Tags: , ,

I came across this quote by Sam Harris where he talked about the disasters happening in Japan, and I just wanted to share it:

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

It’s only human to try and rationalize why things like these happen to good, innocent people, but we should resist the urge to do so. We may not go as far as to claim that the tsunami was a punishment from god, but even claiming that god had a purpose behind this disaster is bad enough. If I had lost my loved ones, my home, my livelihood, my possessions and my dignity in a catastrophe like this, the last thing I would want to hear is that this is all part of “god’s plan” to make me stronger. How comforting. Thousands of lives lost, all god’s disposable pawns, just to teach some people a lesson in inner strength.

Some people say that they can’t live with the idea that we are ultimately at the mercy of Nature; a force that lacks intent, purpose, or the ability to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. But I say that it’s a better worldview to live with than one that involves giving a reason to the loss of thousands of lives and attributing it to a “benevolent” god – and in doing so, making light of the sheer extent of suffering inflicted onto other human beings.

The freedom to hate March 3, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion.
Tags: , , ,

As someone who firmly believes in the freedom of speech, I am sometimes forced to take sides with very unpleasant views. Take for example, Pastor Rony Tan’s insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists last year. As much as I disagreed with his views, I could never condone censorship of such opinions. Whatever “peace” or “harmony” that is achieved from the censorship of hate speech or insensitivity is not worth the violation of an individual’s rights to express his opinions in a peaceful manner, nor does it do anything to prevent the undercurrents of unexpressed intolerance.

Likewise, today I find myself grudgingly agreeing with the Supreme Court’s ruling to protect the rights of protesters from Westboro Baptist church to assemble at military funerals and hold up hateful picket signs.

In case you are not familiar with the antics of Westboro Baptist church, its followers are (in)famous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers who died in combat, holding up signs saying that those solders deserved their death as god’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.  Any decent human being, regardless of his views towards homosexuality, would agree that such actions are appalling. The utter lack of sensitivity and hatefulness behind those actions simply cannot be condoned.

And yet, despite the awfulness of such behaviour, assholes still have every right to be assholes, as long as they remain peaceful. If we try to curb their protests in an attempt to stop “hate speech”, then are we not as bad as religious theocracies that implement anti-blasphemy laws? After all, in essence what they are simply doing is censoring views that they don’t agree with. Whether or not we agree with the opinions of others is not what matters. What matters is what comes out of it: condemnation, dialogue, understanding, maturity.

And perhaps what is more powerful than the law is the support (or lack of support) by the community. When a group expresses an extreme, hateful, morally reprehensible view such as anti-Semitism, or homophobia, or sexism, or racism, censorship or punishment is not going to change their minds; they may even see themselves as martyrs for their hateful cause. This is where public condemnation comes in. If we trust ourselves to react with maturity and reason, we will ultimately have the upper hand.

When neo-nazis attempted to stage a far-right march in Dresden only a couple of weeks ago, they weren’t stopped by guns or the police or by the law. They were stopped by a chain of 10,000 peaceful anti-neo-nazi protesters.

When anti-gay stickers started appearing in east London (together with a quote from the Koran), it was the condemnation by the angry residents, the Muslim Council of Britain and the East London Mosque that would bear more weight than any action by the police.

Call me a hopeless optimist, but I still believe that when it comes to dealing with hate speech, the power of peaceful, rational, mature human beings is more potent than any attempts to censor it.

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